As the French government explores long-term responses to the suburban Paris riots, churches are examining their social consciences and planned to penetrate these communities with the gospel.
While condemning the violence and placing blame with "the political and economic decision makers," France's Catholic bishops said in a statement that the riots "should also pose questions to us. Our choices, individually and collectively, concerning the organization of life in society can lead us to create or to remove situations of exclusion and ghettoization."
Pastor Jean-Christophe Bieselaar and his congregation have worked with young French-born Muslims to help them integrate. He has a simple idea for preventing future unrestchurches should become multicultural. "If a church lives the unity that Christ called us to live," he says, "we will be healing communities of ethnic and religious tension the church that Jesus prayed for."
France's history of class conflict and ethnic tension has built walls between people groups. But Bieselaar is having modest success bridging those divides. The white Frenchman leads La Défense Alliance Church in Paris's progressive business suburb. His congregation's faces foreshadow heaven's ethnic mix. The mostly immigrant community, representing at least 20 countries, started an official social ministry two months before the riots.
"Once a month, people can meet for free with two professional social workers, both members of the church, to explain their problems," Bieselaar says. "We listen, give advice, and sometimes assist in a very practical way. We have been dealing so far with people who have been financially bankrupt and who have been looking for a job but did not know where to start."
However, the riots made clear to Christians that there is more work to do. "French Christians have joined in the 'white flight' from the troubled suburbs," said André Pownall, Nogent Bible Institute's lecturer in practical theology. "With rapid transportation, many of our Paris churches are regional rather than local, and they have little contact with the suburb in which they are situated."
A long-time missionary in France who asked for anonymity to protect people of Muslim background to whom he ministers, added that too many evangelicals rely on the government to solve social ills. But the government, he said, "has no answers for the deeper problems that only the gospel can provide. Meaning: identity and acceptance, values, belonging, goals and objectives for life that have an eternal significance, solidarity, and love experienced in the community of the church."
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Agnieszka Tennant earlier wrote an analysis of the riots for Christianity Today.
She is also author of our March 2005 cover story, The French Reconnection.
The French Taize community also offers a glimpse of racial reconciliation.