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Ruins and Reality - Marseille

At the entrance to the Vieux Port in Marseille are two forts built in the seventeenth century by King Louis XIV – Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas. During the construction, Louis incorporated the remains of a previous structure that served as a monastic hospice during the Crusades. The forts weren’t designed to keep people out of the port, as you might expect, but to quell any rebellions happening inside Marseille. The canons faced the city, not the sea. 


Today, like many buildings that once served a purpose in Europe, they are museums. Local kids gather on the stone pathways surrounding the forts and jump into the Mediterranean, splashing tourists and speaking to each other in a mixture of French and Arabic. 


Marseille has always been a transient city. It sits on the Mediterranean coast directly across from Algeria and Tunisia, historically serving as an entry point for people, food, and cultures from around the world. One of the city’s claims to fame is the Chateu d’If, an Alcatraz-like island just off the coast that served as a prison and gained international notoriety through Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. Marseille also has one of the most beautiful ports anywhere in the world, with small fishing vessels crammed next to one another in the long, narrow channel. Every morning, the boats drift in and fisherman sell their catch to locals at the market, within a stones throw from a massive Ferris Wheel.  


Aside from the Vieux Port, the most striking feature of Marseille is the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Guarde, a Catholic Church that towers over the city. The big churches in Europe start to look the same after a while, but this one is unique in that it is crowned by a life-sized, golden statue of Mary. From almost anywhere in the city, you see the gold spot in the sky. If you want a striking view of the city spread out in the base of the surrounding hills, the Chateu d’If, the boats lining the Vieux Port, and the Mediterranean stretching towards the horizon, you go up to the church.  


Metaphorically speaking, Marseille has two forts that kept no one out, and a church that kept no one in. For much of Europe, the influx of refugees and Islam is relatively new. That isn’t the case for Marseille. Because of its geographical location, blended people groups and ideas have always been at the center of Marseille’s identity. Even though it is in Europe, it feels decidedly un-European. 


Marseille is the second largest city in France behind Paris, and was recently named the ‘European Capital of Culture’ by the EU. Quickly, you understand why.


A few blocks from the Vieux Port and central tourist area is the North African market, a street lined with spice sellers, men dressed in traditional garb, and butcher shops. Our Algerian hosts came here to buy the ingredients for the meals they prepared during our stay. You’ll find bowls of earth-colored spices, specialty foods like stuffed dates, and refrigerated glass cases with skinned lamb heads. The North African market isn’t to be confused with the African market, which is nearby but separate. 


And with every block you walk away from the Vieux Port, any nostalgic, traditional view you may have of Europe vanishes. 


This is the central component to understanding Christianity in Europe. The cities pay homage to the ruins of a former age and capitalize on the nostalgia of a culture that no longer exists. The same is true spiritually. Young people may identify with a religion like Islam or Catholicism, but their lives reflect something yet to be fully formed. They are wonderers and wanderers, hesitant to follow the old ways that have led the world to be divided. By choosing to live an isolated, third-party life, you can linger around the pathway of your parents without ever having to make claims about what is true.  


In the crowded neighborhoods of North Marseille, you enter into North Africa. 


That’s where the House of Hope is tucked into a neighborhood thick with a mixture of art students, government housing, streets lined with graffiti, and immigrants from Algeria and Tunisia. Nearby they are building a massive mosque. The small neighborhood restaurants only serve Halal foods. The ministry was started as a place for Muslim converts to have a safe place to stay as they transitioned from North Africa to a new life in Europe. A missionary couple raised their family in the house until the father, a dynamic and outgoing leader, was diagnosed with dementia. They had five kids, and wound up moving back to the states for medical care. They left the ministry in the care of two men, Moses and Amos. To make a long story short, they fell under hard times. With the House of Hope gasping for breath, one of the kids of the original missionary couple returned to help restore the house. 


Her name is Maimona, and she is twenty-five. 


She met our team at the airport, and guided us to the house. First, about Maimona. She is young, friendly, single, and overwhelmed by the amount of work to get the house back in order. She is positive and hospitable, with casual, understated mannerisms. Even though she is American, she would have an easier time convincing me she is French, or Algerian. She speaks fluent French, has a basic understanding of Arabic, but went to high school in Oregon. Like many missionary kids, she is forever between cultures. But she also has a unique ability to communicate with and understand the culture of North Africans.  


