We live in a world of sanctuaries. We find them, create them, claim them wherever we are in a world that spins madly about us. “A man’s home is his castle,” as the saying goes. In its original context, the word “sanctuary” was used to denote a particularly sacred place, from the Latin word for “holy.” A place where the ordinary and the sanctus met, where God had reached down and acted upon creation. As time went on, the word evolved to become more than that. Because of the prevalent use of such places as safe havens, by definition they also became known as places of refuge and asylum, immunity from the world without.
Yet for the past 60 years, true sanctuaries have been hard to come by in France. This became all the more true in post-World War II France, as a scarred people searched for places to mend their physical and emotional wounds. One such avenue was through youth camps and retreat centers. For weeks and even months at a time, young French kids were sent off to camps, places where they could simply enjoy themselves and escape, just to be. Free of the post-war trauma, they were given the chance to be kids again, to know joy, and to find a safe haven therein. In 1955, two couples, a French and an American, created one such sanctuary. Its name was Champfleuri.
Located in the foothills of the Belledonne Mountain range, the camp sits perched above the Isère River valley, the cliff walls of the Chartreuse Mountains rising into the clouds from across the plain. One cannot help but first notice the giant spreading tree that stands as a centerpiece in the main courtyard of Champfleuri, or the view beyond it out over the valley. Within the stone walls that surround its property, two main buildings have stood the test of time since those early days of youth camp; a stately manor house stands to the right, now home to the offices and dining hall of the camp, and on the left is an old barn turned meeting center and recreation room. A few other buildings are scattered about the property, housing for any number of visitors, surrounding the terraced fields used mainly for games and activities. There is an air of seclusion surrounding the camp, and one thing is for certain: it is a place set apart.
That was the dream when Champfleuri was started. To be a place where youth could come and experience peace, to retreat from the world down in the valley and find rest in a mountain haven. To this day, Champfleuri is still that haven, though it has changed and broadened over the years. From tent camps for children back in the mid-19th Century, Champfleuri started holding church services, hosting church camps, winter ski and mountain camps, English classes, even eventually joining with Torchbearers International to found a Bible school and discipleship center. As Damien Reeves, the director of Torchbearers’ Bible school at Champfleuri, states, “We exist for the Church. We are a tool to be used by the Church, in all its forms.”
Therein lies the heart of Champfleuri: to be a center of formation and growth in the heart of France. Almost every weekend during the fall and spring months, and even during the winter, there are church or parachurch organizations that come to the camp for various retreats and activities, all with a desire to encounter God. In a country steeped in religious history and theory, Champfleuri is a place of personal discipleship and experiencing God, especially for youth. In fact, it is partially due to such a culture of summer camps that around 80% of Christians in France have come to faith between the ages of 14 and 25.
But the world that Champfleuri exists in today is a much changed one from those early days of tent camps. It is not a world welcoming of God, or faith in Christ. It is reported that less than 3% of France is of Protestant belief, and of the overwhelming majority of Catholics less than 10% attend weekly mass. From a governmental level, one of the key values in the French system is the idea of laïcité, or as most commonly translated, secularism. Absent in the affairs of the state is the involvement of religion; God is a private thing, and religion a personal matter to be kept to oneself. And so it is that Champfleuri is a rarity in its own country, one of less than thirty Evangelical camps in all of France. In a place where Protestant churches and organizations find themselves denied land or building permits again and again with no explanation from the government, and where even the camp’s attempts at getting a certificate to officially teach mountain training classes is refused over and over, Champfleuri is sacred ground.
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We spent the weekend up at Champfleuri a few weeks ago. With around 20 other students from Le FEU (Foyer Evangélique Universitaire), a local student ministry here in Grenoble, we caravanned up the winding mountain roads and packed into the sunlit dormitories for two days. There was game playing and meal sharing and song singing, but the main purpose was to simply retreat, to pull away for 48 hours as a body and look back on the year behind, and prepare for the one ahead. Students clustered in the upstairs room of the refurbished barn, gathering around a piano to worship together. At various points different students stood in front of the room and read selections from scripture, giving encouragement to their peers and a challenge to persevere. In small groups they shared with each other what God had been teaching them over the last year, and what the hopes and dreams and vision for their ministry was moving forward. And then they played, and played hard. Soccer, volleyball, capture the flag, even a ragtag game they had invented akin to rugby (but with less clearly defined rules). It was two days of reveling in the faithfulness of God, and the joy of sharing life together.
Over that weekend, I couldn’t help but wander the grounds of Champfleuri, looking out over the valley below, standing in the shade of the broad-leafed tree and hearing the stone fountain in the courtyard as it gurgled without pause behind me. And as I watched and as I participated, I kept coming back to a singular word, an idea. The idea that the grounds and buildings within the walls of Champfleuri were and are a place of refuge for those who have withstood the world outside, a world hostile to the Gospel, and are in need of rest. A place where the hopeless can come and be reminded where it is found, where empty people can come and be filled again. In a world seemingly without God, Champfleuri is a place where many have found Him. A holy place.
It is, in all senses, a Sanctuary.
Pray for Champfleuri. Pray that it will continue to be both a center of truth and discipleship, and a place where Christ is found. Pray that it could be used as a place to rekindle the fire in the hearts of French Christians who come there for rest. Pray for the staff and the vision of Champfleuri as they move forward and want to see more and more young people changed by the Gospel, and grounded in the Bible. Pray that Champfleuri would continue to be a light to the world, and for its protection (on a spiritual level and on a governmental level). And praise God for the lives that have been changed there.
To catch a glimpse of this unique place, check out the pictures here: Portraits:Champfleuri