I stumbled over a story this week--one that I had never heard. It came from the era of World War II. It takes place in a small village in the remote mountains of Central France--Le Chambon sur Lignon.
Between the years of 1942 and 1944, the 300 farmers who lived around this village organized a sort of underground railroad for families of Jews who were trying to avoid getting caught up in the vast machinery of the Holocaust. The villagers put out the word: come here and you will be safe.
The farmers hid the Jews in their barns, forged papers on their behalf, and helped them make their way across the Alps into Switzerland or over the Pyrenees into Spain. All in all in that three year period, they saved over 5000 lives.
When I first read this story I was filled with admiration--these farmers must have known that if the Gestapo ever caught them, they’d be executed. But they did it anyway.
There was more to this story, I discovered. It turns out these 300 farmers didn’t just decide one day to do this. They had quietly been preparing themselves to do it long before the war started. The catalyst was a Protestant pastor named Andre Trocme. He came to Le Chambon in 1932 and in his sermons, Sunday after Sunday, he taught these villagers that the way of Jesus was nonviolence. Week after week this community made themselves the kind of people who could rise to the occasion if the need ever came. They intentionally made themselves into a unique kind of moral actor.
I am aware of all the graduations taking place around us. I’ve been asked to speak at a few of these types of occasions. It isn’t easy--you want to tell young people everything they need to know to be happy and successful and difference-makers. And you quickly realize you just don’t have enough time to do all that. So if you could tell a graduating class one thing to help them along their journey, what would you say?
If you are like me, that “one thing” might change from week to week, but this lesson from those farmers might be a good place to start. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be a good person--at least most of us don’t. Good people are built--they are trained by people who love them to become loving people themselves--they are trained by their parents, their teachers, other significant adults, and each other. AND they commit themselves to BE trained.
The next time you have a debate within yourself whether to allow your child to commit every Sunday to the travel team or some other activity rather than attend church, don’t forget to ask yourself what kind of person am I trying to help build? If you believe the travel team can produce a better person, then that’s what you should do.
For the building of moral people, my money is on the church.