It’s been nearly three months now since I’ve been in direct contact with people incarcerated in a jail or prison– the longest period in over 17 years. While life and ministry here in Paris is rich, I miss my routine of Thursday and Sunday Bible studies in Skagit County Jail and occasional forays into foreign prisons. I especially miss the many jailed men I’ve come to know and love, the times of discovery of very Good News of Jesus’ love for them and me, their love and friendship, and times of prayer where the Spirit seems to always move to comfort, heal, awaken hope.
So one of the first appointments I made here in Paris was with the national director of jail/prison chaplaincy for France of the Service justice et aumônerie des prisons, Aumônier national.” He warmly welcomed me into his office and suggested that I accompany each of the chaplains of jails and prisons around Paris as they lead Bible studies and visit. I loved this idea, and immediately sent him a copy of my passport. I’ve since been waiting for the call, feeling the distance grow and missing connecting with inmates. In the meantime I’ve found myself greatly challenged by another reality that is much more complicated and too easy to ignore.
Homeless men, women and entire families are everywhere in Paris—especially in the center of the city and it’s surrounding districts. We live in the 12ieme arrondissement, and regularly walk past people begging for change in sometimes very dramatic ways. Like a man who begs on his knees, his forehead resting on the pavement, hands outstretched holding a mangled hat, or the two Polish men who came by the church Wednesday night asking if we had sleeping bags as it’s really cold. Entire families from Romania have been sleeping on mattresses in the Place de la Bastille and elsewhere.
Bao, a French woman originally from Cambodia works for a social service agency that the French government has contracted to care for the homeless through building relationships and connecting them to social services. We attend the same church and she has been attending my missions course. In France it is not legal to mix ministry and social service due to strict laws separating church and state. We have been learning about how complicated the situation of homelessness is, and hear about increasing acts of violence against the homeless & growing intolerance of panhandling, the smell of urine and the disturbing visibility of desperate people sleeping on the streets in colder and wetter weather.
A few weeks ago a building that several hundred homeless people were squatting in was set on fire, leaving all these people with nowhere to stay. In another case someone set fire to the blanket covering a man as he slept. There are enough perils without direct violence, like the woman who gave birth to her baby right on the street, which subsequently died.
I’ve been disturbed by my own movement past homeless people, and my justifications that closely resemble the religious leaders who walked past the man beaten by thieves in the Good Samaritan story. A few days ago I rode my bike past a man lying on his back across the sidewalk as I was late for an important meeting. Earlier in the year on a short visit to Paris I’d walked past a desperate-looking older man who lay begging, and got a flash picture of myself with my hand on his heart, praying for him. I continued walking for a block, telling myself this was my only opportunity to buy special French soap for Gracie.
The voice of Jesus was persistent and won in this case. I walked back and asked this man who reeked of urine if he was in pain. “Yes,” he said in broken French, “and I haven’t been able to sleep for a long time.” “Do you have pain in your heart?” I asked. “Yes,” he responded. “Can I pray for God to help you, and is it okay if I put my hand over your heart?” I asked, and he agreed. I blessed him with God’s comfort and healing in Jesus’ name, and he looked visibly moved. “Je suis athée,” (“I am an atheist”) is all he said. “That’s okay, God sees you and loves you,” I responded, and continued on in search of soap.
Last week I came home late from a meeting. On the last block before our apartment I found myself catching up with a young middle eastern looking man and immediately felt compelled to talk with him, maybe even about Jesus. I did begin to talk with him, & learned that he was actually from Bangladesh. When we were about to pass our apartment I decided to not pursue the conversation. As we parted company he said: “May God bless you!” completely surprising & convicting me.
A week or so later around 11pm on a Friday night just after my missions course Gracie and I went out to a café with Bao and a few other leaders who attend the course. We talked about inviting participants to go out and pray for people on the street after the next course. Then as we walked into the subway station we passed an older homeless man, and I once again ignored a voice inviting me to stop. Christian and Grace, two of those who’d gone out with us did stop, and so the rest of us returned. Together we prayed for this poor homeless guy, who cried and cried as we laid hands on him, blessed him and gave him some change.
Last Monday we gathered with an Eglise Reformée de France and a Pentecostal pastor, Bao and others to pray for the homeless, and to ask for God’s guidance about what we should do. God is clearly calling others to respond too.
God has been challenging me to step out of my comfort zone, making time to talk with the homeless and strangers. Hebrews 13:2-3 is ringing in my ears these days: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.”
Yesterday I received the long-awaited call from the head of jail chaplaincy for Paris. Tonight we are meeting before my missions class—the very class that is preparing to begin some kind of street outreach. Please pray for us, for growing compassion and discernment as we seek to respond to Jesus’ direction for us here and now.
PS. Check out my son Luke’s photo blog and flickr