When I arrived in Paris, my backpack did not arrive with me. In fact, it did not arrive for my entire five-week research trip, but at the time I expected to have it within a few days. So I filled out the appropriate paperwork and was given some necessaries to last until the bag could be located, and I left the airport for my destination. The Taizé community could not have been a more welcoming place for me, stressed as I was, and I quickly learned that hospitality is its legacy.
The community began during World War II when Father Roger moved from Switzerland to create a refuge in Southeast France for those who were fleeing from the Nazi advance. A brotherhood of ecumenical clergymen formed around him, taking vows of poverty and celibacy, creating the community that exists today. Now it looks a little bit different: Every year, thousands of young people come to visit and take part in the simplistic, peaceful life of the Taizé monks. The brothers still remember their foundation as a refuge, and continue to host refugees who come from far away and have nowhere to go.
Brother David, a dark-haired, bright-eyed man from Portugal, spoke to me about the refugees who are currently living at Taizé. In the past few years, the influx of refugees into France has increased dramatically, leading to the rapid growth of the camp at Calais, which has since been disbanded. Seeing the tremendous need just miles away, the brothers of Taizé offered to host ten asylum seekers from Sudan and Afghanistan, providing food and shelter and other basic needs as well as aiding them in the asylum process.
I learned from Brother David that neither the members of the Taizé community nor the refugees themselves knew anything about each other before their first meeting. The refugees turned out to be Muslim, and they happened to find themselves living in a Christian community. “But religion is not a barrier,” Brother David said with conviction, “We all are believers . . . it brings us together.” In fact, he spoke of the relationship that was born between the inhabitants of Taizé and the newcomers from Sudan and Afghanistan in terms of enrichment and growth. This encounter was an opportunity, not a burden, and the rest of our conversation illustrated that truth to me.
Religion is not a barrier.
But for now I’m stuck. Religion is not a barrier. Those words rang in my ears, and they still do. Everything I have seen lately seems to suggest the opposite. If religion is about coming together, why do we let it come between us? And if not religion, where are all of these walls coming from? These are my questions, and I think they will remain questions for the time being. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Let’s take some time to reflect, and then we will pick back up with Brother David’s story.
Photo credit to Maciej Biłas