Oct 8th, 2016, 12:48 AM

American Church in Paris: The AUP Connection

By Tara Jamali
American Church in Paris steeple. Image credit: Alexander Baranov.
A little-known fact about AUP is that the university was founded in the basement of the American Church in Paris more than 50 years ago.

It may come as a surprise, but world-renowned universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, to name a few — started out as seminaries. The American University of Paris also has a religious connection, albeit less spiritual. AUP was founded in the basement of the American Church in Paris on the Quay d'Orsay more than 50 years ago.

While AUP moved out decades ago, the two American institutions remain close neighbors in the 7th arrondissement, their mutual proximity facilitating a strong working relationship between the church's head pastor, the Rev. Scott Herr, and AUP president Celeste Schenck.

Like AUP, the American Church in Paris is an international institution with an English-speaking congregation representing over 40 different nationalities. Students are welcome to attend church events whatever their religious affiliation. The church also hosts non-religious activities such as yoga, ballet, and karate classes. Firefighters play basketball and work out at the church gym. One of AUP's biggest annual events, the Thanksgiving dinner, is held at the church with over three hundred students and faculty in attendance. Students have remarked that the sanctuary, transformed for Thanksgiving,  looks like Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

AUP students having Thanksgiving dinner at the American Church of Paris. Photo Credit: Kevin Fore

The two institutions are also connected by people. Kristina Keenan, who graduated from AUP in 2008 and today works in AUP's Office of Outreach and Advancement, sings in the church choir at the traditional worship service on Sundays. Wishing that she had found a spiritual support earlier in her transition to Paris, she believes students can benefit from the vibrant community life at the church. "ACP is a very welcoming community," she says. "Their doors are open all the time and it's in the same neighborhood as AUP so it's easy to pop in. It's good to be a part of an environment that is spiritually founded, which students aren't going to get from their academic experience."            

The church's educational programs on faith and social issues attract many college-age students. As the church's Associate Pastor Timothy Vance notes: "It is not surprising to see these people at the meetings, because if you're in university. You're in that world of questioning and looking for conversations around important topics."

This fall the first lecture on the program was about the gay and lesbian community in church. While different cultures have different perspectives on the topic, it has become an important global issue both inside and outside the church. And like AUP, the church community is highly global and diverse.

"One of the primary values here is community," says Vance. "God has created us for relationships, for community, and we are actually far better off in an environment where there's a lot of diversity so we can not only learn something unique about other people, but have our cultural assumptions challenged." He believes it is because not everyone in the church is American, and tend to be individualistic, that there is such a strong value on community. In his experience in the United States, differences tend to drive people apart, especially on social and theological issues, resulting in the community not being as important as a particular issue. 

At this year's Thanksgiving dinner, AUP student club Baytna à Vous will again be raising raising awareness and fundraising to support Syrian refugee. Church members work with French refugee agencies and it is not uncommon for refugees to show up at the church on Sunday mornings. On Fridays, ACP partners with the American Cathedral of Paris for Friday Mission Lunch, providing free cooked lunches to the homeless in Paris. ACP is also affiliated with  SOSHelp, an English-language telephone crisis line in Paris originally located in the church. Beyond Paris, ACP has outreach and missions programs in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as in other European countries.

ACP is a Protestant church in a traditionally Catholic country, and France has a reputation for being highly secularized. ACP ministers say however that the French and Europeans are not so much hostile toward religion as uninformed about it, adding that many people in Paris — both French and other nationalities — express curiosity about the Christian faith. 

"The French have a history with the Catholic Church being tied to monarchy and power, so I understand how there's a bit of hesitation," says Billy Roberts, director of the church's Youth and Young Adult Ministry. "A lot of people in Europe don't spend as much time in church — maybe a few times as children but never regularly — so church is this kind of foreign thing. It exists. They've visited it because it has beautiful architecture, but are really uninformed on what happens in a church service or what it means to be part of a congregation." The upside to living in a secular society is having the freedom to practice the faith of choice without pressure from the outside, he adds, instead of distrust in the state and church joined as one. However, what initially formed as a safeguard from the state and the church being joined together eventually, resulted in ignorance about the church as a whole.

ACP currently has a series of lectures on mission in the church over the last 2000 years. The lectures focus on positive aspects of the church spreading out to the world, such as building hospitals and creating schools and universities worldwide, as well as not-so-positive aspects such as the colonial history of the church when it was assumed that every culture had to be converted to Christianity.     

"When Europe turned away from the church — or especially in France moved toward a more secular society — it was the abuses of the church that was rejected and not Christianity," says Vance. "When we've misused our power as a majority religion in the West, it's good that society stood up and said that's not okay. What happens in our lecture series is looking at our own history and saying, these are the things we've contributed to the world and should continue contributing to the world, and these are the things we should apologize for, realizing we've caused harm in being missionaries around the world as well."

Although Protestant, ACP maintains ties with Catholic churches. Its stained-glass windows in the sanctuary depict Catholic saints and a figurine of Pope John Paul XXIII stands at the altar alongside figurines of Protestant reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther. There is also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who preached at ACP after winning the Nobel Prize in 1964.

AUP founder Dr. Lloyd DeLamater always encouraged student involvement in the life of the American Church. AUP students volunteered at church fundraisers, dinners, theater and music events, in addition to participating in religious services. Like many AUP students, young people at ACP tend to be "Third Culture Kids". They usually have American parents living in Paris, or one American parent and one European parent, or they have grown up in different countries.

Emily Chesley, youth and young adult intern at ACP pursuing her Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary, is a TCK. "My parents were missionaries and I grew up overseas, so I was really excited about the possibility of working with other TCKs in Paris," she says. "When you grow up in another country or culture, you have experiences that connect you to other people who've had similar experiences."

Many university students grapple with finding their passion and pursuing a career path that satisfies them. While some know exactly what they want to do in life, for others the road is longer and harder. At ACP, ministers sometimes have students coming to them with questions about pursuing a calling in life. They try to take pressure off students through active listening and pointing out that you know something is a "calling" when you can't get away from it.

"I ask them what are the things that make you come alive - your work should never be something that is soul-sucking," says Roberts. "It doesn't mean there aren't challenges or difficulties along the way. Even if it's your passion there will be moments of real hard work and trying times, but it should be something that gives you life instead of taking life away from you."