Before we went, I was curious how it would be. I knew the life in Taize well, living a community life with other volunteers, but this would be different. We were there with an idea in mind: living life together with the people in Lyons and the surrounding area. Beside that ,the basis of the day would be the common prayers, which I could barely imagine: prayer with just four of us! But I would go with open heart, open eyes, open ears and an open spirit.
We were welcomed in Givors by the priest with a joyful and generous meal. The welcome continued that day and the following week, in the form of more than enough mattresses, a few tables, and several jars of jam: the people of the parish were happy that we were there. The same evening followed the first prayer in the cold but beautiful church, just outside our door: the tone was set. Every day there would be a prayer in the morning and in the evening, and when possible also around lunchtime. In the mornings almost every day some people joined us. They were thankful for our simple presence; it created something.
We met this thankfulness and simple joy of life in all the places that we visited. We went to some places weekly: Secours Catholique in Givors and Habitat & Humanisme in Lyons. These shaped my experience the most and I learned a lot from this. I realized that a simple presence is so much more important than doing a lot (although it is also good to roll up your sleeves and help). This is especially true in places like these where we were with lonely and poor people—in Givors—and with asylum seekers who barely speak French or English—in Lyons. You don’t have to talk about the difficult situations, especially the asylum seekers have already to share their story so often, but do something together.
And joy can be there, also in such a miserable situation. It is inspiring to see that the asylum seekers who are going through a long process are not sitting down in misery but keep their joy of life. They are thankful for what they get, however little that might be.
A young man passes by. Under his trench-coat, his chest and neck are bare, exposed to the unforgiving and undiscriminating sting of the pre-winter cold. This is the story which resonates very well for many of the young men here. They know the harshness of life; war, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, shame… Sudan, Libya, Mediterranean Sea, Italy, Calais and maybe other destinations in between, but now in Lyons. (…)
At Givors, an old man is lonely, sad and misses someone to speak and share life with. He is very far from home. I do not know where home is for him. His siblings live close by but they do not see too often. His wife, from whom he is separated, lives in Algeria. He speaks of his only son with the pride of a father. He studies Engineering back in Algeria. He has no contact with him whatsoever.
He must have been a believer at some point. Maybe that point extends to the present moment, but he seems very far from what brings peace. His story is long. It probably begins in Algeria, or has much reference to it. Then to New York, France, Algeria and now, France again. He still waits for his wife and son. He hopes that the small apartment he calls home will be enough for them.
“Every man is free to believe in what he chooses,” he says. But belief and choice are realities that seem so far from him, despite their strong grip on his tongue. But wait, today, he is not all alone, for we share a meal together, listen, drink and speak. Something in him opens up. (...)
Such are the images we encounter in the avenues of hope, where a few dedicated people engage to accompany the needy in their daily struggles. In them, refugees, immigrants, homeless, the elderly and all kinds of poor people find joy and a place to call home. In the warmth of the coffee and sweetness of the cakes in these places, we find a matching attitude rooted deep within the beings of those who keep these projects running. Thanks to Secours Catholique, Habitat & Humanisme, Foyer Protestant, Petits frères des pauvres amongst others, there is hope.
At Givors, we have spent most of our days opening and closing the days with prayers. The sign of the open Church doors for daily prayer, which otherwise only open during funeral masses, hopes to incite a new inner awakening amongst the locals. The majority of the population here is Muslim, with only a few elderly Christian faithful participating in Church activities. It is tempting to worry at the thought of what the Church will look like in the near future, but I find encouragement in living in the present moment.
The interaction with the Christian denominations has allowed us to encounter the Evangelical Church and Protestant as well as Catholic faithful. It has been encouraging, although at some initial moments we experienced an unnatural interaction which mostly translated the unexpressed question, “Why are you really here?” This going to meet the other, and the reciprocated gesture, has however opened up a warmth in which Christ has become most visible.
The Muslims opened their arms to receive us. A visit to the mosque, which I must confess, was a first time experience for me, has been but one of the avenues to live the communion as God’s children. In one unique experience, we participated in an inter-religious sharing at a Protestant Church. This saw Christians of Catholic and Protestant denominations sit together with Muslims and Jews to share on the topic of food and its place in our different religions.
These, being just a few of the examples of the life in Lyons and its periphery, represented an enriching experience for me personally. A lot still remains unsaid, as words are at times not adequate enough to express what the eye sees or the heart hides.