I’m a church planter in Paris. To some people I may as well be a church planter in Disney Land. In the popular imagination Paris is a vacation destination. Tourists come to peruse the shops, eat fine food, and visit the architectural marvels of a truly charming city. But juxtaposed with the glamour of the Champs-Élysées and the beauty of the grand boulevards are real people struggling to live.
It’s a jarring sight the first time you see a family huddled under a blanket in winter next to a Louis Vuitton store, but after you’ve been in the city a while it quickly becomes common. A recent study estimated over 3,000 homeless people living on the streets of Paris. There are refugees from Syria, migrants from Africa and Eastern Europe, and a host of others who have made their way to Paris looking for a better life. Instead, many have found themselves living on the streets alone. They often become fixtures of a certain road or corner sitting on streets the way mailboxes do. Occasionally someone approaches them, but the vast majority of people pass by without ever seeming to be aware that they are there.
Homelessness is an isolating condition. People ignore you or they are suspicious of you, so they keep their distance. But it is often poor social ties that leave people with nowhere else to go. Healthy and functioning relationships are the net that catch people who fall on hard times. A Polish man sleeping in the entrance of a bank a few blocks from our apartment said plainly, “I’m on the street because of broken relationships.” He had a difficult relationship with his parents, and he had a wealthy brother with whom he didn’t get along. Many others in such straits echos his story, speaking of estranged children, deceased spouses, and feuding families.
The small team that makes up our church plant attempts to get to know our neighbors on the street. Our efforts are meager. We talk to the homeless people in our neighborhood, and a few times a month we take them sandwiches, coffee, and soup. For some, the food and coffee are enough, but for many, they simply want someone to talk to. We ask questions, we listen, and if they want, we pray. It’s a small offer of community and a bridge toward friendship. Whatever social change we may or may not see in the years ahead, we must continue to offer genuine caring relationships to those who truly feel alone.
Read more stories of hope and heartbreak in the Summer 2018 symposium on social isolation here.