The Church as a City of Refuge

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This June, my wife and I visited the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon, in the mountains of France near the borders of Switzerland and Italy. It is small hamlet in a remote place, surrounded by deep valleys and dense forests, with a shallow reedy river bending through it. It is far from any major centre.

Which was what made Le Chambon perfect for its one claim to historical significance: it was the only community in Europe that sheltered Jews during WWII. There were individuals who did that. There were organizations that did so as well. Two countries, Denmark and Bulgaria, took heroic stands against Nazi deportation of Jews. But Le Chambon alone worked together as an entire community to protect Jewish people, as many as would come, from the tragic fate that otherwise awaited them under the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime of France.

Altogether, the villagers saved over 5000 Jewish men, women and children – mostly children, who not only survived but who received a first-class education during those years.

Why did this single community act this way? At the centre of Le Cambon, figuratively and literally, was a church, and at heart of that church was a pastor, Andre Trocme. Trocme, along with his formidable wife Magda and his faithful associate Edouard Theis, forged the vision for what Le Chambon could be, and then through their preaching and leadership persuaded the entire community to put everything at risk for the sake of total strangers. It was remarkable feat, though the people of Le Chambon, so grounded in the gospel through Trocme’s preaching and their own deep roots of faith, nurtured by centuries of suffering, didn’t think they were doing anything extraordinary.

Isn’t this what all Christians do? That’s how they saw it.

We were deeply moved to visit the place. We walked to the eastern edge of town where the railway line still exists Jewish children rescued in Le Chambonthat in the 1940s carried to the village hundreds of Jewish children, sent by parents in a last desperate attempt to save them. I tried to imagine those children, alone, frightened, weary, embraced by the robust welcome and generosity and courage of the Chambonais. Many of those children later said those were the best years of their lives.

Because of a church. Because of a pastor.

Today, the home where the Trocmes once lived is no more than a memorial. And the church where Andre preached has suffered the fate of so many of the churches of Europe – an old building where only a few, mostly elderly, folks still gather.

The lessons here are both inspiring and sobering. Without that church, without its leaders, Le Chambon would have likely been no different from all the other communities throughout Europe – perhaps personally opposed to Nazi policies, but not inclined to put their own welfare at risk for the sake of strangers. But because of that church, and its leaders, Le Chambon made a literal world of difference for over 5000 people. And, I imagine, it transformed the hosts and much as the guests.

Le Chambon ChurchAnd yet the church’s vitality didn’t survive much beyond its moment of crisis or the succession of its leadership. Maybe, given the remoteness of the village and the general drift of Christianity in post-war Europe, the church’s diminishment was inevitable.

But I’d like to think it wasn’t. I’d like to think that the vision that the church rose to and that the community rallied around – to be a City of Refuge, a place of welcome and generosity and courage for frightened and weary and lonely people, to be the welcoming arms of Christ himself – is still the call of the church here, now, always. We’re still in a moment of crisis. It just doesn’t look that way on the surface. But it’s those churches, and those leaders, who know it, and rise to it, that flourish.

This past December, my son and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. That museum is a long zigzagging tunnel filled with grim relics that document a dark and violent history. But near the end of the tunnel is one room of hope. It tells the story of various acts of defiance and heroism, of those who risked their lives to save Jewish people. Prominent among the memorials is a tribute to Le  Chambon, and its church, and Andre Trocme, its pastor. We were deeply moved to visit the place.

But I find myself more and more praying for more churches and leaders like that, here, now, always.