Remembering: Honouring the Peace–Makers

The story about the people of Le Chambon and the pastor of the small Reformed Church,

Yme Woensdregt

As I’ve been reflecting on the horrible and tragic circumstances of the last few weeks resulting in the deaths of Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo, I was reminded again of a story I’ve written about before in this column.

It’s the story about the people of Le Chambon and the pastor of the small Reformed Church, André Trocmé. Le Chambon is a small town in the mountainous region of southeastern France, near the border with Switzerland. Early in World War 2, the 3,000 people of this small village decided they couldn’t stand by while the Nazis implemented their program of exterminating Jews and others whom they considered to be less than human.

They were guided in this decision by André Trocmé, who was convinced that the villagers had an obligation to take a stand against this terrible wrong. In his preaching, in Bible studies, in talking with his people, Pastor Trocmé convinced his small congregation to begin hiding the desperate refugees who were beginning to flock towards the border with Switzerland as they sought sanctuary. The villagers were ordinary people, with ordinary concerns: raising their children, making ends meet, surviving this terrible war. Like many, they were afraid of what might happen to them if the Germans discovered what they were doing.

Despite the danger, they agreed with Pastor Trocmé to risk their lives, disobey the powerful German army, defy the Führer, and refuse to comply with the orders of the pro–Nazi Vichy government established by the Germans in Paris.

It seems incredible to me that they should dare to do such a dangerous thing. How could a small village hope to withstand the mighty German empire? How would they endure? Yet they did. Goodness happened in Le Chambon. The Chambonais saved human lives at the peril of their own.

These were not heroic people. They were small–time farmers, struggling to make a living. They had no power to match the mighty Nazi war machine. The struggle in Le Chambon happened in the privacy of peoples’ homes. Husbands and wives and children sat across the kitchen table from each other, trying to figure out what to do. Quietly and faithfully, they made decisions which became turning points in that struggle.

The Chambonais hid Jews in their homes, sometimes for as long as four years. They forged ID and ration cards for the refugees, and helped them over the border to safety in Switzerland.

They were not fighting to liberate their country or their village. On the contrary, their resistance put their little village in grave danger of massacre, especially in the last two years of the war when the Germans became increasingly desperate. Under the guidance of their spiritual leader, they acted in accord with their consciences in the middle of a very bloody, hate–filled war. They acted on their conviction that their duty was to help their neighbours in need.

They decided that they could not hate or kill any human being. They refused to do so. Human life was too precious. It could not be taken for any reason. They chose to save as many lives as they could, even if it meant endangering their own lives.

They did all this for only one reason. Their consciences were formed by the gospel. They were Christian people. They belonged to Jesus Christ. Their primary loyalty was to God. They lived by different rules than the society around them.

The story of Le Chambon is eloquently told by Philip Hallie in a wonderful book called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. It is the compelling story of ordinary people who became extraordinary, not by attempting something spectacular, but by being faithful in their ordinary day–to–day lives. It is a story of faith, courage and heroism.

Such incredibly simple yet difficult choices have the power to change the world. It certainly did for the refugees who were hidden and protected in Le Chambon. We too can choose to make peace, to be peace–makers, in this world. Every November 11, when I hear the words “Lest we forget”, I remember the Chambonais and their pastor, André Trocmé. I remember because of what these people did. Remembering gives me courage and a reason to act.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook