Written by Rich Atkinson
On the 4th of June a group of us set off in the early hours of the morning to catch a 6.30am flight from Luton. The Ryanair flight we were catching to Nimes in the South of France actually ended up leaving an hour late!
Jane Churcher had lived in France for many years and we were travelling to meet up with various groups of friends and Christians that she had lived amongst during her time there.
The Father’s House team consisted of Jane, Andrew Baddeley, myself, Janice Rodgers, Pat Williams, Chris Chilcott and Andy Osborne, who we were to pick up from Marseille.
We arrived in Nimes to beautiful sunshine (which set the weather tone for the whole week) and set about picking up our hire cars. Whilst organising the cars did seem to take an age, it was worth the wait as we did end up with a couple of upgraded cars.
Jane had managed to book a ‘Gite’ in the small town of Bagnols sur Ceze. A ‘Gite’ is a French holiday home, which is usually fully furnished and designed for self-catering holidays. Our Gite was owned by a Christian Belgian couple, who actually live in Switzerland. Jane’s friend Anne-Marie met us and let us in. Our ‘Gite’ was a treat, beautifully well appointed with a lovely outside eating area and swimming pool.
Upon arrival we had something to eat and relaxed in our lovely surroundings. The next morning we headed out to a small church in the nearby town of Saint Just, where Janice was to be speaking, along the way we passed through the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit which is French for Bridge of the Holy Spirit.
Most of the team had been to the church last year when they visited so there were a lot happy greetings upon arrivals and we were to see many of these people throughout the week. The church is run by Paul Pensing and his wife Alfreda and consists of approx. 20 to 30 members. We also shared lunch with this happy little band in Saint Just and started to understand the food protocol in France. The French eat the salad and vegetables first followed by the main course of say meat and potatoes. The danger is that you fill up on the first course not realising that there is a lot more to come. We ate very well on this trip.
The Spirit filled Churches in France we encountered seemed to be small affairs, in rented premises, and risk the danger of being shut down by the Mayor of a town. Consequently a lot of the ‘French church’ meet in one-another’s homes. What we know as church runs the risk of being viewed as a cult in a secular nation such as France. You do start to realise how blessed we are in the U.K. that currently we can meet and worship freely.
On the Monday we drove for an hour and a half to the outskirts of Marseille, mainly to pick up Andy Osborne but also to meet up with friends of Jane’s who run a small church in the suburb of L’Estaque. L’Estaque is a pretty seaside town that looks out onto the Mediterranean and it was here that we met up with Andy Osborne and Jane’s friend Karen who was to be our guide for the day. Initially we had a coffee and got to know each other. Karen had brought an Algerian friend who gave us her testimony and told us of an Algerian revival that had been on going since the 1980’s, even though there had been no missionaries who had been to that region. Many people were coming to Christ through dreams and visions.
After coffee we were joined by one of the local pastors who gave us some background on the area and we subsequently spent time praying around the local seafront park in L’Estaque. Karen had arranged for us to catch the ferry into the old port of Marseille, so after lunch we took a 40 minute boat ride which gave us some great views of the city, with the old port’s marina boasting some fabulous old architecture and the yacht’s of the rich and famous.
Our ferry ticket (which cost us 5 euros) also allowed us to travel on the local bus service for an hour and half for free and as such we took the opportunity to travel up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, a church on a hill that gives stunning 360 degree views of Marseille. The bus traversed through steep narrow streets and around hairpin bends that barely looked able to fit a car through let alone a full size bus. The view was worth it and after a time of prayer we headed back down the hill to catch the ferry back to L’Estaque.
Upon our return to the cars we found that both (although parked separately) had been broken into, a common experience in Marseille apparently. In both cases the small triangular window had been broken allowing the ‘would be’ thieves to reach in and open the car door from the inside. Fortunately nothing was taken even though Chris Chilcott had left her SatNav in the car I was driving.