Now, about the House of Hope. It’s an actual house (something I didn’t know before we arrived), not a reference to a church or office-type building. More clearly, it is two massive housesconnected by an open-air courtyard that overlooks the busy street below. The exterior of the house is mostly white, trimmed with brilliant blue shutters. Because the houses were built over a long period of time, they are connected in ways that sometimes make it feel like a maze. I have a good sense of direction, but three days into our stay I still went down the wrong flight of stairs or mistakenly opened a door to find yet another kitchen (there are 4 or 5 kitchens, maybe more). Between the doors, paint, and tile, nothing matches. Over the decades, teams have replaced a door here and a window there, giving the house charm and character. Every window opens and is always open. The doors are all left open or ajar, even at night. The only one concerned about security is the German Shepherd named Ahna that patrols the yard and barks viciously at anyone passing the front gates. 


Maimona showed me to my room on the top floor of the older house, the walls painted a brownish-pink color with an open window overlooking a bus stop. The room is decorated with a painting of a boy holding a dog. On the skyline are towering, drab apartments buildings brought to life but the array of colored garments and towels hanging up to dry. We’ll visit these later, and I’ll come to find out they are primarily occupied by immigrants, many of them illegal. Below, an art student in a military coat carries a portfolio of her work, waiting on the bus. Ahna gives her the business. 


But there is a fine line between the charm – and there is plenty of it here – and the many things that need to be fixed, thrown away, or brought up to code. If you look closely, the problems with the actual structure of the House of Hope become . . . concerning. It’s difficult to classify the house, because it may be two houses, and it may be five distinct apartments. Maimona doesn’t know, but the French government is asking. They need to know how to tax her. She isn’t even sure how to calculate the square footage. Do they want to know the total? Or just the living spaces? Does the basement count, too? The basement, which spans the length of both houses and is big enough to fit multiple families, is unusable because of mold and serious water damage. Because the previous leadership of the HOH left the ministry in such disarray, Maimona carries the responsibility of appeasing the city government, straightening out lingering tax problems, making sure the house is safe to live in, and finding a way to afford insurance. Right now, the house has no coverage. 


So . . . Maimona’s challenges are unique. I’m hesitant to keep returning to her age, but she’s in her mid twenties and the one in charge of it all. 


Sorting through endless government forms doesn’t leave much time to build the ministry and create new relationships. She has a partner, Moses, who is a holdover from the previous leadership team. We didn’t get the opportunity to meet him, since he was ministering in Algeria during our stay. Everything we heard about Moses is positive. He’s a natural evangelist, has an incredible testimony of survival, and is the kind of guy who talks to people all day on buses and in subway stations. But his strength obviously isn’t administration or working under structure, and he is gone for months at a time, often in different countries.


Maimona is the one to keep the engine running. 


This is probably the point where you and I have to make a choice about our perspective. We can 1) Hope she gives up (She’s got her whole life ahead of her!), 2) Offhandedly suggest a way to fix everything in an instant (Sell the house, use the profits to buy something smaller and more manageable!), 3) Be grateful that we don’t have that responsibility (We’ll be praying for you!). Lying in bed that night, with sirens and laughter and noisy buses out my window, I cycled through all of those responses. But I would be leaving in a few days, and she would be staying. She grew up in the house and celebrated Christmas morning here with her family. She watched her father open his home to people who were scared and running. She watched him change, and grow ill. What did I know? What do you know? We have to fight to build a radically different mindset about ‘missions’. Rather than lamenting the weight of the world and those who are trying to engage the lost, we can choose to see how our own skills might be useful in the story that is unfolding all around us.


Because, as we would find out first hand, ministering to Muslims in Marseille is important. 


It’s impossible to talk about the ministry without talking about food and hospitality, so that’s where I’ll start.


Soon after we arrived, I heard people arguing in the kitchen. I wandered downstairs to find two women, in their 50s, cooking dinner for us. I would find out their names are Khadija and Latifah, sisters from Algeria. They live in the House of Hope, along with a few other people we would encounter over the next couple of days. The sisters greeted me with smiles, then continued arguing over how much water to add to a pot, down to the spoonful. Amused, I recorded them from outside the doorway. 


After spending a few meals with them, I realized that they didn’t care as much about the food being perfect as they cared about our experience with the food being perfect. They wanted to give us the clearest insight into Algeria, and too much salt or too little water might have an impact on how we understood them. The Algerians have an obsession with hospitality. Every time we arrived somewhere, they offered bread, hummus, dessert, anything. One night Don graciously offered to take everyone to a restaurant for dinner, thinking it would be a good break for them. I sensed they were offended. Maimona kindly turned down the offer, and said that maybe we could go to a restaurant for lunch tomorrow after seeing some sights.


