Student at L’Abri, Malina Abrahamsson, has written an insightful article for Swedish Christian paper “Dagen”.
The municipality L’Abri brings together young and old with big life issues
– Does anyone have a question? It’s quiet for a while. A group of ten people around the table are thinking, while they enjoy the lentils set before them. A young American opens up concerning God’s intervention in life. He has tried to pray, but only in silence. “Does prayer work at all?”, he wonders. The conversation that follows becomes both philosophical and personal, sometimes intense, even loud, but always respectful.
Lunch conversations like this take place four days a week at L’Abri. They are called “formal lunches”. Anyone can ask any question they like. It can be anything from your favorite story to the problem of evil.
Today, we’re meeting Canadian Richard Bradford. For 17 years he has worked full time for L’Abri – two years ago he and his wife Karen took over the main responsibility for the Swiss branch. “L’Abri is a place for honest questions where the intellectual and emotional go hand in hand. It is a municipality based on hospitality and studies – but at the same time, it is difficult to capture L’Abris’s essence in words. My in-laws have still not understood what I’m working with” Richard says with a laugh.
Richard Bradford came to L’Abri first time in 1993. He was 27 at the time, and had a few years prior given up on his Christian faith. He describes his life as a complete chaos. “A friend of mine, said that I needed to put my belief in something. He suggested L’Abri and I went, but kept my luggage unpacked for the first couple of weeks, since I did not expect to stay long. But something happened. For the first time in my life, I met Christians who took my questions seriously, and just like myself, was interested in art, movies and culture. I stayed 8 months”.
Many who comes to L’Abri, just lie Richard, has grown up in the church, but has been hurt along the way and left the faith. Some end up simply cynical, others are longing back to God. When the American missionaries Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded L’Abri in 1955, they wanted to provide a safe haven where people could ask existential questions. The french word “L’Abri” means shelter. The Schaeffer couple opened up their home, at start just for their daughters friends from college who wanted to discuss religion, but later, as the word got around, for people from all over the globe. Then, like now, reliance on the Bible is central, like the conviction, that the Christian life encompasses all of life and is relevant to how we regard everything from art to politics.
Since the days of the Schaeffers, thousands of students have ventured to the Swiss L’Abri. They have taken the train along the turquoise lake Geneva, jumped on the bus in the wine town of Aigle, ascended winding roads up the mountain to relax in front of Bellevue – a brown, wooden Chalet in three storages, that functions as student quarters. The view from the villas balconies is wonderful: Snow clad alpine mountain tops and wide reaching forrests. The soundscape consists of cowbells and intensive bird song and add to this: the landscape change with the weather. At times, the mountain tops appear somber, but in the summer evenings they are colored rose by the sun. When thunder strikes, they act as specials in a spectacular, heavenly fireworks. “Nature here, is proof of God’s existence” as a student expressed it.
But not all are convinced of God’s existence. To L’Abri arrives seeking agnostics as well as disillusioned Christians. All receive the option of asking questions without being judged, interrogated or distracted (students are recommended not to use the internet while at L’Abri). “Many who come here, have deep personal questions attached to identity and self worth, others struggle with specific theological questions and a fourth group are looking to intensely study philosophical or spiritual matters”, Richard explains. “Our job is to facilitate and support workers as well as students”. Today, there’s 10 employees and roughly 32 students. Some stay a whole term, others a few weeks or just a couple of days. Approximately half are Northern American, the rest from all over the world.
20 year old Amarie Lee from California has spent a term at L’Abri. At home in Apple Valley, in the middle of the California desert, she struggled with fear, were anxious about the future and dared not go outside at times. One day, she read a book where L’Abri is mentioned and after reading the homepage, she felt she needed to go, even if it meant leaving the safety zone.
“It’s my first travel abroad, so it was a big step for me to come here. In the beginning I was very shy, but the environment is warm and hospitable, so after a while I started to talk and gradually open up. I did not expect to feel loved, but I do. People are happy to see me, they care about me. I am beginning to see life differently. Ive sensed, that I care for other people. And I am daring to try new things, like Volleyball and rock climbing”, Amarie explains descriptively.
Richard Bradford has through the years seen many examples of people, who just like Amare, finds learning just like Amarie, thanks to the fellowship. “There’s a tremendous strength in hospitality and living together. We have again and again how God uses community to heal people. It’s tremendous to see people find answers, grow and find faith”, he says.
What is it that makes life at L’Abri so special? The days follows convent-like rhythms: Three hours a day is spent in the library, where students engulf in subjects of their own choosing and three hours dedicated to work over set schedules: cooking, gardening or cleaning. Meetings occur: a stock broker from Wall Street are peeling potatoes with a man who just lost his wife to cancer, a college student are weeding with a designer from South Korea. All meals are enjoyed in community and the table is always set with hand picked flowers and candles, just as Edith Schaeffer would have liked it.
A student who appreciate the rhythm of work and study is Adriel Jeo, theology student demo Singapore. “When I’m cooking in the afternoon, it gives me a chance to process what I’ve studied in the morning. I am also learning how to have dialogue with people that I happen to disagree with”. Adriel Jeo came to L’Abri after reading Francis Schaeffers book “The God who is there”. He appreciates Schaeffers way of writing about apologetics – the defend of the Christian faith. During his month at L’Abri, Adriel has studied Christian community, brewing ideas of starting something similar in Singapore. The only thing Adriel is missing at L’Abri is worship. He has, however turned this to something positive. “It’s been helpful for me to take time on my own to pray and practice discipline”. He says. The fact, that there is no worship at L’Abri is a deliberate choice. The Christian faith implies community, but is not forced upon anyone.
At present, L’Abri is in nine countries and until 2013 there was a branch in Swedish Mölle. Richard Bradford would love to see a new opening somewhere in Scandinavia. And who knows? Perhaps a place of community and the difficult questions of life just what we Swedes need?