A radical welcome: Nine St. Elisabeth’s pilgrims in Nantes, France
When we, nine pilgrims from St. Elisabeth’s, arrived at church in Nantes, France, on Sunday, July 9, the first thing Father Jean-Yves did was to ask two of our youths to do the day’s Bible readings, in French, of course. Abigail and Claire were perhaps caught off guard by the request but acquitted themselves just fine. By grabbing our kids and pushing them to the center of the service, Father Jean-Yves communicated that we were part of his faith community. It was as though he had handed us the keys to the church the minute we showed up. The following week Claire and Robin were again given a central place in the service.
Our group traveled to Nantes, France to visit the parishioners of Trinité de l’Éraudière. Twelve people from that parish had visited us in 2018, and we felt privileged to take our Nantes friends up on their invitation to visit them in return. We were a young group: three parents and six youths, ages 12 to 18. We stayed with families in Nantes for nine days, some of us splitting the time half and half between two families.Our hosts showered us with care and affection, organized lovely receptions, picnics, and dinners, and took us all around their beautiful city and the nearby region of eastern (or “upper”) Brittany.
One part of our pilgrimage was to attend church with our friends and to visit the ancient monastery of Mont St. Michel. But perhaps the more important aspect of our pilgrimage was being embraced in a “radical welcome” by a wonderful Christian community.My daughters were both sick at different times while we were in Nantes. Thérèse, Anne, Maggie, and Marisol contributed lots of love, advice, comfort food and a doctor’s visit to help me take good care of them.
We learned something of what it is to live in France among a community that lives out Christian caring for each other and their community. Abigail, Nina, and I stayed with Maggie and Daniel Chauvet for several days and learned about Maggie’s work with Roma people (previously called Gypsies). Maggie and Daniel were driving us toward Dinan, a gorgeous town in northeastern Brittany, and we passed a large number of RVs. I commented that people seemed to really like to go camping in that area, and Maggie gently corrected me and said that it was a community of Roma people, and that she had enjoyed getting to know the Roma people she worked with and appreciated their culture. Maggie and Daniel introduced us to an elegant restaurant in Nantes called Reflet, where most of the staff have Down syndrome. We had a wonderful meal there, and it was moving to see how committed people had created a restaurant where people with a disability had the support to be able to do meaningful and valued work.
We experienced the pride our hosts had in their city and their region. Nantes is the historic capital of Brittany, the traditionally Celtic-speaking northwestern region of France. When Abigail, Nina and I stayed with Thérèse and Gérard Soulard, we were charmed to learn that Gérard insists on always having crèpes for breakfast, crèpes being traditional for Brittany. We savored some of the flair that makes life in France enjoyable. For instance, in many ways, their church picnics, lunches and receptions were recognizably like ours, but place settings were more formal. Church lunches included wine and a cheese course. I am a new convert to cheese courses. What a pleasantly indulgent way to dress up a meal.
We were able to worship with two different congregations during our stay. I was impressed that both services were well attended and included lots of children. The service music was accessible, and people sang out. I was interested to learn from Father Jean-Yves about the tensions and conflicts within the Roman Catholic church in France. Large parts of the French Catholic church are more liberal than I expected, but as in the US there are differences between left and right.
A wonderful part of the trip was the opportunity to get better acquainted with our fellow pilgrims, Carrie, Brody, Robin, Claire, Anna, and Nate. If you ever want to organize a pilgrimage, I recommend setting it up to be two-thirds teenagers. You are guaranteed to inject life and fun into your group. Father Jean-Yves thanked us for bringing our “jeunesse,” our “youth and youthfulness,” with us. For my daughters, Nina and Abigail, there was much that was new for them being in France and staying with our wonderful host families. When we had to say goodbye, there were tears on both sides. At our farewell dinner, Robin presented our hosts with a beautiful Pride flag and gave a heartfelt tribute to their generosity and devotion to us. Abigail and Nina talk frequently about how much they learned (“almost everything we ate was something we’d never had before”) and how kind and loving our hosts were. I’m sure none of us will ever forget the radical welcome by our friends in Nantes.