That night at dinner, they served us couscous with stewed vegetables and goat meat, with two sauces and a spicy African butter. Typically, they serve the food in one communal dish at the center of the table, and everyone eats directly out of it with their hands. They made an exception for us and served the food on plates. Khadija paid careful attention to howwe ate, and gave specific instruction on what to do. If, say, you dipped bread into a sauce instead of pouring it over your vegetables, she might laugh and ask Maimona to correct us. We had no idea. She has a wild playfulness to her spirit, while Latifah has a sweetness. The sisters continued their argument at dinner, admiring the food and also talking about everything they should have done differently. They discussed what they could improve dinner the next night. Maimona had warned us that we wouldn’t eat much French food in Marseille. They do, however carry on a few French customs, like serving cheese afterthe meal, arranged from mildest to most pungent. The pungent cheese is pretty powerful stuff, left out of the fridge for days and days until it’s nearly unbearable.


But sitting at the table also gave us the opportunity to learn more about the people living in the house. Around the table were Maimona, Khadija, Latifah, and Martine. Not present were Moses and Hassen Victor, who I’ll share more about later. Spiritually, the house is as diverse as the rest of Marseille. The sisters both became believers years ago, but now Khadija says she no longer believes in Jesus. This has created some tension in the house, since everyone else is a Christian. They continue to minister and show her love, and invite her to their prayer and worship gatherings. The sisters came from a Muslim background, and choosing to follow Jesus requires a tremendous amount of courage. Essentially, it is a declaration that you are abandoning your family and ancestors. 


Martine, on the other hand, is from a Jewish background. She has a wide, smiling face with red cheeks and gray hair. Marseille has a large population of Jews, mostly centered in one neighborhood that requires heavy security because of consistent threats. In January of this year, a Jewish teacher was attacked by three men with machetes. In 2012, seven people were killed in an attack. She has six sisters, none of whom believe in Jesus. Like Latifah, choosing to follow Jesus means choosing isolation from family. 


We all hoped Hassen Victor would join us for dinner, but he wasn’t able. We met him briefly on arriving. He’s a young man, in his early 20s, thin and serious. We weren’t able to spend much time with him, but Maimona shared his story with us one day at breakfast. He came from an abusive Muslim household in Algeria, and eventually boarded a boat headed to Marseille. The boat almost sank and he barely survived. Once he landed in Marseille, he found some cousins who had an apartment crowded with Algerians. But the environment was dangerous, with drug use and heavy partying. Hassen wanted something different, and set out to change his circumstances. That’s when Moses approached him in a subway station and shared the gospel. Since then, he has been a part of House of Hope. He has struggled with his faith over the last year, having watched the destructive behavior of one of his Christian mentors. But life in general has been really tough. Back home in Algeria, word has spread that he is now a Christian. He seeks work as a day laborer doing odd jobs, and goes long stretches without an income. His immigration appeals have been denied multiple times, and he is afraid for his life if the French government sends him back home. We hardly saw him because he is rarely in the same place for long. Maimona says there are lots of people like him. 


The next day, after walking around the city, we took a bus to meet some other believers. They live in government housing, in a bad neighborhood. The mixture of people is odd. On the bus were teenagers listening to rap, girls with low cut shirts and tight pants, and Muslims in traditional garb. Maimona said this area, even though it is ‘Muslim’, has all the same problems as other inner cities, with drugs, gangs, and violence. She said you can tell the “radical” Muslims by the way they dress and how they wear their beards. Just then, a car full of men in white tunics and long beards sped past us. I asked Maimona if things have always been this way, and she said yes, at least since she was a little girl growing up here. She said the rest of the world is just now waking up to refugees and immigrants, but it’s nothing new to Marseille. She doesn’t find the mix of people strange at all. 


Ary and Sonya welcomed us into their apartment and greeted us with kisses. They quickly led us to the table and served a bowl of fruit, juices, and a vanilla pudding dessert with a coconut crust and a cinnamon topping. Ary grew up in a small mountain town in Algeria and found himself questioning everything he had been taught about Islam. His family was Muslim, but they weren’t very religious. He met a missionary and began to follow Jesus. Unable to keep the news to himself, he shared the gospel with the girl who lived next door. Soon after, they fell in love and got married. Both of their families were disappointed in the marriage because they were Christians, but unlike Hassen, they never felt threatened because of their faith. They conceived a child in Algeria and planned to stay there. But Sonya went into early labor and the child didn’t survive. They said the hospital was understaffed because it was a weekend, and that the baby would have easily survived in different circumstances. Heartbroken, they packed up their things and came to Marseille to have a family (they now have two kids). Unlike Hassen, they were granted refugee status and a ten-year visa, which is apparently miraculous. Most people are denied visas, especially on their first try. 


