“The Kingdom of God is like a Community Picnic in Place D’Aligre…” by Patricia DeWit

Thanks to a compulsion I have where I must read every sign I see, I noticed a poster glued to the pillar outside the grocery store. It announced, “Pentecost Day Community Lunch, May 25 2015, noon, in the public square, Rue d’Aligre, bring food for your family and enough to share with another.”

I knew we needed to be there, come rain or shine. So I tried to figure out how this would happen…

With no point of reference for how Parisians do this, I supposed we’d stand around, or sit on blankets on the ground. Since it was to be shared, we would either walk around bending over to offer the food from disposable plates to others on their own blankets with their own disposable plates, or… we would perhaps sit on our own blankets and invite a passerby to come sit and eat with us.

I prepared sensible finger foods. It would be too hard to eat with utensils, and if we were standing, surely it will need to be individual-sized sharable portions, clean and easy. I brought a tablecloth for the ground, and three pillows, one for each of us and an extra for sharing.

When we left home I felt nervous. We bumped into our neighbours on the sidewalk. “We did not hear of the picnic?” they said. Oh oh, what if I’d read it wrong? Or, what if they had cancelled and we were the only ones who didn’t get the memo? What if what if what if? With a faked confidence I walked beside Peter toward the square, each of us carrying a large re-usable shopping bag, the normal bags that locals carry everywhere, camouflaging a picnic inside. If worse came to worst, we could at least take our finger foods and blanket over to the Seine River and picnic alone among the crowd.

Approaching the square, we had no idea that we were about to get the most beautiful lesson in how to be a community.

There were tables. And chairs. Someone had to have come early to set up; three tables together in a line here, a few over there, and yet another cluster under the trees. Before the end of the meal, the tables had become connected into a horseshoe so we were all seated at the same table.

I learned that in community, as soon as that plate, that knife, or that cup or that bottle goes on the table, it is no longer mine. It is ours. People around me kept pulling food from their large re-usable shopping bags, just like ours, and placing it on the table. It wasn’t finger food. It was slow-cooked and sautéed and simmered food. Whole melons were being sliced; tarte à la rhubarbe was being lifted from an enormous clay pan. Ceramic plates clunked, metal utensils clinked; fresh juice and strong hot coffee gurgled into a pell-mell of cups.

More people arrived. Some, just passing through the square, approached with questions marks in their eyes. Since we were at the end of the table, they asked, “Excusez-moi, mais qu’est que c’est?” Without hesitation, more tables were connected, more fresh plates and utensils rounded up for them. They had to have food, and a place at the table, whether they were from the community or not. “Please, sit with us here,” as they patted the empty chair, “Have some of Anne-Marie’s famous ragu!”

People used their fingers, or their own spoons, to serve others. We wiped our empty plates with napkins in order to make room for a dessert untainted by carrot cumin puree. We wiped our hands on our pants when we couldn’t catch a napkin. Some spoke with their hands, wielding paring knives, carving the air and the cantaloupe intermittently

By now I could tell who the community leaders were. They were not dressed differently. They didn’t sit at the head of the table. No one served them or treated them with deference. Nothing distinguished them from the others except… They had brought the best wines, the most food. They were the ones pouring and serving, walking chair to chair, making sure everyone got to try those amazing muffins. They were thanking and noticing and making sure everyone knew what great skills existed in these friends sitting across the table. They were the ones spotting the newcomers and pulling up extra chairs – Always more chairs. “We must make room at the table.”

And that’s when it hit me. The Kingdom of God is like our community picnic. Most people don’t see it or don’t recognize it because it doesn’t come wrapped in Christianity. It comes to the streets, incognito, dressed in the lives of unlikely good people. I felt the Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven when I saw the leaders preparing heaping plates of food for the homeless who live in the square- those very same guys who spend their mornings drinking beer, their afternoons sleeping in the doorways and their evenings picking through trash. The leaders poured wine or coffee into their cups, careful to ask, “Que préféreriez-vous?”

One man made a plate of food for the Roma woman, a refugee, and not assuming to know what she would like he politely asked, “Vous aimez l’aubergine?” She didn’t know whether to smile or cry, but finally just half frowned a confused

These tables filled up quickly with people from all walks of life sharing food and love.

These tables filled up quickly with people from all walks of life sharing food and love.

as she received her heaping plate of food from kind hands. The kind man offered her a chair at the table. She declined, he insisted, but she sat on the park bench a few meters away.

When Jesus took time to eat with his friends that one last time, he said, “Let’s take a selfie.” Sort of. He asked them to remember him. When you do this eating and drinking together, this listening and exchanging of life, whenever you do this, remember me. It wasn’t that he was afraid of being forgotten. It was more about how the simple everyday acts – such as eating – could be infused with divine purposes, if we were open to catching them. He wanted us to know that God does not need the sacred vocation in the holy building in order to be seen or heard.

