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Hope for the cité

Skits and safari games provide ways for a Christian ministry in France to build bridges with Muslim neighbors

Hope for the cité

Quartier Libre's Safari Festival in the cité (Pascal Nardin)

BETHONCOURT, France—Rows of gray, concrete apartment buildings in various states of graffiti and neglect loom over grass where 85 children dart from booth to booth at a neighborhood Safari Festival.

Five-year-old Yanis has a face painted like a tiger: “My favorite stand is the one with the gummy bears.” He points across the lawn to a booth where children use straws to blow marbles through a miniature obstacle course. He’s at the festival with big sister Segda, 11, younger brother Mohamed, 3, and older brother Mehdi, 10.

This is Bethoncourt, France, a suburb—or banlieue—of the industrial city of Montbéliard, in eastern France. It is one of the country’s poorest towns, and of its 7,000 residents, 4,000 of them live here, in this predominantly Muslim housing project, or cité.

When Emmanuel Macron became France’s youngest president in May, some said he won the election on his sheer optimism. After all, the name of his party, On the Move!, contained an exclamation point, and that energy made a welcome change in the perennially gloomy terrain of French politics. But the French need more than optimism: Along with a stagnant economy and high unemployment, Macron inherited the growing concern of homegrown Islamic terrorism.

Of the terror attacks in France in the past few years, the majority of perpetrators were French or Belgian citizens, born and raised in neighborhoods like this one. Bethoncourt is one of France’s infamous banlieues: When you see burning cars on the news, it’s happening in places like this.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Peugeot automobile factory in Montbéliard boomed, drawing workers from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. The factory encouraged construction of dormitory cities like Bethoncourt: Immigrant laborers moved in and their families grew. But in the 1980s—as the bottom dropped out of the automobile industry—towns like this one became black holes of unemployment and despair.

Meanwhile, the children of those first immigrant workers grew up in cultural and linguistic pockets, largely without the skills necessary to compete in the tight French job market. Unemployment now hovers at 50 percent for those under age 25, and the local poverty rate is 27 percent, compared with the national rate of 14 percent. Resignation, despair, drug use, and delinquency are rampant. It’s easy to see why radical Islam attracts hopeless young people.

While France’s overall birthrate has fallen to 1.93—the lowest since 1976—this neighborhood has many larger, younger families: 21 percent of its citizens are younger than 15. The second largest group consists of those ages 15-29.

BUT HERE in the middle of the Safari Festival, statistics seem far away. The lawn belongs to a modest, white house dubbed “La Maison Blanche,” or “The White House.” That’s home base for Quartier Libre, the Christian ministry that organized the Safari Festival. Children run in all directions, playing games and stamping their safari passports at each activity table. On the fence behind the craft stand, toilet paper rolls painted black dry in the sun. Yellow-shirted volunteers help children tape them together and add string to make binoculars. Holding them up to their eyes, the children scoot off to track chalk footprints on the driveway and guess which animals made them.

Rachida Touzani wears glasses, a headscarf, and a big smile. An outgoing woman in her mid-50s, she is a foster mother for special needs kids in the Muslim community. She chats while 12-year-old Owen paints his “binoculars.” Owen says little, but his ear-to-ear grin speaks volumes. He’s attended Quartier Libre for over a year and now brings another special needs friend. Because of his disabilities, going to school or other activities is hard for Owen, says Touzani, but Quartier Libre is different: “He never wants to miss, because this is the one place where everyone is welcome, everyone is included.”

In the shade, just out of range of the beanbag game, 30 parents sit drinking tea and chatting with volunteers. Denise Widmer—at 75 the oldest of the 26 volunteers—wears her hair in a neat silver bun as she serves refreshments. She’s honorary grandmother to all the children and has volunteered here since Christians built the Maison Blanche as a mission church in 1967. In decades past, she helped with kids clubs and after-school programs, but when those programs fizzled, Widmer kept visiting the families and giving sewing lessons to the girls.

Now, Widmer’s former students bring their children to activities because they know and trust her. “For many years, most people here were only culturally Muslim,” says the soft-spoken Widmer: “A mosque was built 10 years ago and that changed. People started to become more religious.”

Still, parents let their children come. Meridine Durdu, 47, likes the values that are taught at Quartier Libre: helping parents, telling the truth, being a faithful friend, loving people. Other parents see the care and love their children experience at Quartier Libre and contrast that with the shortcomings of some Islamic teachings. One father told a volunteer he is “fed up” with Islam after recent conflicts in the Muslim world. At the same time, he is intrigued by and grateful for Christian ministries like Quartier Libre.

AFTER AN HOUR of safari play, festival volunteers in bright yellow T-shirts called the children to sit on a huge blue tarp in the shade. The children were quiet during a skit where volunteers mimed a friendship being destroyed as one built walls around himself with cardboard boxes. The children’s eyes stayed glued to the makeshift stage as the other actor broke through the walls and reached out to rescue his friend.

Afterward, Quartier Libre director Olivier Pfingstag explained to the children the skit’s meaning: Jesus came to break down walls and restore our broken relationship with God.

‘We hear a lot of negative things about these neighborhoods in the news. … I believe part of the solution is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ into the neighborhood.’ —Olivier Pfingstag

The parents also listened. “Yes, he’s talking about Jesus,” one whispered to another, “the prophet who is written about in the Quran.”

Pfingstag says, “We hear a lot of negative things about these neighborhoods in the news. … I believe part of the solution is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ into the neighborhood.”

The 33-year-old father of two moved his young family here in 2013. Raised in subsidized housing projects himself, Pfingstag became a Christian at 18 and after pastoral studies felt God’s call back to the cité.

He became an associate pastor at a local church on the condition that the majority of his time be spent in community evangelism. He says his family has faced threats, but he prefers to talk about the encouraging things he’s seeing: “People are very grateful for everything we do for their children, even when they know that it’s Christian and ‘dangerous.’”

A home group recently started with an extended Turkish family whose children all attended Quartier Libre. It meets in the home of Elizabeth Fuerer, a 27-year-old sports teacher who recently moved to the cité. The group is studying Christ’s miracles, she said: “We want to focus completely on the work of Jesus. Religion on its own may bring about good things, but only Jesus Christ brings life.”

As a single woman living in a largely patriarchal community, Fuerer’s presence alone provokes curiosity, and occasionally hostility, among her neighbors. “Even those who want to come to Christ are locked in a culture that is very hard to leave,” says Pfingstag. “So to combat the challenges, we pray.” From 7 to 8 each morning, the Maison Blanche becomes a prayer battleground for individuals, the neighborhood, and the nation.

This past year, Quartier Libre began a biweekly academic support program. Yamina Belagra’s three children are regulars at Quartier Libre and now participate in the new program. She seems surprised when asked about her hopes for her children, but after a thoughtful pause answers shyly. “I hope they stay here and do well in school. The girls want to be beauticians, and my son wants to be a doctor.”

The ministry has caught the attention of local authorities. After visiting one of Quartier Libre’s Saturday afternoon programs, Bethoncourt’s adjunct mayor Annie Lautissier said, “I was blown away seeing 80 children playing respectfully, under the care of volunteers.” The city even gave the group some money.

President Macron should pay attention. Children like these are France’s future, and how well they defy statistics and integrate into French society will determine the success of his presidency. In a nation that prizes secularism, the rise of Islam within its borders is forcing France to consider the truth that a spiritual vacuum inevitably becomes filled. Too often it is filling with a religion of violence. Bethoncourt is an example of the gospel of peace making inroads.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Mid-Career Course.