In the Shadow of Notre Dame: Praying for Fire in Paris, France

Notre Dame after the fire (Paris, France)

On the night of April 15, struggling to believe what I was hearing from local news, I looked out my apartment window in Paris and saw flames rising from the roof of Notre Dame.

Disbelief gave way to grief. Next came anger, as I foolishly scoffed at the government for not having some plan for this exact situation. (As if they could stop medieval wood from burning like yellow field grass in August!) Then came desperation, as I hoped against hope, like the onlookers singing “Ave Maria” as they watched their church burn.

When despair finally set in, I dug out my old hard drive from a dusty drawer, and I scrolled through photos of the cathedral like a boy sorting through pictures after a high school breakup. “All things are temporary,” I said to my wife, as I accepted fate and headed to bed. “I know,” she replied, “but I never thought that Our Lady would be gone in our lifetime.”

More Than a Feeling

Perhaps these responses seem sensational, even out of place for a Protestant. But Notre Dame wasn’t just a building. She was a part of my life.

I first stumbled through her doors when I was sixteen while backpacking through Europe with my family. In my twenties, I regularly passed by when traveling through the heart of the Seine. Over a decade later, I took my fiancé to see her. We clipped a bronze love lock on the adjacent bridge just hours before I proposed.

And then, only three days before the fire, I sat outside the cathedral basking in the soft yellow sun as it battled the nippy morning air. With my back against her ancient stones, I studied and prayed as I watched tourists taking photos—like I had often done—while they waited in line to experience Notre Dame for the first or second or tenth time in their lives. No matter how many times you visited, she never grew old or less mythical.

A Morning Revelation

I awoke the morning after the fire with a slightly different reaction than I had the night before. In addition to grief, there was also a sense of conviction. How deeply I had mourned the destruction of this cathedral—and rightly so. But how little I have mourned an even greater tragedy in my midst.

In some ways, I felt like I was weeping for the wrong church.

Notre Dame matters, to be sure. It is a transcendent sign of what God’s image-bearers can achieve when we work together to create and build to the glory of God (Gen. 1:28). We should never confuse the truth that the church is not a building with the lie that church buildings don’t matter.

On the other hand, God does not dwell in a house built by human hands (Acts 17:24). He has heaven for a throne and the earth for a footstool. We could never hope to build a house for him (cf. Isa. 66:1). And yet the Lord does have a house here, not made from stones carved in French quarries but from the living stones who are joined to Christ (1 Pet. 2:5).

“I felt like I was weeping for the wrong church.”

It is right to grieve for what was lost in the destruction of an ancient church. But we should grieve even more for the untold millions in Paris who have yet to find Christ and his eternal church.

Bringing Light to This City

After working in the Middle East for many years, my wife and I recently moved back to France. We made this move in part because we knew of more evangelical churches in the Persian Gulf than we did in Paris, the City of Lights.

If you count the Banlieue (the suburbs), there are around eleven million people living in Paris. Nearly two million of these are Muslims, many of them refugees. One kid I met this week had left Afghanistan, bribed his way through Iran, worked his way through Turkey, boated to Greece, begged his way through Italy, and finally ended up on the streets in France.

His story is far from unique. Train stations and back alleys are now littered with wire tents that serve as homes for families from across the devastated Middle East. Most scrape by with nothing. Park facilities are their only bathrooms. All of them are waiting—as much as six to twelve months—for asylum papers, which are anything but guaranteed. It’s their only hope of avoiding deportation to the war-torn and famine-ridden places they have fled.

The vast majority of these refugees have little to no interaction with Christians. This means their chance of hearing the gospel in Paris is scarcely better than it was in the majority-Muslim nations they once called home.

Fanning Europe into Flames

The problem in Paris is only compounded by the other nine million European nationals who see the Christian faith as little more than cultural heritage or a part of their personal history. That’s not to say there is no gospel witness in Paris at all. Yet the church here is a small flame compared to the great need—and the unprecedented opportunity—in this city.

And though the world collectively mourns the partial loss of a glorious work of art, most give little thought to the massive need for the gospel here. But that is something that must change if we want our priorities to line up with those of our king (Matt. 6:33).

We can begin this change by not asking if we should go but how we can go to the nations to serve people in places like this. We can give to support the work of missionaries already on the field around the world, including Paris. And above all, we can pray that the gospel would become a consuming fire in this city—not the kind that destroys a church building, but the kind that builds the church (Matt. 3:11) with an eternal glory that can never be quenched (Heb. 12:28–29).

Joe Westbrook lived in the Middle East for several years where he worked with a multicultural church plant. He and his wife currently live in Paris, France, where they work with the Muslim diaspora and displaced refugees.