It was a blustery autumn evening in 1970. The alpine winds whipped off Lake Geneva with unseasonal gusto. The leaves rustled in the trees and rained down in a lazy, haphazard manner, making their whirling descent toward the cobblestone streets below. Lamp posts offered stations of false warmth to pedestrians passing under their soft glow.
Night had descended upon Lausanne. A star dusted sky emerged from above the mountain ridge in the distance, a crown of celestial jewels adorning the Swiss city. But for all its splendor, he did not notice the divine display.
Jean Michel stood in front of the locked doors of his nightly haunt, one of the most popular nightclubs for miles around, and gaped at the handwritten sign posted next to the entrance: Fermé pour rénovations.
“How can they be closed on Saturday night?” he grumbled under his breath. “This is ridiculous! What club starts renovations on the weekend?”
Severely disappointed, Jean Michel turned around and began a glum march back towards the hotel, his current home. As he ambled along, his thoughts wandered over the Alps and across the Mediterranean to Oran, Algeria.
Jean Michel closed his eyes for a moment and recalled the place where he grew up: the heat of the dry summer air, the pungent aromas from the local market, and the sound of gunfire. For years, Jean Michel and his family lived in the middle of a war zone, as Algeria and France fought for control of the country in the 1950s and the early 1960s. It was a terrible and frightening time, and it was especially hard for Jean Michel to watch the unconcealed worry creep into his mothers eyes each time another bomb went off somewhere in the city. Yet, Oran was home… until 1962.
The flashback sent a shiver down Jean Michel’s spine. He shook his head and took a deep breath in, as he continued on his slow trek back to the hotel. Pushing all thoughts of the war out of his head, he focused on his immediate misery and lamented over a forfeited night of partying, even though he had already been to the club four times that week. He stopped in a small convenience store and grabbed a bottle of beer to raise his spirits. He popped the cap, gulped down a large swig of its carbonated contents, and carried on with his sluggish pace.
Drinking. Partying. Meeting girls in the clubs. Staying out all night. These were the nocturnal habits Jean Michel adopted as he settled into life in Europe after he and his family fled the fighting in Oran near the war’s end. They settled in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, living in Nîmes, Montpellier, and Sète for various periods during his teenage years. For the first time in his young life, Jean Michel felt free. Free to have fun. Free to walk around a city without the fear of an attack. Free to indulge himself in the trappings of teenage impulsiveness.
And free to make some mistakes, he brooded. That stupid check caused me six months in jail. He took another generous swig of his beer. At least, I have served my time, and now I have a good job here in Switzerland.
Jean Michel kicked a pile of leaves with the tip of his thick soled shoes. Having traveled the same route from the hotel to the club regularly, he seldom looked up to see where he was going. Most of the shops flanking his path were closed and dark, but a stream of light pouring out of open doors pulled his gaze upward. In front of him, a small church emitted the incandescent welcome, and Jean Michel noticed people, presumably church members, standing out on the sidewalk extending invitations to the tender glow inside.
Jean Michel made eye contact with one of the women standing on the sidewalk. “Would you like to come in and learn about Israel?” she inquired with an unassuming yet hopeful tone.
“Israel?” he repeated. He considered his mother’s Jewish heritage and shrugged his shoulders. Maybe I will learn something interesting, he thought to himself. It‘s not like I have anything better to do tonight anyway. He chugged the last of his beer, placed the glass bottle down on the sidewalk, and agreed to the invitation. “Okay. Sure.”
The woman beamed at Jean Michel and guided him up the walkway. She escorted him inside the modestly adorned chapel and then introduced him to a lady whose large proportion reminded Jean Michel of the carp that would wallow in the shallows of the park ponds – too large for its own good. Before he could even offer a greeting, the portly woman immediately hooked her arm into his and ushered him into a pew, right next to another abundantly-sized woman. Packed like a sardine between two well fed carp, Jean Michel cracked a smile at the unexpected turn of events. A night in a church instead of a night at the club. The situation was wondrously laughable.
The service began shortly after he took his seat, and Jean Michel observed everything with unabashed fascination. There were hymns, prayers, and a sermon on the children of Israel. As the preacher shared the grand story of a loving and forgiving God, something came alive in Jean Michel’s heart.
“If you want to know the love of Jesus Christ, please come up to the altar” said the pastor.