The crime was more of an inconvenience if the truth be told, as we had to spend a couple of hours getting police reports for insurance purposes etc. and drive back to Bagnols-Sur-Ceze with broken windows. We were blessed through the whole process by Karen’s excellent French and a couple of friendly Gendarmes.
The next morning Andrew and I drove into Avignon to change the cars, fortunately this proved to be a relatively easy affair and the Hertz staff sadly said that our experience was a common one in Marseille.
In late afternoon on Tuesday we headed north to the small town of Donzere where we were to meet up with a couple called Thierry and Nellie-France and their family. Thierry and Nellie-France had bought an old hotel near the railway station in Donzere and were using it as a meeting venue for their small fellowship. Buying the hotel was a deliberate act as it gave the group enough space to hold meetings but also because it was in their home they couldn’t be shut down by the local Mayor.
As it seemed with every situation in France we ate first and enjoyed a time of fellowship and then moved into the meeting and although there were only a handful of people other than Thierry’s family there was a tangible presence of the Holy Spirit and we were able to pray, prophesy and encourage this small group of Christians.
Wednesday was a day off and Jane had arranged for Andy, Andrew and myself to go canoeing down the Ardeche River with a friend of hers, Matt. Matt is an outward-bound instructor and he and his wife Gale had been missionaries in Morocco for twenty years.
Due to a change in government policy towards Christians there was a knock on the door one evening and Matt was arrested, taken to the police station, questioned for a number of hours and then driven straight to the airport and put on a plane out of the country. Gale and their two boys followed 8 months later. Matt and Gale loved Morocco but are now rebuilding their lives in France.
Matt drove us for about an hour through beautiful countryside to the banks of the Ardeche River where we set about hiring canoes and booking our 4hr river trip. We would be encountering some rapids on our trip so it was important to be properly equipped with crash helmets and life jackets.
Most of the river was quite a gentle paddle but we probably encountered 4 or 5 sets of rapids and whilst these rapids were only considered a 2 on the ‘rapid’ scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the most violent) you underestimated the fast flowing water and the ‘rock strewn river’ at your peril. The idea when encountering a rapid in a canoe is that you actually ‘power through’ the rapid trying at all costs not to get broadside onto the current and thus risk being ‘dumped’ out of the canoe and being smashed against the rocks and boulders of the river bed. At one stage we stopped by one of these rapids and had something to eat and were amazed at the number of canoeists that came down the river not wearing crash helmets.
On a couple of the more exciting rapids we ‘powered through’ and then dragged our canoes out onto the riverbank and carried them back up stream to have another go.
After taking in some terrific scenery on our way down the river we had a surprise around the final bend when we paddled under the fabulous Pont d’arc, a limestone bridge much like Durdle Door.
It was time to head back to the Gite and start setting up for a BBQ in which we had invited all the various groups and friends we had met on our trip up to that point. It was also a chance for the groups that we had met to meet each other. In a typically French way we had planned to eat and fellowship together as well as worship and pray. The evening proved to be a great success and a lot of fun.
On Thursday evening we travelled to Donzere to join again with some of the same people for an evening of worship. This now happens every two weeks in someone’s house and started after Jane and the teams visit last year, it was really encouraging to see how a seed planted last year was now bearing fruit.
We set about cleaning and tidying the Gite on Friday before heading off in the evening to the source of the Ardeche River and to meet a man called Phillip. Phillip is the manager of a static trailer holiday park and we were able to pray and worship with him and his family for about an hour, Phillip also prophesied over a number of our team. Sadly though our time was cut short due to our need to get back but we all agreed that we would return on a subsequent visit and spend more time with Phillip and his congregation.
On our return to our Gite Chris Chilcott found an unwanted guest in her room. And whilst this is a baby it is a Scorpion.
The whole trip had been a great success and we were able to encourage the Christians that we met, however the credit must go to Jane (Churcher) for all those seeds she sowed in France many years ago, because encouragingly those seeds are bearing fruit.
And I thought this scripture was the best description of what we experienced.
Ecclesiastes 11 v 1
‘Send your grain across the seas,
and in time, profits will flow back to you.’