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OpEd: The future of religion in the underbelly of Paris. Updated with info on planned attacks on churches

There are communities that are gold mines for ISIS recruiters.

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NYC pastors Bill Devlin and Dimas Salaberrios praying with a Parisian young woman.

NYC pastors Bill Devlin and Dimas Salaberrios praying with a Parisian young woman.

 

In the underbelly of Paris, there are communities that are potential gold mines for ISIS recruiters.  They are filled with despondent young people who feel that they have been placed into the ghettos of France.  For many, everyday life is a struggle to earn enough money and to get ahead. Even if young Muslims happen to be doing well financially, they often feel only “tolerated” but not loved by the French people.

I too once had a hunger for money and a respected place within my community. I chose to become a drug dealer, and my success lead me to become a “Street God” who controlled the narcotics and drugs in communities.

As I walked the streets of Paris on its third day of national mourning, the atmosphere in its poorer communities seemed ripe for hiring of desperate young people as contract shooters.  When I was a young buck trying to make his mark on the street, I admired the drug kingpins who caused people to shake and got a kind of respect and wealth. Some of these Street Gods offered me jobs as a contract hit man. Although I was eager to deal drugs, I didn’t see any future in being an assassin for hire. I never trusted the guys who wanted to pay me to murder, because I thought that they would simply kill me after I killed for them. Unfortunately, teenagers don’t always think that far ahead.

I have known far too many teenagers who built scary reputations as $25,000 guns for hire. Their vision and logic ended in money green. However, every single one that I have known are serving time in jail right now for murder. Many will come out in the next seven years. I wonder how many of them have learned a lesson? Or even know about other peaceful and lucrative paths once they are out?

Mural of fallen "Street Gods," New York City.

Mural of fallen "Street Gods," Queens, New York City.

 

It takes a lot of motivation to make a change. Sometimes, fear of death or going back into prison checks a return to killing. But such a negative power is usually not enough to sustain a person through life. That is why, once I had my brushes with the law, my conversion to belief in Jesus Christ gave me the ability to see myself and the world differently. Faith in Jesus gave me a sustainable life despite hardships. Now, I am a pastor at Infinity Bible Church in the South Bronx.

We should help the young Muslims of France. Right at this moment, some are seeing the glory in the violent moment. ISIS recruiters must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Here, let me give a callout to my fellow Christians. We must not ignore these potential ISIS recruitment havens. We should exhibit how Jesus went among the rejected and showed them in word and deed that there is a good news that is Good. Bad news is a violent way of life that masquerades within as respect and fame. Followers of Jesus need to talk and love these young men and women, here in the United States, in France and elsewhere. France’s secularism isn’t really a good strategy. It is based on a deep disrespect of religious faith. Not too many Muslims are going to buy that idea. Radical Islam would then undoubtedly flourish. The recruiters of ISIS will say, Get back your self-respect! And once the Muslim population hits 10% in France, unprecedented trouble could reign in the country.

As I stood at Place de la Republique comforting and praying with Parisians, I was encouraged because as I witnessed how faith can soar here, particularly among younger Parisians. Every time our team stopped to pray, people flocked around in total awe wondering, what are they doing? As they comprehended that we were singling ourselves out by praying against the fear in the streets, many of the Parisians told us that they admired our courage. Really, all we were doing was praying and putting our arms around people’s shoulders. I didn’t realize that it would be such a revolutionary act.

In France, Christianity is so silent, so invisible to one's daily routine that quite honestly, the younger generation doesn't even know what it looks like. So, we try to demonstrate living faith in public.

"#PeaceForParis" Photo: AFP/Jean Jullien Studio Ltd/Jean Jullien

"#PeaceForParis" Photo: AFP/Jean Jullien Studio Ltd/Jean Jullien

 

We simply tell them that we are forming a circle of prayer for Jesus Christ to help us. They joined with excitement, some almost like kids sneaking a sip of forbidden wine. But, then, many came away saying that they sensed a power, a comfort, a love during the prayer. God was showing up with an unusual sweet presence in the prayer huddles. One time, I felt God's presence so strong that when I looked up into the clouds, beams of light seemed to shine through.

Still, as peaceful as these prayer vigils are, objections to public prayer never seem to be too far away, mostly from older Parisians. During one such prayer huddle, an angry woman, who looked to be in her sixties, seemed particularly anxious. It was as if she saw all her years of keeping God out of the public discourse was ending right before her very eyes.

She was short, clad in a brown coat, and was venomously rude. I ignored her and kept on praying.

A young lady who seemed to be in her late teens stood with her boyfriend right behind her. She was dressed like most teenagers out on a date. She told the older woman that they wanted prayer and that Paris is different now!

After their conversation, the young lady asked, "Do you know how to bless me?" Her tone was so soft and with little confidence, as if whatever she was asking she had seen take place in an old movie somewhere. Pastor Bill Devlin pulled out a small bottle of anointing oil the size of a bullet. I wanted to laugh at his uncanny resourcefulness. Pastor Bill Devlin is like a Christian "MacGyver" from the action-adventure television show who is a problem solver who always has something in his pocket for the occasion. All the young people looked on with amazement.

Her boyfriend who described himself as an atheist and had abstained from joining the prayer circle, bowed his head in reverence as his girlfriend was being personally prayed for. Pastor Bill's oil-dripped fingers made out the formation of a cross on her head as we both prayed. In a real "Street God" style, we elevated Jesus right there on the streets of hurting Paris by praying again.

France's three days of national mourning over the worst terrorist attacks in Europe in over a decade have now ended. Several local pastors are now on fire in their hearts to be bolder. They are following up with people with whom we prayed. May this be the time that we are fearless in our love and kind in our deeds!

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Update by A Journey through NYC religions:

French police believe that the Paris terrorist leader planned an attack on churches at the southern Paris suburb of Villejuif in April 2015. The plan was frustrated when waanabee terrorist Sid Ahmed Ghlam shot himself in the foot and was arrested by police after he called an ambuslance for help. The object of his wrath were two churches, including Sainte Therese Roman Catholic Church.

The area is much like Elmhurst, New York with many nationalities and religious congregations. In addition to the multi-national congregations in the Catholic churches there are French, African, Indian (Tamil), Portuguese, Armenian and other nationalities in Protestant Reformed, Lutheran, evangelical and Pentecostal churches. There are also synagogues and masjids. Religious leaders from these different faiths came together afterward the foiled April attack to develop theological materials that undermined terrorist arguments and pointed to the importance of communal unity in the face of attacks.

Sainte Therese Church in  Villejuif, suburb south of Paris. city center

Sainte Therese Church in Villejuif, suburb south of Paris. city center


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