The Courage and Impact of DIY Humanitarians
Largely unnoticed in European history books is the tiny French village of Le Chambon. Mountainous, impoverished, and easily overlooked, the small population of Le Chambon represents a miracle of unparalleled compassion.
During the four years of the German occupation of France in the 1940’s, this sleepy Protestant town assisted nearly five thousand Jews, most of them children, to navigate Nazi-occupied France into neutral Switzerland. Under the leadership of a local minister named Andre Trocme, hundreds of ordinary Chambonnais risked certain death to rescue, house, and forge identities for the Jewish refugees of World War II.
History books tell us it is great men and great armies who make history.
Compared to the military operations of WWII, the story of Le Chambon is a small one. In a world where moral action is often deemed worthy by its impact on the greatest number of people, ordinary individuals affecting the lives of few are easily overlooked. In the grand scheme of history, a few French eccentrics in Le Chambon did virtually nothing to stop Hitler’s war machine and death camps. Their mountainous village was a blip on the map, a tiny irrelevant drop in the bottomless ocean of war.
[Rev Andre Trocme and Jewish Children]
But in the secret rooms and converted attic spaces in Le Chambon, the actions of a Protestant minister and a few dozen allies were far from insignificant. They believed that God acts in stealth ways, under the radar, and so should they also. They believed that Christian compassion is tangible verb of purpose, a fog of goodness filtering under doorframes and through air conditioning vents, wafting beneath kitchen tables, and settling in the floorboards of newly painted safe rooms.
They believed each individual life saved was one step closer to the end of the war and the eventual redemption of humanity. Despite any criticism of their tireless work in this century or the last, the Chambonnais remind us how,
“Real people with their own proper names saved real human beings in that village. And these precious few people count.”
I first read the story of Le Chambon in a graduate school class, and for many, the compassion of these unlikely French commoners brought us to tears. For the Chambonnais, the question of Nazism wasn’t how could God allow such evil to occur, but how does God work through ordinary people to combat such evil. Rather than over-theologizing and over-analyzing, the Chambonais jumped in headfirst.
They didn’t wait for a conference on social change or a diploma to hang on an office wall. They acted not on an influx of information, but an influx of human compassion.
For the Chambonnais, the humanitarian equation was simple.
“How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.”
Guided by true feelings of empathy, they met in their one room church, trained themselves, and changed the world.
As modern people looking back on history, we have the unique ability to romanticize and deify its dissidents into super-human saints, immortalized in stained glass. The courage of the Chambonnais seems almost Marvel Comic worthy, existing in a time and place outside the human experience.
And as we face the most pressing challenges of our time, it’s easy to wish for the likes of William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi. If somehow we could resurrect them from martyrdom, melt down the statues, snip out the date on the calendar in their honor, and bring them back to lead the charge for justice, equality, and sanity.
Yet it is us who are called to these troubling times. Not Thomas Jefferson or Eleanor Roosevelt. Frederick Douglass or Dorothy Day. It is us whom God has chosen for today.
It is our resources and talents. Backgrounds, interests, and networks that were set in motion thousands of years ago to be the perfect fit for the challenges of these times. There is truly no one like you. No one as impeccably created and qualified to impact the lives of others. And now is your chance to unwrap those gifts and let them see the light of day.
Hallie, P. (1979). Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. New York: Harper & Row.
Photo Credit: St Vitus Cathedral, Wikepedia.org