Mysteriously, Jean Michel felt compelled to move forward, and miraculously, he extrapolated himself from the ladies’ pew. A hushed chorus of prayer filled the chapel as he walked towards the altar. He reached the wooden railing, eyes fixed on the cross, and suddenly, a blinding light flashed before his eyes. The brilliant beacon seemed to pierce his heart with a shocking thrust, as if he had been physically struck. In that instant, he was filled with an inexplicable joy, and Jean Michel felt a shift inside his soul. He understood that somehow he had been changed completely, but he was unsure in how the alteration would manifest.
Overjoyed, but extremely confused, Jean Michel returned to his seat. After the service, an elderly couple rushed over to him and struck up conversation. They invited him back to their home for the evening. Not wanting to be alone after such an incredible yet somewhat confounding experience, he accepted their invitation gratefully. That night, Jean Michel shared his revelation with the church couple, beginning a discussion that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
Be it fate or fortune, the next morning was Sunday, and the couple urged Jean Michel to join them for the worship service at the church. Again, he thought to himself, I have nowhere better to go, and I want to know more about this Jesus of Nazareth.
For a second time, Jean Michel crossed the threshold of the little chapel. During the service, he noticed people worshipping with a reckless abandon unlike anything he had seen before. Standing in the chapel as the congregation sang boisterously, Jean Michel couldn’t help but smile at the animated spontaneity of the worshippers and their unusual but heartfelt gestures of pure adoration, exaltation, and gratitude.
Eventually, the music ended, the congregation sat down, and the preacher stood at the front. To Jean Michel’s surprise, the preacher pointed directly at him. “Are you the young man who was with us last night and accepted Jesus as your Savior?” he inquired.
“Oui,” Jean Michel replied.
“What is your name?”
“I am Jean Michel.”
All at once, the congregation began to laugh – not a menacing laugh, but a joyous one. “Halleluiah!” shouted one women. “Praise God!” declared another man.
Jean Michel looked around in complete confusion. What is so funny? he wondered incredulously. These people are acting like lunatics!
The preacher shook his head and chuckled simultaneously. “Well, Jean Michel, it seems that we know you!”
Stunned, he didn’t know what to say. What does this man mean? They can’t know me. It’s impossible!
“Jean Michel,” the preacher said after the chatter quieted down, “do you remember a particular police deputy from France?”
Immediately, Jean Michel’s mind raced back to a dreadful day the year before. He was in a holding station, awaiting trial for a series of unfortunate events involving a bad check, faulty loan, and missed payments. Before he received his sentencing, the captain of the guard called him into his office the morning after his first night at the station.
“Are you Jean Michel?”
“Oui, I am Jean Michel.”
“Jean Michel, I must tell you something. Soon, I am leaving my job with the police force. God is calling me to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ in Africa. But that is not why I called you to my office. I called you to my office because I had a dream about you last night. In my dream, God told me that you, Jean Michel, were going to be a preacher, too. Some day.”
Those months in prison had erased the conversation with the French deputy from Jean Michel’s short term memory, but the Swiss preacher’s promptings brought their discourse back to mind within seconds.
“Jean Michel,” the preacher continued, “we know you. The police captain you met in France came to this very church shortly after he had the dream about you. He came here to give a sermon and to ask us to support his ministry in Africa. He also asked us to pray for you, for you, Jean Michel. That was one year ago, and look! God has answered our prayers!”
The chapel erupted in applause, as everyone in the building clapped excitedly and cheered fervently. Jean Michel, looked around the chapel, amazed at the divine story unfolding in front of him. He understood in a deep and profound way that his life was about to change drastically.
And so it did.
All photographs provided by Jean Michel.
Editor’s Note – This is a true story based on the young life of Jean Michel, inspired by the way he shared it with me over breakfast one morning. I found his coming to faith journey so incredible and so fantastic that I asked him, begged him, and bothered him to allow me to publish it. However, this is only a glimpse into his extraordinary life, and it is certainly not the end – rather, only the beginning. If you would like to learn more about Jean Michel, you can hear it from the man himself!
Jean Michel and his wife, Martha, own a bed and breakfast in Monticello, Florida. If you are in the area, book a stay at The Cottage B&B to hear more of the story for yourself, while Jean Michel prepares you a delicious French meal in their charming Florida home!