The legalities of immigration aren’t much fun to study, but anyone doing ministry in Marseille has to understand the challenges of the people they are serving. The easy comparison for us is the southern border and Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Central America. There are indeed many similarities. One key difference is that France doesn’t deport people who are “in process”, meaning that if you simply submit paperwork requesting citizenship (even after being denied), you’re “in process”. If they deny you, you can try again. After 10 years, you become a citizen. Hassen doesn’t trust this system, as he knows people who have been sent home. He thinks he’s next. Ary and Sonia don’t have to worry about this because they were granted the visa. But they still struggle. 


Sonia takes care of old people in their houses, and many of them have strong prejudices against her. Others try to take advantage of her since they know she needs the work. Ary is scheduled to attend a training to become a security guard. He has to spend a month in Paris for this. Maimona says every job requires a ridiculously long training, even to be a cashier in a simple store.


When Brad asked Ary what drew him to Jesus, he spoke in dualities. He said the gospel offered freedom, instead of obligation. Love instead of fear. They are still the weird, distant relatives of the family. But they continue to minister to people back home, and after years and years of rebuilding relationships, many members of their family have come to Christ. Sonya is holding out hope for her mother. She recently came for an extended visit to spend time with her grandchildren, and during a long conversation with Sonya and Ary she admitted, “I know this is the truth, but I can’t.”


I know this is the truth, but I can’t. Not, “I don’t want to.” Not, “I’ll do some research.”


I can’t.


The cost is too high. 


We returned to the House of Hope to find Khadija and Latifah arguing in the kitchen over how to prepare dinner. I sat on the verandah looking at the massive apartment buildings on the skyline, speckled with brightly colored blankets and towels drying in the sun. Martine carried a watermelon outside and put it in the sun so it would sweeten by the time we ate dessert. I thought of what Sonya’s mother said. I thought of Edmond Dantes, the main character in The Count of Monte Cristo. He is falsely imprisoned at the Chateu d’If under a life sentence. With the help of a mentor, he escapes and carries out an elaborate plan of revenge for those who did him wrong. I thought of the famed Marseille soap shops, Hassen Victor wandering the streets in search of work, Maimona’s father and his legacy, the empty Ferris wheel and golden Mary. 


What would it be like to know something was true, but to ignore it because the cost is too high and the repercussions are simply too complicated? This is a key takeaway in ministry to Muslims. They not only have to believe the truth, but they often times have to give up everyone and everything they have ever known, including relationships with the people who raised them. 


There is a cost to following Christ that I simply cannot understand with my background. But even though I can’t understand it, I have a responsibility to be sensitive to it. 


At dinner, they served two kinds of tagine, a (surprise) traditional Algerian dish. One was a beef roast with stewed plums and almonds. The other was a chicken with preserved lemons and green olives. Tonight, along with instructing us on how to eat and lamenting all the mistakes she made in preparation, Khadija wanted to discuss crimes committed by the King of Morocco. According to her, he is a corrupt man. Most of her discussions find a way of circling back to the King of Morocco. She was surprised that we didn’t have an opinion on Moroccan politics, and she hoped we could make comparisons to Trump. She asked each of us what we thought of Trump, a conversation that may be considered rude at some tables in the US but is standard discussion in France. Maimona explained that you could disagree about politics in France but still like one another, an idea unfamiliar to us. Khadija carefully watched everyone compose their plates and added little touches without permission. She noticed that my chicken wasn’t covered in sauce and spooned some on. She was right. It needed more sauce. When one of our team members explained that she didn’t eat much meat, Khadija requested that she at least try the sauce. It became clear that food was her way of extending love, so I went for seconds. As we slowed down, Khadija and Latifah struck up a new argument about whether or not they should bring out the cheese. We pleaded with them not to. We settled for a sweet, green mint tea served in specialty glasses. Khadija put two spoonfuls of pine nuts in my tea. 


When we struck up a conversation about faith, Khadjia quietly said goodnight to us and went upstairs. She was clearly exhausted from the time and energy spent preparing the meal, and, seeing that we enjoyed it, she could rest in peace. This meal took hours of work and trips to the faraway North African market. On the other hand, she is a Muslim, and the others are Christians. 

They brought out a songbook and a drum and sang worship songs in Arabic around the kitchen table. 


That’s my final, and perhaps most important, memory of Marseille. 

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