Deciding to plant a church somewhere changes your view of that place; Monday morning I realised that, for me at least, walking in Paris isn’t what it used to be.
I took the train in to the city and got off at the station in Châtelet-Les Halles. The station sits beneath a large mall, the Forum des Halles, which is one of the biggest shopping centres in Paris. All around the Forum are side streets with stores, restaurants, boutiques and museums of various kinds. Though I had work to do, I decided to walk around some of these side streets before settling down comfortably in a sofa at Starbucks and enjoying the day.
The walk ruined that plan. Though I know the area well, I had never walked through it slowly; in Châtelet, you’re often in a hurry to get to whatever you came there to visit. This time, I didn’t hurry, and a slow walk through the streets made me see things I had never noticed before, or at least not in the same way.
The leisurely walk came to a grinding halt on one street, the Rue Saint-Denis. When you turn onto the street, you immediately know what this place is about.
Video stores, novelty shops, private dance clubs, sexual massage parlours, and movie theatres, all these are piled in next to one another, with the occasional sandwich stand between.
Sex is the main activity on the Rue Saint-Denis, and is known to be one of the two main hubs of prostitution in the city.
The Rue Saint-Denis is one of the oldest streets in Paris; its route was laid out in the 1st century A.D. by the Romans. And it turns out that the sex trade is not new here—it has been the main activity of the Rue Saint-Denis since the Middle Ages.
I observed that, like many side streets in Paris, it is also home to a large number of homeless people. On Monday morning it was pouring rain, and sitting on doorsteps between the sex shops were several groups of shabbily dressed men and women trying to keep dry.
As I walked, I felt my shoulders progressively hunching under the weight of it all. Image after image fought for my attention. Here there is a sign showing the different types of sensual massage one can purchase and windows displaying row after row of sex toys. In the distance, a man laying under sheets of cardboard, trying to get dressed. The cardboard keeps falling over, and he keeps trying to put it back over himself to hide his nakedness. Before I can get there to hold it up for him, he gives up and stands naked long enough to pull his pants on. The doors of the sex shops aren’t doors at all, but curtains blocking the interior from view; one curtain was slightly parted, and a man stood just inside, smoking a cigarette. He locked eyes with me for a moment, giving me a glimpse of the emptiest expression I have ever seen on a man’s face, then looked away and closed the curtain.
It was hard to work after that. I went to Starbucks and tried to concentrate, but the enormity of what I had just seen kept coming back to me. We will soon be living in this community—probably not on the Rue Saint-Denis, but certainly not far. This is our place—no, this is God’s place. And it has been occupied by the sex trade for centuries.
I thought of Paul’s question in 2 Corinthians 2.15-16:
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
Certainly not me. We have been called to spread “the fragrance of God” to these people, but what can we do against such an onslaught? What can we do for such need? We are not sufficient for these things. No one is—right?
The battle is too big for us. But not for God. We are not sufficient; we are not up to the task. But God is.
Paul answers his own question a few verses later, in 2 Corinthians 3.4-6:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
The battle is too big for us. But not for God. We are not sufficient; we are not up to the task. But God is. And he is with us—when God sends us, his sufficiency fills our lack.
So in the meantime, we pray for the Rue Saint-Denis. We pray for the ministry that has not yet touched its inhabitants—its slaves. We pray that God will be sufficient for these things, and we have this ironclad promise: He will be.