This experience was one of the most marking experiences of my life and certainly of my TAPIF experience. I want to share it with you. It is of a religious encounter, yet also so much more. Whether you’re religious or not, please don’t let this scare you. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic; these are all labels. We are first humans and that which unites is are stronger than that which divides us. Our different beliefs and ideas must not prevent but rather foster respect and love for each other.
I write of the 2014 European Meeting, this year held in Strasbourg, France. There were 25,000 people who came, mainly from Europe, but all corners of the world were represented. Every single one of these 25,000 people was lodged in a host family in the Alsace-Ortenau eurodistrict. Every. Single. Person. Most even had their own beds or were provided a mattress. Beyond that, there were hundreds of families more than needed who wanted to host participants. How incredible is that??
What is Taizé, the group that puts together the European Meeting? It’s a community of brothers, both Catholic and Protestant, who work to promote peace in the world and especially between Catholics and Protestants. France has a long history of strife between these two denominations. More broadly, they also seek to bridge divisions between all people. All are welcome at their community.
After seeing my friend Thomas off to his train on the 27th, I got on the bus for Strasbourg. After 12 hours (French bus drivers are required to take many breaks), we staggered off the bus and into Strasbourg. I was assigned to Mulhouse for my host parish. I decided to volunteer to be a group leader to get more involved. Pourquoi pas? All those assigned to Mulhouse waddled off to the train station under the weight of our backpacks, tired after so many hours on a bus, and embarked on an hour long train ride to Mulhouse. I should mention all public transportation, including the railway, trams, and buses were free to participants of the Rencontre Européenne. In Mulhouse, we finally threw down our baggage and were welcomed with open arms by our host parish, Sacré Cœur. They fed us yummy Alsatian cakes as they called out for host family placements. “Two females! A mixed group of six! Three group leaders or musicians!”. The people from Montpellier all wanted to stick together, and while I would have liked to have been in a host family with a more mixed group, I went into a host family with the Montpellier group leader and her daughter. Our host family was so incredibly welcoming. I shared a bedroom with their 13 year old daughter and had my own bed. After deposing our baggage, we got back on the train and returned to Strasbourg for dinner and evening prayer. Taizé style prayer consists mainly of songs and times of silence. It’s truly beautiful. Two of my favorite songs:
The daily schedule went something like this: Breakfast with the host family, morning prayer at the host parish (translation time!), small group discussion on religious and societal topics, train ride to Strasbourg, common prayer in one of the larger prayer halls, a workshop, dinner, evening prayer, train ride back to Mulhouse. As English was the common language of most people and it just so happened that as an English native speaker who speaks French, I got to be the parish translator. I translated sermons, prayer intentions, and announcements. I also interpreted between the organizers and participants. I was glad to have the opportunity!
There were so many workshops to choose from on so many topics; a visit to the European Parliament, concerts, interfaith dialogue at the mosque… The first workshop I chose was how to change the social climate and create more jobs for young people. I wasn’t impressed and found the discussion a bit vague. However, the workshop at the mosque touched me greatly. In France, a historically Christian country, there is much tension with the wave of Muslim immigrants. Present were a pastor, Buddhist monk, and the imam (I’m thinking no rabbi was present because there was an interfaith event at the synagogue the day before). The imam gave a brief presentation on all the similarities between the Christian and Islamic faiths and then with a group called “Coexister”, gave some ideas on how to foster interfaith dialogue. There was a time to ask questions as well, and I think the imam did a good job of answering the questions gracefully. On the 31st there were workshops by country. North America and the Middle East were put together with Brother Émile leading the discussion. There were about 13 people there since both regions were underrepresented, which was great to have an intimate discussion. A guy from Australia turned up too since he spoke English and Oceania and Australia didn’t have anyplace to go. Beautiful accents are welcome. But I digress. We focused mainly on how to expand friendships beyond borders and making Christ’s love a larger part of our lives.
Some things which touched me greatly from the event:
- The imam, when asked if he believed it was possible for people of many faiths to come and pray together replied that by us all gathering together at the mosque, it was already a type of prayer.
- The pastor and imam both stressed that in order to have constructive interfaith dialogue, we must lose our fear of conversion. The point is not to be converted, but to gain deeper understanding and respect for another’s beliefs all the while working to deepen our understanding of our own faiths. Synchronicity is not the goal. Respect and deeper understanding of others is the goal. This will foster peace between diverse peoples. Peace is a possible and attainable goal.
- Let’s not make Christianity something where divisions (denominations such as Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical, etc.) come first, but our similarities instead.
- In extremism, which exists in all faiths and outside of faiths, politics often play a larger role than religion. Remember this when looking at media portrayals where the sensational sells.
- What unites us is stronger than that which seeks to divide us.
- Christians are called to love.
On New Year’s Eve, at the stroke of midnight, I was reading a prayer for peace to the congregation. I can’t think of a much better way to bring in the year 2014. Afterwards, there was the Celebration of Nations. At Mulhouse were people from France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Belarus, the Czech Republic, and one American. Hmm wonder who that was. Everyone presented a song or dance from their country (except me, I became French). The Lyonnais did the chicken dance because in order to find each other in the crowd, they would shout “coin coin!!” (the sound a duck makes in French). This was actually quite practical and absolutely adorable in my personal opinion. The Polish people took home the trophy for the most fun dances, though. Video of the Polish dances below. Skip the first couple minutes if you wish. You can see me at 5:40! I’m dancing with the Slovenian guy in the orange shirt. We partied past 2AM. It was fricken fantastic.
On January 2nd we arrived back in Nîmes at 4AM. Brother Minh and I walked from Les Sept Collines back to the centre ville, about a 40 minute walk. Early morning walk with a brother, getting a lift from a priest at midnight. My life… It’s just… Epic?
I have only two regrets- that there was not more time to explore Strasbourg and that I’d forgotten my SD card in my computer. Many of these photos are from the newspaper l’Alsace and from my Slovak friends. This experience really helped me grow in my understanding of my faith and helping me understand that my progressive hopes for the Church do not have to be abandoned while seeking Christ’s/ God’s love more deeply. Interfaith and intercultural peace is so important to me and I am so grateful for this experience.