Missionary Diary: Discovering words of life and hope in France

Kate lives in Lille, in the north of France, with her husband and three children. They work with Church Missionary Society (CMS), partnering with locals to teach, train, disciple and evangelise those around them.

I squint as I walk into the kitchen. It’s 7am and the sun, alright bright, strikes golden on the shimmering rooftops of the townhouses outside my window.

I grab a too-hot tea and gently cool it as I read again over the passage I’ll be working on with the Sunday school children today, so it’s fresh in my mind. It includes the memory verse 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What beautiful words! Life and hope are to be found here in these words. I pray that the children will understand.

I cherish these words, they change everything. They shape my life. They shape my conversations.

Most French people don’t believe in a spiritual reality.

I was recently speaking to a friend about the uncertainty of COVID times, and he told me that nothing can ever be certain. I spoke of the certainty I glean from the gospel. He gave me a pitiful smile and told me that even God’s existence isn’t certain, let alone everything else I believe. It’s not an unusual conversation. Most French people don’t believe in a spiritual reality.

Yet, some do. I reflect on a conversation the other day with a Muslim friend, agreeing together that creation is evidentially created by someone. It’s always wonderful to speak of faith with someone who already believes in a spiritual reality. It feels like I’m starting at a different place. Yet she also hasn’t come to believe that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Both of these friends would find life and hope in the words of the gospel, just as I have found.

My family and I bundle onto our bikes, the crisp air energising us. Dappled sun paints the tree-lined streets and the time-worn townhouses. For many years we’ve been going to a church in Lille. This has been our church through the months of terrorism high-alert a few years ago, when soldiers stood guard at the church door, sometimes in the crisp snow, their gloveless fingers resting beside the trigger on their guns. This has been our church through the lockdowns of COVID, when the church couldn’t meet for a year and then had to be split in two for many months to follow. It’s a church bound together by the words of hope and life in the Bible and we’re very thankful for it.

The Morris's church in Lille, France

The Morris’s church in Lille, France

Though COVID has banished the double-cheek kiss the French are known for, we greet other and chat. As a church, we sing and pray, then I tell the church what the children will be learning and we head out to Sunday school. A gaggle of 13 children bound across the courtyard to the classroom building. Brimming with energy, bursting with things to tell their friends, the children all speak at once.

We have children in the group I’ve watched grow from preschool who are now at the end of primary school, while others have joined just this year. Today we have regulars and regular irregulars. There are no visitors in Sunday school today, though it’s fairly common to also have visitors. This is an important opportunity because religious education in public schools or in the media is banned here, so it’s a great way to reach kids with the gospel. It’s common to have kids visit who have never heard even the most traditionally familiar parts of the Bible – “Adam and who?” “Wait, Christmas is about a baby?” With an increasing percentage of adults never having picked up a Bible, it’s no surprise that it’s often not taught at home either. But no matter how often they’ve heard the gospel, all these children can find life and hope in the words of the gospel, just as I have found.

It’s always a delightful group, and I really enjoy teaching the children. We use various methods to explore the meaning and significance of the passage and I watch as they grow in their understanding. One of the activities is simple: a self-portrait, metaphorically dirty with sin, a piece of white paper representing the washing of Jesus and (with the magic of plastic and craftiness) – voilà – the person is cleansed, just as the memory verse explains. The children love it and I’m delighted as they explain what it means. I encourage them to share this truth with someone. We pray together. I pray that we will all find life and hope in these words and dare to share it with those around us.

Sunday school lesson image

An image of the Sunday school lesson

The formal part of church ends and I chat to parents as they collect their children. As I’m locking the Sunday school door, a mum comes hurrying back to me. She’d left ten minutes ago with her daughters, perhaps they’ve forgotten something? She points to her youngest daughter and says, “She just told me the gospel!” She then proceeds to tell me how her daughter used the image to explain sin, God’s love and what Jesus gained for us. She was amazed and thrilled that her daughter could understand all that and was able to share it. It’s a simple image but a powerful memory hook. I love so much that the gospel isn’t complicated at its core, even though it can be hard to accept.

I hope this girl will always cling to these words, that they will shape her and shape her conversations. These words are truth – everyone we know could find life and hope in these words, just as I have found.