Breaking bread, talking faith in France

LYON, France — In a culture where food is life but the church is history, the Refuge gives young English-speaking Christians here a regular helping of both.

Like Lyon itself, tonight’s combination pizza party/Bible study is a melting pot. In one corner of this spacious downtown apartment, a young Indian engineer smiles and talks with a German college student. In another, a Russian couple laughs with three young computer programmers from the Philippines.

Finding, reaching students

Refuge was started about three years ago by the International Christian Community of Lyon (ICCL), a church planted by ReachGlobal a few years ago. The church started the group to reach into the city’s large student population (about 120,000) and give Christian students a place both to meet and invite their non-Christian friends to.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the group, good friendships that are built through the group,” says Jonah, a ReachGlobal minister who leads most of the Refuge meetings. “A lot of these students are coming to Lyon, they’re out of their comfort zone, they’re looking for friends, they’re looking for fellowship, and the Refuge provides that for a lot of them.”

The gathering’s international vibe tonight reflects that of the ICCL, which aims to be a home-away-from-home for English-speaking expats learning and working in France’s second-largest city. The Rhône-Alpes region around Lyon is home to the second-largest immigrant population in France, more than 545,000 people.

‘Sharing with others’

For Abraham, a 28-year-old engineer and consultant, finding groups like Refuge has been critical to his spiritual life. Since placing his faith in Jesus three years ago, the native of Pondicherry, India, has lived in Scotland, India and France. In all three places, he’s sought and found Christian community to latch onto.

“I think it was very good, sharing with others,” says Abraham, who was told about the group by Jim, another ReachGlobal minister in Lyon. “This is my first time coming here, so it was quite interesting. We share one language and we are from different places and we meet together.

“Being a Christian in France is quite challenging compared to India,” he says. “India is a spiritual country. They believe in something; whereas in France, they don’t have that. People think they don’t need God, they don’t need a faith.”

Tonight’s free-flowing pop and pizza would probably be considered a bit lowbrow here in France’s gastronomic capital. Nobody here seems to mind — the 20-somethings crammed around the table here are a lot more interested in conversation than cuisine.

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Even when talk moves from banter in the dining room to a Bible study in the living room, the conversation continues. Tonight, Mike — the Lyon city team leader for ReachGlobal and pastor of the ICCL — starts a conversation about what leads a person to search for and accept Christ using as an example the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector who gave up his life of stealing the same day he met Jesus. Several members of the group chime in with thoughts on the statement Jesus made by meeting and eating with Zaccheus, the social contrast between the two men, and the significance of Zaccheus’ response to Jesus.

Meeting God, other people

As people share their opinions, they’re learning about the Bible and each other.

“The potential of a ministry like Refuge is outstanding, just because there are people from every horizon that come and establish themselves here,” Mike says. “It could be for a short period of time or a long period of time, but a group like Refuge is a place where people find a home, find a place where they can relate in their own language, and come to understand something that they perhaps never thought – that God is alive and well, and that God is interested in them.”

Kayla, a middle school teaching assistant from North Carolina, helped to restart this latest iteration of the Refuge after the initial founders moved to a different country. She says that even though most people think Christianity doesn’t play a big part in French life, she’s been able to find many Christians in Lyon and is spiritually encouraged by what she’s seen around the city.

She notes that being in a different culture has strengthened her faith – as has her involvement at the Refuge.

“It really is a refuge,” says Kayla, 22. “I’ve appreciated being able to come with fellow believers and just be open and honest and discuss things, have real discussions, and have my faith affirmed and challenged.

“I’ve loved my experience here and what I’ve been doing, but sometimes it has been difficult,” she says. “So it’s been really important just to be here with everybody.”

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