On a Mission From God
Andrew Howell calls France "a different kind of jungle." Originally from Alabama, he and his wife Margaret came here eight years ago after spending the first half of the '90s in Congo (then Zaire). They find their work as Christian missionaries more difficult in France than it was in Africa.
"In France there's not an assumption that God exists," Andrew said, over coffee in a cafe in central Paris. "Africans experience the supernatural. European culture is much more skeptical," he said.
They first visited France in 1990 to study French in Albertville, in the Alps, before going to the Congo. "Our eyes were opened to a spiritual need in French culture. When you talk to people, there's a hopelessness about the future," Andrew said. At the same time, Margaret said, they fell in love with French culture. When, later, they were leaving to start their mission work in France, friends in the United States told her "better you than me." But she remembered Albertville fondly.
Proselytizing here is slow work. "I'm so cautious, I don't want to offend," Margaret said. With most French people, she feels, you can't jump directly into talking about your faith, the way you would in Africa, or the way she says missionaries do among French Muslims. "You have to build trust, build a relationship."
It's slow, sometimes demoralizing work. But on the bright side, Margaret said, "There is a certain license here to totally disagree," and that leads to free-flowing discussion. You can have a robust debate without hurting anyone's feelings. She said it's different in the southern United States, where people have more of an emotional attachment to what they think and believe.
Margaret is herself the daughter of missionaries who worked in Congo, where her father was killed. She has spent time, with Andrew, in Kentucky and Florida. Their home base in the United States is the Mission Society of United Methodists in Norcross, Ga. Both 51, Andrew and Margaret have four children, the youngest two of whom attend an American high school in Germany.
Their line of work requires a certain open-mindedness. "We have met missionaries who believe that if you drink wine, you're not a Christian. Now, that's just not going to work here," Margaret said. "When we were in Congo, we ate grubs. That's a kind of fat worm. It's not bad if it's fried. And the people there were thrilled that we ate them."
"We spend a lot of time trying to discern that which is true about the Bible from that which is cultural," Andrew said.