Karina Brabham serves with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Poitiers, France, where she is involved in encouraging and equipping university students with the gospel of Christ as a staff worker with the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU).
Change. Adjustment. They are words you use a lot when you move to a new country, new culture, and new language. And, as a missionary, it’s also a new ministry context. The last few months have involved a lot of change and a lot of adjustment. In December I made the move from my language school near Paris to Poitiers, a smaller regional city in the central west of France. Poitiers is a university city with students making up a big percentage of the population – it’s estimated that up to half of Poitiers’ residents are aged under 30. The new year also heralded a new start for me – working full-time as a local staff worker with the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU), France’s university ministry.
My arrival in this region also doubled its number of full-time staff. My colleague Daniel, who coordinates the GBU’s activity throughout the central west, was the sole staff worker for the region, which includes seven cities with student groups at varying points of development. He is also based in Poitiers, and it’s been exciting but also new, for him to have someone to share the load of the work with. With so much to learn and adapt to, my capacity has often felt low; although for Daniel, every small thing I can take on is often one less thing for him to worry about or even something that wouldn’t have happened because he wouldn’t have had the time to give to it.
In March we had a regional weekend away in Orléans. Events like these are almost entirely organised by Daniel. This year I was able to look after setting up a prayer space for the students and the Saturday evening event of the weekend. For this night I invited some past GBUers who live locally to come and share with the students about their experiences being Christians in the workplace. It was an encouraging time hearing from some French Christians who have thought intentionally about how their faith in Christ influences their everyday life, including the opportunities they have to witness to others. For me, it was exciting to see something I’d worked on come together, and MCing it in French felt like an achievement.
Yet moments like that aren’t often. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like I’m contributing much. While I want to be useful for the gospel here in Poitiers, this is a work in progress. I’m thankful that the GBU helpfully framed these first few months of ministry with them as time to discover and learn. There wasn’t an unrealistic expectation that I’d jump in running – although that’s often the pace I want to move at. Yet in figuring out the right ‘pace’, I’m also learning more about the experience of doing ministry in a place where the resources are much less and the ground is harder.
The ministry here is much smaller scale than I was used to in Australia. Being small means the pace can feel slow and plodding, often in an uphill direction. Endurance is needed in student ministry here and motivation levels need constant refuelling.
I kept doubting that we could pull it off.
A good example is my recent experience of organising an evangelistic event with the GBU. Daniel and I first proposed the idea to the group two months in advance. The general response was that it was a good idea to do something, but no one seemed ready to volunteer to make it happen. As the weeks ticked down to our planned date, the event remained a stagnated idea. Students seemed hesitant to take on any role up the front. Our usual location to meet wouldn’t be available. Our attempts to book a space elsewhere on campus were met with ‘nos’ based on the French value of laicity (keeping public places such as universities as neutral spaces and free from religious and political influence). I kept doubting that we could pull it off.
And yet … a week before the planned date, it all came together. Daniel offered to host at his home. We suggested a new format for the evening – a ‘Grill a Christian’ night where Daniel and another member of the group would respond to questions. One of our recent grad members volunteered to put himself under the grill and another student offered to MC. The challenge to the group was now to invite their friends along.
Holding the ‘Grill a Christian’ night at Daniel’s also came with a logistical problem. For anyone who doesn’t own a car, the bus is the main way to get around Poitiers. However, the buses often stop running at night. My main job for the night became organising car-pooling to ensure everyone could come knowing they had a way home.
After more than a month of stressing about whether the night would even happen, it was a relief when it actually did. There were students who hadn’t come along for several weeks and decided to attend, and three people invited to come for the first time. I chatted with one of these guests, J. She described herself as agnostic and when her friend had invited her to come, she thought ‘Why not?’, it might be interesting to find out more about the Christian God.
While it doesn’t seem like much, there’s also been some great gains.
The night wasn’t perfect – the GBUer responding to questions often struggled to put into words what he wanted to say and so there were often moments of awkward silence. Out of a desire to answer every question submitted, the night ran late and we didn’t wrap up until close to midnight. There’s lots we’ve learnt about how we can do things differently next time. Yet, while it doesn’t seem like much, there’s also been some great gains.
The two GBUers who volunteered to be upfront for the night grew in their courage to be public about their faith. One of those invited (with a Christian background) joined us for our Bible discussion the next week. The friend who had invited her, also invited another classmate to the discussion. Being reminded to invite others to discover what the Bible has to say helped her to be more intentional about doing so. It’s all just a small step towards building a greater culture of evangelism among the group.
There is a bigger picture not to lose sight of.
Earlier this month, I spent time reflecting on a few verses from Hebrews 12 with some of my GBU colleagues who are spread across the country. We get together once a month on Zoom to encourage one another to be taking time out with God in his word. The passage included a reminder from God that I needed to hear: “… let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith …” (Heb 12:1b-2a)
The pace of ministry is slow and often involves motivating others for the gospel as much as myself. However, Jesus is the pioneer of the race who promises us that what we strive towards is worth it. I can be confident that as I seek to make Christ known, despite the struggles with change and the foreignness of my environment, it isn’t all for nothing.
I’m only just setting out here in France and there is a long journey of perseverance for the gospel ahead. The pace will be slow and will involve the continued need to motivate myself to keep enduring for Christ. Yet all my small steps forward aren’t in vain. I have the privilege to encourage others to keep going forward, training them to be stronger runners who go on to spur others on. There is a bigger picture not to lose sight of, not least that Christ has won the race and my laboured efforts are not the determiner of success or failure.