Africa in Marseilles
“More beautiful, the life”

Three things we know about Marseilles; the number of fatal shootings, the over the top support for OM (Olympique de Marseille football club) and everyone watches the TV soap “Plus Belle la vie.” We do not talk nearly enough about the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) community in Marseilles, yet we have been there for nearly 20 years in the Northern suburbs of the city.

The community of Marseilles,
from l to r: Michel Ouedraogo, Raphaël Deillon and Jacques Lacour.

It seems important to us to say why we are there and not in Africa. The last chapter underlined the fact that the African world had expanded, we needed to be ready to meet Africa, and the African world everywhere it was present. We are happy to endorse that. It has become evident that there is a growing presence of Africa in Europe and the Americas.

This presence comes about through different ways and for different reasons. An entire Africa with its cultures, religions, traditions is now present all over the world. It is present in France, a Christian land for some and therefore hospitable, for others a land of human rights and therefore asylum.

These mostly poor people from poor countries in Africa come to look for a new life here and find themselves in these districts of inexpensive housing, which the natives have deserted over time. It is in these tower blocks of the Northern district of Marseilles that we find people from sub-Saharan Africa, from the Maghreb, Comoros Islands, Turkey, Afghanistan as well as Kurds and Syrians. The different fashions, the shop fronts, the greetings and cries at the foot of the towers, the diversity of languages, the halal butchers, the veiled women, the colourful clothes of the Comorians, the marriage processions which block the road, the overflowing prayer halls all bring us back inevitably to Africa. The refrain of the Cardinal resounds in our heads, “I love all that is of Africa.” So it is in this confusion of cultures and religions that we have the courage to go out and meet the Africa on our doorstep.

We were four in the community initially. Sadly our dear and regretted Etienne Renaud left us prematurely and we were reduced to three; Jacques Lacour, Jean-François Galtier and Raphaël Deillon. Unfortunately, Jean François who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease had also to give up his work as pastor in the two parishes St. Antoine and Notre-Dame Limite, so called because it is at the northern boundary of Marseilles. He is now in the able-bodied community of Pau-Billère.

The Parish of St. Antoine is an old traditional village of Provençe that has been swallowed up by the agglomeration of Marseilles. The inhabitants are of local Mediterranean origin. They need, in this rapidly changing world, to find again and to keep their Christian roots. Babies are baptised, catechism classes are given, the Bible is shared, young people get married, and everybody comes to funerals.

The Parish of Notre-Dame Limite is much younger and much more motley in its composition. It includes all the African, Asians and some Christians of the Oriental Churches living in 10 storied blocks as well as covering the surrounding hills with their views out to the sea. The vibes in the modern Church are warm, exotic and have a contagious fervour.
Right from the beginning of our project in Marseilles and given the makeup of the population, we have been plunged into the social and interreligious milieu. We have undertaken commitments with migrants, Muslims and the poor of the estates.

We are all convinced that an embedded presence in the housing estates is essential. It includes teaching adults who have not had the opportunity to learn to read and write, to act as a letter writer for those who do not know how to draft a letter to the Government or to fill in a form. It is an apostolate close to our hearts. We think that uniting Christian migrants be they Africans or Asians in a coming together of believers is an apostolate that will be a testimony to Christ’s love. We also think that welcoming African students of whom many are in Universities is important. We also try to meet Muslims, especially their Imams not to mention the pastoral duties of the two parishes. It all seems to go well together. We are priests waiting for a real Parish Priest who would come to lighten the work of preparing for baptisms, marriages, funerals not to mention animating liturgies, bible groups, and teaching catechism classes.

Happily, we have received frequent visitors to our community as Marseilles is on the way to Africa. Some have even offered to spend some time helping us for a few months. Geert Groenewegen joined us after having served in Africa, the Hague project, Tizi-Ouzou and St. Anne. We thank him sincerely for his services.

Since September 2014, Michel Ouédraogo has been with us as a deacon. He has already taken responsibility for the youth chaplaincy and has got involved in doing remedial teaching in the deprived areas of the housing estates. He also goes out at night as a volunteer with Secours Catholique and the social services of the city to help the homeless. He is a proud supporter of Olympique Marseille and when the matches are not broadcast on terrestrial TV he has become good at finding bars which show the match on satellite TV with very large flat screens. In this way, he has been able to follow the African football competitions. Looking at Africa from Marseilles with African supporters is a special apostolate also!

It is clear that the Parish entrusted to us ought to go beyond the care of our parishioners. The 35,000 people in our sector are always present in our hearts and minds. They are present in our daily prayers, particularly in our Community Eucharist on Mondays, and on the other weekdays when we celebrate with a small group of the faithful aware of their responsibilities in this Northern quarter of Marseilles.

This missionary project which consists in meeting the African, Muslim and migrant world and that of the poor and humble has to remain our priority. We are trying to do that as far as we are able so that life might be beautiful. God, whom we have put at the centre of our lives, is a witness to that.

Our community of three in Marseilles

From Petit Echo n° 1060 2015/04