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by Sarina Gruver Moore
To be honest: I didn’t want to go to church.
To be more precise: I wanted to go to mass. At the cathedral.
As you read this I’m traveling in France with a group of students from my college. I’m not teaching on this trip, just acting as the female chaperone—a mom to 24 young adults, dispensing acetaminophen and Band-Aids as needed. So yeah, it’s basically an all-expenses-paid vacation.
I know—you can hate me if you want. I would.
Our college has a study center in Nantes, in the Loire-Atlantique region, and the program has a long-term relationship with a local Protestant church that is some combination of Evangelical Free and Free Will Baptist. I knew it would be good manners on my part to attend church with these people who have welcomed our students and faculty for years, so I set aside my desire for marble floors and vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses.
Eugene Peterson says that the best church to attend is the smallest one nearest where you live. And this church definitely fits the bill. We walk 10 minutes and arrive at a building that looks like a commercial enterprise that has seen better days.
We enter, and I am introduced to a dignified elderly man—silver hair, beautiful suit, clear blue eyes. Bon jour, Roger, I say. I’ve been in France for a week now, so I know what to expect next.
We lean in toward each other and I reach for his elbow. My fingertips caress the rough wool of his jacket, my cheek rests on the softness of his clean-shaven face, our lips kiss the air near the other’s ear, his woodsy cologne tangles in my hair, and I am suddenly reminded of my grandfather, whom I loved with all my heart. A lump rises in my throat. I manage to refrain from tears.
Roger and I part. Then he repeats the process with each of the many students behind me. Momentarily partnered, they lean in—with intention, with purpose—then shift, in unison, in a cheek-to-cheek dance that feels simultaneously intimate and ordinary. I watch the sacred choreography unfold as Roger elegantly kisses each of our students, who touchingly overcome any American discomfort and return his gentleness with their own.
The music is beginning as praise bands everywhere begin: rehearsing a few last-minute chord changes. On the drums is a young man from Senegal, on the acoustic guitar is a bearded academic-type who will later give the sermon, the singers are a young Frenchman, a middle-aged Frenchman, and a beautiful young woman from Ghana. The congregation of about sixty persons is at least half African. Our group increases that number by a third.
All but one song is unfamiliar to me, and I tell you, I have never been so grateful for contemporary evangelicalism as I was in that service. The praise choruses—repetitive and thus easily remembered, uncomplicated in melodic structure, and projected onto a screen—mean no fumbling with hymnals or photocopied packets of songs. Then the sermon, delivered slowly, and for which important verses were also projected onto the screen.
I learned more French in that hour and a half than in three days of Duolingo.
If you’ve ever attended a church service in a language in which you are not fluent, then you’ll understand how easy it is to get lost in anything complicated. Nuance is lost, qualifiers are lost, exceptions to the rule are lost.
So much is lost in translation, and that is exactly as it should be. To understand much is to focus on detail, on depth, on elaboration and extension and complication and extrapolation.
But at sea in the ocean of another language, only the essentials matter—lexical lifeboats.
I gather enough from the sermon to know that the scripture text is from John’s Gospel, the fourth chapter. It’s Christ’s second miracle in Cana, the healing at a distance of the young boy in Capernaum.
But anything more than this is beyond my comprehension. Disoriented, I listen for the lifeboats instead.
In French or in English, is there anything more to understand than this? There’s a monk of some sort from some century who says that basically anything we can ever say to God translates to two words: Mercy, Lord.
Sounds about right.
We leave church, and I walk back feeling grateful for the companionship these French Free Will Whatevers have generously given us. Who cares if I am a Reformed(ish)-but-probably-Eastern-Orthodox-Something-Or-Other? What unites us is more holy, more human, more powerful than what divides us. Maybe less theology and more kissing is what we need.
So, when next we meet—you and I—let’s lean in, gently touch, and greet each other with a holy kiss, oui?
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.