The French do not wear T-shirts. What I mean is, the T-shirt isn’t considered a means of fashion or expression – especially not a shirt that announces a religious opinion such as “Jews for Jesus.” Religion has no place in French society, or at least not in public. Reason is god and the secular state the religion. People are expected to keep religious beliefs personal and mostly hidden. Should students, in their classrooms, wear a small cross or Star of David, they are asked to cover them beneath their shirts – just as the Muslim head covering is forbidden in schools. Religious women are denied the right to insist on being treated by women doctors. Government employees are not to wear any distinctively religious apparel whatsoever while in its employ.
This legal and cultural construct can be a challenge for those of us committed to raising a visible story on the streets of Paris. However, our countercultural clothing can also help us connect with some who are not used to showing their colors. Jewish people are often impressed that we defy the rules by wearing Jews for Jesus shirts. The fact that we are willing to identify publicly as Jews often overpowers whatever later objections they might have to the “for Jesus” part.
It is this that allowed for a unique opportunity. Every year the Jewish community tries to come out and take a stand for Israel on “Yom Yerushalayim” (Jerusalem Day). Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well. Either the government denies permission for the event on public grounds for the aforementioned reasons, or those who dislike Israel and the Jewish people picket or block the path. Last year there was a near riot.
This year the community decided to privatize (or rent out) a park, hire security and make it an invitation-only event for approximately 2,000 Jewish people.
Every year Jews for Jesus has asked to be part of the Jerusalem Day celebration and has been denied. But surprisingly, this year we were granted the right to attend and to put up a Jews for Jesus stand! We set up our stand between the Jewish Humanists and the Jewish Ecologists, and behind us was a religious Jewish bookstand!
Well, one of our volunteers said, “I’ll come and help, but I won’t wear a T-shirt! I’m just glad we got invited – I don’t want to provoke anyone!” Well, by the end of the day those of us who had worn our Jews for Jesus T-shirts were so involved in different conversations and in getting contact information that our volunteer asked if we had an extra T-shirt that he could wear.
While we were there, a representative of the Jewish radio station asked if I wanted to sign up for a raffle. I usually don’t do that, but it was a chance to chat, so I did. As I was filling out my information, they asked me to do a radio interview, so I had an impromptu opportunity to share the gospel with an audience of some 30,000 listeners.
Another fun surprise occurred with a DJ who was going from stand to stand, remarking with funny quips and informal spiels on the various displays. When he got to our stand, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I introduced myself and tried to start a conversation, but he did not want to interact with me. Then he said loudly into the microphone, “Jews for Jesus – again! They don’t seem to go away and they’ve been around for years, so you might as well come by and get into a debate with them – well worth it!”
Breaking cultural mores can be difficult, but it can certainly prove to be fruitful here in France. Postscript: a few days later, I received a call from the Jewish radio station “live” on the air to announce that I was the “lucky winner” of the raffle!
Joshua Turnil leads our work in Paris. In addition to being a gifted evangelist, Joshua is a talented musician. Listen to samples from his CD Praise and Glory here (Scroll down to the “details” tab where you’ll find play buttons to sample each song on the track listing.)
Learn more about Joshua here.