Guest commentary by Jim Nedelka
NEW YORK – “That could have been my daughter!”
This realization hits teaching elder Charles Atkins, pastor of L’Eglise Evangelique Française de New York, during conversation over coffee and pineapple upside down birthday cake following worship on Sunday, November 15. Known colloquially as the French Church, the congregation has been a member of the Presbytery of New York City since the mid-19th century.
“I have a daughter in her third year at Columbia.” He exhales a sigh filled with a mix of nervous laughter, shock and relief that she is stateside.
For Atkins, it’s the second time in 11 months that the 47-year-old pastor has reached out to his congregation to ask, “Is everyone all right?”
Worship on Sunday morning came less than 48 hours after a coordinated terror attack in Paris killed more than 10 dozen civilians in three locations.
Once again, people of good will around the world prayed on a Sunday morning for souls lost to violence. Similar prayers have been offered before by the faithful of French Church. At the turn of the 20th century, they prayed for one of their own, a 31-year-old mission worker lost while serving in French North Africa. A century ago they mourned five of their own who fell on the fields of battle during World War I; they prayed for their families and the Liberation of Paris when it was occupied by Nazis during the WWII. They mourned with their fellow New Yorkers during the aftermath of 9/11; in solidarity today, the congregation joined the world mourning what some news commentators have labelled Friday’s attacks as France’s 9/11. In a way, the world’s – and specifically Americans’ – outpouring of affection for Paris with social media postings of “Nous sommes tous Parisiens” respectfully echoes Le Monde’s headline of September 12, 2001: “Nous sommes tous Américains.”
Sadly, this is the second time in less than 11 months, the French Church has mourned the victims of a massacre in Paris. This time, tragedy did not befall their brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews who live there. Yet, while the congregants here have not outwardly expressed worry, incidents like Friday’s attack bring home a reality for them – as for their relatives overseas – the possibility of death by terrorism.
For Atkins, the mass murder at Bataclan Concert Hall during a performance by a group with the tragically-ironic name Eagles of Death Metal is particularly jarring.
During his younger days he was a touring musician and singer. “I’ve performed at Batalclan Hall, I’ve recorded at Bataclan Hall,” he said.
While Charles Atkins’ sermon addressed the gnawing question, “Porquoi?” (Why?), like many others, he could not supply a rational explanation for irrational acts.
What he could supply Sunday morning was some encouragement and a little bit of comfort. Just before the benediction, Atkins paused, looked over his congregation and announced that he had just received a text from the Scott Herr, pastor of The American Church in Paris; the two congregations have been developing a partnership during the two years of Atkins’ pastorate.
Atkins was happy to report that Herr had accounted for everyone in his congregation.
JIM NEDELKA is a freelance writer, editor and broadcast/podcast producer in New York. His maternal grandmother was of French extraction. He is a ruling elder and member of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church & Neighborhood House.