Masses gathered around the charred Notre Dame Cathedral on Easter Sunday 2019 to proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Their collective hope for the sanctuary’s future reconstruction hung as heavy as the smell of ashes. Across the Pond, another French resurrection was taking place in the least likely of places.
I was leading the contemporary service at a large United Methodist Church in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. I’d been there a couple years and things were really moving in the right direction. Attendance was up and we’d hired an incredible worship leader, Noel Johnson. Noel lived the kind of adventure in his 20s that many of us only dream of—traveling to Peru and deciding to stay, unheard of for a former Baptist kid from Alabama. There, Noel met his wife, Fanny, who’d moved to Peru from France. They got married and returned to the States to raise a family and answer God’s call to lead worship in our humble gymnasium.
I had said au revoir to a wonderful Palm Sunday service the weekend before, examining the backs of my eyelids, when Noel texted me that Fanny’s younger sister, Salomé, wanted to be baptized. This, of course, would be no big deal were it anyone else, but Salomé didn’t speak English.
I should rephrase: Baptism is always a big deal. This felt like a bigger deal.
Salomé was in born and raised in Belgium, spoke only French, and until visiting Alabama that spring, had never attended Christian worship. Previously, she wouldn’t even talk about faith with her sister or brother-in-law. Later, she told me she thought Christians were science-deniers and lunatics. But during her visit, probably out of respect, she came to church with them, quietly sitting in the back not understanding a word of the songs or sermons. Over the course of several weeks, God showed up anyway.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was just like something God would do. A few weeks later, we would celebrate Pentecost, and preachers across the world would have the audacity to suggest that 2,000 years ago the Holy Spirit enabled folks to hear and understand the Good News in their own diverse and cosmopolitan languages from a bunch of backwoods bumpkins who spoke with a thick Galilean accent. They probably said things like “y’all.”
Turns out the language of love is universal.
I remember the first time I went on a mission trip to a non-English speaking country. I asked the director about what kinds of communication are universal. Laughter? Crying? Music? What else? It turns out there are a lot. You don’t have to speak the language to understand the joy of a proud parent, the sorrow of a love lost, or the pain of a hungry belly. Often our emotions are written on our faces for the world to see. In fact, I might even wager that we spend more time trying to keep our true emotions hidden than we do expressing them.
Call it an evolutionary adaptation or the Holy Spirit or both. Salomé heard a word of grace. Through the music or the smiles or God speaking directly to her spirit, she received the good news for in a language her soul understood.
That week we shared a meal together. Alabama pork barbecue is also a universal language. We talked about repentance and salvation and grace and baptism and finding a church in Belgium and even planting a church in Belgium … all, of course, through her sister’s translation with all the obvious awkward delays. But awkwardness melts away in the presence of good food and good friends.
With help from Fanny and the United Methodist Office of Discipleship Ministries, we found the baptismal liturgy in French and quickly agreed Fanny would read it. Even if you don’t speak any French, I suspect you’ll recognize the historic questions:
Te repens-tu de tes péchés?
Veux-tu renoncer à tout mal,
et ne mettre ta confiance que dans la grâce de Dieu?
Es-tu prêt à confesser ta foi en Jésus-Christ,
ton Seigneur et Sauveur,
et à te soumettre à sa souveraineté?
Acceptes-tu les Saintes Ecritures de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament comme règle de conduite divine pour ta foi et ta vie en Jésus-Christ?
Veux-tu être baptisé dans cette foi,
être accepté dans l’Eglise de Jésus-Christ,
lui rester fidèle toute ta vie?
Es-tu prêt à mener une vie chrétienne selon la grâce que Dieu t’a accordée?
I didn’t even translate. And no one thought I needed to.
This is the place where I say something about the importance of crosscultural discipleship or diversity. But the truth is, you already know that. You already know that Jesus included tax collectors and zealots, institutional leaders and enemies of the state, sex workers, fishermen, and children. You know that Phillip didn’t hesitate to include an Ethiopian eunuch and that Peter and Paul practically rewrote their Scriptures to include Gentiles. These are things we all already know. The New Testament is full of these examples.
We just need to live it.
Easter in the South is always magnificent, with azaleas in full bloom and trees budding in that neon green new-growth color so bright it glows. The ladies wore colorful dresses. The men wore seer-sucker. And we all had the naiveté of prepandemic church. The house was full. The music woke your soul. The story of the resurrection practically preached itself.
After the sermon, Salomé joined me in the waters. She chose full immersion, not for theological reasons but for the pure tactile experiential nature of the sacrament. The family gathered around. The music swelled. And an older sister recited a liturgy that no one but God and her younger sister understood.
Yet everyone understood.
Salomé, je te baptise au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit.
She went down into the waters of baptism and arose a new sister of the church, and a symbol that beauty springs from ashes, that the Holy Spirit still speaks in unlikely tongues, and that God is still in the business of resurrection.
And so, on Resurrection Sunday morning in the heart of Alabama, following fire that destroyed the iconic the Notre Dame cathedral, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism in the other language of love. It was beautiful. It was extraordinary and at the same time, strangely normal. It was a reminder that God is still in the business of resurrection.
Le Christ est ressuscité!
He is risen indeed.
Clay Farrington is the lead pastor at Irondale United Methodist Church on the east side of Birmingham, Alabama. He’s written curriculum and articles for several ministry publications and cohosts Armchair Theology, a tastefully irreverent podcast and online ministry breaking down Scripture cover-to-cover. Clay loves Bible hot-takes, finding God in nature, and seeing folks grow on toward perfection in love. He lives with his awesome wife and family in Birmingham, Alabama, and hopes you’ll give him a shout if you’re ever in town. You can find him at armchairtheo.com or wherever there are great tacos.
One thought on “A French Baptism in Alabama”
Clay, this is so outstanding. You have been anointed to bring people together in such a special way!!! May God continue to bless you in your ministry!!! Proud to be kin!