A MEDITATION ON ISOLATION
While Lorraine and I were travelling with my brother and sister in law in southern France we drove to Montpellier and found this address:
25 Rue de Progres
In early September of 1967, having voyaged from New York to Paris, and then to the south, I was let off by a taxi at near the Arceaux in Montpellier, France where I would study for the next year. I had to ask five people before one person understood my French well enough to take me to this door. (I had had four years of High School French with an excellent teacher, then two years of advanced College level French. I could read, understand what I read, and knew how to interpret the poetry and literature of France. I could not speak well at all.)
I learned to speak French over the next six weeks with the family Paloc, with whom I was staying. But I learned much more. Much much more. I learned hospitality. I learned of the human costs of the colonialism and anti-colonialist movements. The Paloc family were Pied-noirs, French refugees from North Africa, Morocco specifically. When the family fled with nothing but their clothes, they came here. Madam had grown up in Nimes, a nearby city. Mr. was a medical doctor and died of a broken heart within the year. The two daughters and two sons had been born in North Africa. France was a foreign place to them. They were “Etrangers”. They were also Protestants, Calvinists. They were thus double minorities in France.
Yet they welcomed me to their home...I had my own room and shared the family bathroom. They welcomed me to their table. I ate nearly every meal with them over the next six weeks. They gently corrected my pronunciation (and taught me two ways to speak, regular French and French with a Southern accent). They welcomed me into their lives, and in time, I became a part of their family.
Through their church, as a sister church of the Presbyterian Church, they had arranged several years before to welcome students from Davidson College (a good Presbyterian school) when my college began its Junior Year Abroad in France program. In the 60’s JYA programs were at least as long as the academic year. Most of us stayed over in Europe for the summer. I eventually went to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
But this year was 1967-68, a turbulent year in the US and in Europe. At the end of the year France experienced a general strike which closed down the postal service, Universities, and most other activities. The government nearly fell. I found myself in May without money, with no way to leave France, no practical way to call home, and at the mercy of the kindness of my friends.
The Paloc family put me up without any hope of fee or reward for well over a month. They fed me, loaned me money, and housed me until my check finally came from the US, and I could travel to Italy where I had a flight to Israel waiting and paid for.
Without their hospitality, I would have been isolated, lost, and worse than lonely. Their loving welcome and charity kept me whole and well. They formed my character in ways that I am still seeking to emulate.
As we live through this season of the “Pestilence”, I find myself wondering how we can address the social isolation that will have a decidedly negative effect on some of our members. Does self-quarantine mean we cannot wisely and lovingly open our hearts and homes to one or two people who may need to be given special attention? I am not medically qualified to decide on what such parameters should be. Certainly, social media will help us in our isolation. But is more required of us, in this very trying time? I have no answers, but I think the words of Jesus matter here, “I has hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you took me in.”