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When we talk about overseas missions, Western cities are not typically the first ones that spring to mind. Certainly not Paris—with its shimmering lights, art museums and iconic Eiffel Tower. And yet, that’s exactly where God has called one of Westside’s missionaries, AK.
“I’m definitely not in the touristy part of Paris.” AK clarifies, “It’s the suburbs, about a 20-minute train ride outside of the centre of the city. There aren’t very many French natives living out here and most of the time it feels like we’re in a totally different country.”
For the past two years, AK has been living and working with refugees and immigrants in France. She teaches English and French second-language classes to immigrants from North Africa, runs a Bible study and leads worship at a small house church. “I have always had a heart for the vulnerable and those on the edge and it seems like immigrants and refugees are always the ones in that position.”
He who began a good work...
About four years ago, AK moved to Montreal with her sister to learn French. She got a job at a refugee immigration centre, helping people to navigate the Canadian immigration system. “At the time it felt like, this is it. This is what I’m supposed to do.’ ’’ After making the hard decision to move back to Vancouver during a challenging season in their family, AK remembers praying, “God, why would you have me leave now, when I’m thriving here?” and he gave me that verse from Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” AK’s work with refugees and immigrants was not finished.
A couple of years later, AK began praying again about where God might be leading her to serve next. At the same time, she was approached by a missions organization to consider working with them to meet pertinent needs for the immigrant and refugee communities in France. It was the same work she had been doing in Montreal—serving predominantly Muslim refugees from North Africa—and God said, “Go.”
Tu n’est pas seul (you are not alone)
For the past two years, AK has been working with an association to serve immigrants and refugees in the communities on the outskirts of Paris. They run an Alpha course on Friday nights that has seen two people come to the Lord, and a house church on Saturday nights. On Thursday and Friday mornings, AK and her team stand at the entrance to the neighbourhood market, where they hand out Bibles in Arabic and French, and literature about God’s love for mankind.
“You get a real mix,” she says of how people respond to her and her teammates. “I’ve been spit on and cursed at, but sometimes people have the most amazing questions, and you can see that the Spirit of God is already at work in them.’’ She remembers one woman who ran up to her at the market, quickly grabbed a Bible, put it in her bag and said, “You have no idea how long I have been looking for this!” and then ran away.
For the team, the marketplace is often the first point of contact with immigrants, who are then invited to ESL/FSL classes or Alpha. AK mostly works with women from Morocco and Algeria—many of whom come from small villages and have never learned how to read or write. She visits with many Muslim women in their homes each week. “I drink so much tea now,” she laughs.
One of the biggest ways that AK and her team minister to people is through community. They invite people to do normal things with them—games nights, meals, running errands together. At the last “international dinner” AK’s team hosted, they had people put pins into a map to show where they came from. By the time everyone had taken a turn, there were eighteen nationalities represented. The team works to create a sense of family and community for people who may have left those things behind in their home country, and this puts them in the place of being brothers and sisters to one another. Through these relationships, there is freedom to have those deeper spiritual conversations, wrestle with tough questions and share the love of God with people.
“For most Muslims, the way they come to the Lord is either through a dream or through Christian community coming around them first.” AK explains, “For a Muslim to convert to Christianity they have to let go of their whole community, and many of them aren’t ready to do that if they don’t have something else to step into.”
Finding Common Ground
One thing that has surprised AK is how much she has in common with the immigrant women she lives and works with. “I’m also an immigrant in France, so even though I come from a Western country, I have to go through a lot of the same things—French paperwork, standing in line outside the visa office only to have it close before you get inside. I share these frustrations.” AK has started learning Arabic, so that she can communicate better with the women she meets at the markets and in the English language classes.
“That’s one thing I think we don’t get as native English speakers—the frustration of having to communicate in a language you don’t speak very well. You have to get used to being misunderstood and not being able to explain yourself. It’s given me a ton of empathy for immigrants in that situation.”
Building leaders for Peace
Last summer, AK and some members of her team were invited to travel to Turkey to host a peace camp for teens in one of the towns on the Syrian border. They spent a full week with about 75 teenagers from Turkey and refugees from Syria, learning about each other and living in peaceful community. The idea was to train up youth leaders who would then go back to their own communities in Turkey or in the refugee camps and be advocates for peace.
“There were several Syrians who said that what mattered most to them was just that we came. We were able to step into their shoes and meet them exactly where they were at,” AK remembers. “We got to walk with them exactly where they are. And it’s beautiful when you think of it, because that’s what Jesus did for us—he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself and took the form of a servant.”
Many deep friendships were formed over the course of the camp, and one girl that AK connected with accepted Jesus and became a Christian! AK has been able to keep in contact with her over instant messaging and was excited to hear that this friend recently led her roommate also to the Lord.
AK doesn’t see the work in Paris and the peace camps as being separate. The community in Paris loves to send bracelets and supplies to the kids in the peace camps, and they are so interested in the work going on in Turkey. “We get to invite our community in France to help us care for and minister to others. It’s like they’re starting to do the work of a disciple without believing in Jesus yet. They get to see and participate with me in my mission work there.”
In the time she has been in France, the tension between Muslims and the French has gotten worse. The idea of the peace camps—living in peace and reconciliation with others—is so appealing to the immigrants AK works with because people see the need for it in France and know how important it is.
How can people pray for AK
We’re happy to be able to highlight AK’s story and give a glimpse into the amazing ways God is at work in France. AK has asked for prayer in the following ways:
For spiritual discernment in conversation. So much of the battle is fought in the spiritual world, not the physical world. Pray that the Holy Spirit would help AK and the team to be able to answer questions and enter into conversations with Spirit-guided words.
Discernment for the future. AK’s term with this mission ends at the end of April. She will need to make decisions soon about where the Lord is leading her next.
Sarah Miller is a writer, musician, introvert and sports fan. She plays piano and sings on the worship team, and has been attending Westside since the (almost) beginning. She loves music, the Oilers, popcorn, Jeopardy and the BBC. Follow her on twitter/instagram @heysarahmiller if you like vacation photos and occasionally witty observations about life, sports and pop culture.