His Gospel is about the table, and making room, and serving. So as we walked into that square yesterday, we walked into the Kingdom of God in motion and if Jesus had walked through Paris yesterday, he would tell the story of how “The Kingdom of God is like a community picnic in Place D’Aligre…”


Paris Peace

“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

Rosa Luxemburg

Paris, who doesn’t dream about living in Paris? Yet in those ‘lost-in-my thoughts’ moments of our transition to Paris I  found myself thinking that the decision to move from Asia, our home for twenty-two years, to another continent was either the biggest mistake I’ve ever made or the greatest adventure of my lifetime.  It took a considerable amount of effort, loss, and sacrifice to become ‘un habitant‘ of the most visited city on earth. For weeks I wondered if the prize of being Parisian was worth the pursuit.

To prepare ourselves for this eventual move, my wife, Patricia, and I visited Paris twice and each time I was resistant to the proverbial “I love Paris” virus. It wasn’t happening for me. I moped. Having enough of my negative outlook Patricia spoke with frustration in her voice, “Why can’t you be exited about this adventure with me?” Maybe it was the long hard goodbye to Thailand, the challenge of working with teenaged boys for a year in Germany and the continuous transition that soured me. I craved familiarity not more adventure. I wanted to have control of my destiny. What I didn’t realize then was that in a strange way I needed Paris more than Paris needed me.

Finding peace in Paris came distressingly slowly. I am not even sure if I found it or if by God’s grace it simply fell on me! Our first month was lived in the Goutte D’Or quarters, the most chaotic neighbourhood of Paris. The ad had said near Montmartre; ah perfect,

We could actually see the top of Sacré-Coeur from our bedroom.

We could actually see the top of Sacré-Coeur from our bedroom.

a future artist’s dream place. We rented the flat on-line for one month because of the artist in Patricia and the description said it had a view of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. We unwittingly found ourselves in the middle of little Africa!

I chuckle now when I think back about the first time we walked through our neighborhood. An elderly French lady warned us to be extra cautious in this quarter as we surfaced from ‘ligne 4’ out through the Chateau Rouge metro station. She said, “Il y’a beaucoup de voleurs ici!” There are lots of robbers here!

How the memory of walking at that midnight hour through littered streets laced with smells of urine and rotten vegetables will stay with me forever. I was visibly upset and I lagged behind, not so much to protect my little family from those voleurs, but more-or-less in silent protest of my new surroundings. It added fuel to my negative state of mind confirming that we were making a huge mistake moving to Paris! My daughter, Alycia-Rae, turned back, saw me and said, “Dad, are you okay?” Intuitive for a fifteen year old girl. I would ask myself the same question often.

That first month we squeezed through the crowded streets used for black marketed goods. Fake jewellery, pirated movies, sun glasses, purses and stolen phones were being pushed in our faces. Daily we could hear from our rented flat Chateau Rougea crazy black lady yelling every day at passersby in some African dialect. One time we were relieved when she decided to sing poorly using her empty water bottle as a microphone!

Our nearest metro station, Chateau Rouge, was one of the busiest in Paris. It shocked us to see dozens of people shamelessly jump over the metro turnstiles daily without paying. At times we saw blood splattered on the walls of the metro entrance! The there was the time at three in the morning, unable to sleep, my wife witnessed a break-in from our balcony and called the police who arrived in three minutes and roughed up the wrong people. All this chaos, crime, street arguments, yelling lady and even violent protests against the Jews in our neighborhood was throwing me off balance.

“Dad are you okay?” That question again! Would I ever love Paris, this City of Light?

Finding a permanent peaceful place in Paris became our obsession. We looked at many different types of apartments and neighbourhoods. I couldn’t believe how small these places were. I finally got excited about one beautifully renovated Haussmann apartment near the presidential palace, but it had no vibe or community. Another smaller place was open and though it did have a ‘Parisian village’ feel, I didn’t like the tiny size. Patricia asked me pointedly, “You want an apartment or a community to live in?” Reluctantly I settled on ‘the community’, in the 12th district with a neighbourhood that felt truly Parisian.

From that newly rented tiny Paris apartment on 44 Rue Crozatier, we discovered the markets, art studios, bakeries, bicycle shops, and even a converted railway track turned promenade lined with flowers and trees. Every walk became a time of discovery. I didn’t ‘love’ my apartment, always comparing it to the spacious four floors I left in Bangkok, but I loved to walk this most walkable Paris.

One day I landed on an ancient Catholic Church where I would often come during the day to sit, read, write and pray, (including this blog). There, I think, I trembled with joy mixed with peace for the first time. Like I said, it just happened. It fell into my lap like a gift. For the first time since we moved there I became at ease living into this Paris possibility. My attitude changed overnight, I had peace that the Lord would teach me much about myself, about life and why he had placed us in Paris.