Grieving With the French

A letter from Martha Sommers in France preparing for service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

November 2015

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Bonjour Mes Amis,

It is the weekend after Thanksgiving, or Action des Grâces. Although not a holiday in France, an American teacher heard I was in Besançon without family, so invited me to a Thanksgiving feast for tomorrow.  She said there will be 18 people at the table, and we will be the two Americans. Sitting at the table for a long while enjoying delicious food slowly seems to be one of the necessary skills for living in France. I am learning “petit à petit.”  Two weekends back I was invited to a dinner to celebrate my classmate’s 21st birthday, which her host mother prepared. There were nine of us ranging from late adolescence to late middle-aged, representing France, U.S.A., Haiti, Venezuela, Thailand and Great Britain.  We feasted, laughed, talked about food and life. Then, four hours into the dinner, David, who is from Haiti, got a message on his phone about the Paris attacks.

With professor Jean-Luc and classmates

With professor Jean-Luc and classmates

Besançon is just three hours by train from Paris, and almost everyone has close ties there. People first seemed in shock. Monday, the first day of class after the attacks, we students  from around the world were able to support our French teachers and staff by joining them in a time of silence. It is always difficult to know what to say following a tragedy, and even more so when you are just learning a language.  Thank you to those of you who accompany people who are grieving, with and without words.

As folks grieve there are many discussions, sometimes heated. At lunch today, with local friends speaking French, I learned the verb fabriquer as one man spoke of the main problem being the fabrication or production of arms by France, the U.S.A., and Russia that are sold in abundance to the Middle East for oil, and easily obtained by “kamikazes,” which is the word used here. One woman stated that she thought the problem was religion, while the others voiced economic issues. I remembered and shared Bishop Desmond Tutu’s quote, “Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick it in someone’s back.” She was able to concede how Islam is so much larger than the few European nationals who are Islamist Muslims and who orchestrated these attacks.  These long discussions over delicious meals are mainly special time, although sometimes the conversations disintegrate after too much wine. In class our professor Vanessa is teaching us the vocabulary and grammar necessary to dialogue toward peace by making use of the text La Communication Nonviolent au Quotidien by Marshall B. Rosenberg.  We do exercises in which we first make observations about something, then share our feelings about it, before we make any evaluating statements.  We can all see how this method and disciplining ourselves to avoid provocative words and phrasing can help us work for peace in our relationships in every language.

One of the joys of studying in Besançon at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée (CLA) is that Besançon is one of the French cities for settling refugees, and CLA is utilized to teach French to new immigrants. Besançon is the birthplace of Victor Hugo and his legacy is celebrated. The mayor, when welcoming the first group of Syrian refugees, reminded the crowd that this city has a long history of showing compassion for the suffering saying, “C’est la ville Victor Hugo où né.” (This is the city where Victor Hugo was born.) For me, it’s been super to make friends with classmates who are making a new life for themselves after arriving from Libya and Syria as we learn French together. The transition from Arabic to French is tough because of the different alphabet.  Our classmates from China, Japan and Korea have a similar challenge because of the different alphabet.

Learning about Hugo’s legacy in his birth home

Learning about Hugo’s legacy in his birth home

The setup for those of us in the intensive courses is that for each four-week session we are divided into classes close to 10 students with classmates closest to our competence. We are in class together five hours a day, five days a week, and bond closely as we learn through presentations, child word games, discussions, and singing and dancing simple songs to help with our phonetics. Yes, playing silly games and dancing are great ways for college kids on a semester abroad to feel comfortable with much older professionals. We really miss each other when we are put in different classes for the next session. We excitedly greet, often with the kisses-on-the-cheeks adopted French greetings, as we catch up with each other and mutual former classmates before and after class. Great to find out Ashad’s family is now also in Besançon, that Donna has made friends since she joined the local high school, and so much more news. Marco, who is one of three priests from Chile living at their Francis De Sales community house for the year, usually has a joke. Friends who were here for only a month or two we can stay in touch with by social media. Yes, we older students seem to prefer Facebook and email, and the younger ones like Whatsapp and Twitter.

I am amazed how my French is progressing. Pronunciation is my biggest challenge, as it is in every language. Afternoon sessions on Tuesday and Thursday focusing on oral practice are helpful.  Also helpful are my unofficial teachers at the market, restaurants, stores, and the only-French-speaking friends I am slowly making. Although I still have to progress, I can finally see that I will be able to teach and function in French when I finally reach the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thank you for your generosity, which makes this opportunity possible.

Even as I thank you, I need to let you know that World Mission is experiencing a funding shortfall.  Due to less congregational giving to basic mission support, the spending down of sustaining endowments, and a failure to meet fund-raising goals, there is an urgent need for financial commitments to keep mission co-workers in our countries of service.  My own ministry has not been fully funded for 2015.  Will you please pray about this situation?  If possible, will you increase your gift for this year with a year-end contribution?  If you have not yet committed to this ministry financially, this would be a good time to begin.  Would you consider advocating for the ministry in the D.R. Congo with neighboring congregations to see if they would join us?  I would appreciate your help in these ways.

Merry Christmas. I see how the birth of Victor Hugo can influence this city to welcome Syrian refugees. As we celebrate Jesus’ birth, I pray we who are Christian will be even more inspired.
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 156

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