Readings — From the December 2015 issue

Invisible City

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On my first visit to Le Samaritain I was invited to the hardly provisional — indeed quite permanent feeling — home of Bogdan (not his real name), one of the leaders of the platz and also, at the time, the presbyter of its Pentecostal church. He was in his forties, possessed of a gut and a mustache, and already a grandfather of four. His house was warm and orderly, with a kitchen, a salon, and smaller rooms off to the side of the main ones. A woman was preparing chicken at the kitchen table when I arrived. Pots and pans hung on the wall behind her. A jerry-rigged satellite dish on the roof brought Romanian cartoons to a TV that sat on top of the refrigerator.

Bogdan invited me to sit on a plush sofa in the salon. He complained, over a cup of extremely sweet coffee, about the ineffectiveness of the “associations” — the NGOs and the churches, which are made up mainly of well-intentioned French people, along with some Roma, who bring prepackaged meals, diapers, or school supplies, all of which are received with relief but which act as palliations rather than solutions. Bogdan said that there was never any follow-through, that the associations had their own interests at heart. I had to go to some lengths to convince him that I was not from an association myself.

A sixteen-year-old boy named Jozsef sat down with us. He took the presbyter’s infant grandson on his lap and began to play with him, to the baby’s great delight. Jozsef explained that he worked for an association — Bogdan cringed — as a cultural mediator for Roma dealing with the French hospital system. But Jozsef’s true calling, I was told, showed itself at the Sunday-morning church service. In addition to a beautiful singing voice, he was held to have the gift of vision, and at the climax of every service he reported what he had seen to the elderly, prostrate parishioners who begged him for news from the future. He told me he wanted to be a doctor, though he lacked the proper papers for school and had not been able to attend classes since arriving in France two years earlier.

A couple of days after meeting Bogdan and Jozsef, I returned to Le Samaritain for the church service. I arrived late and made considerable clatter trying to open the door on its uneven hinges. The congregants turned and examined me, though not with annoyance or anger. There were forty or so people in attendance. The men were seated to the left of the center aisle, the women to the right. A small girl ran back and forth between them, searching for adults to amuse her. She looked at me and made a gesture of falling asleep, and then of having her head cut off. I sat down on a sofa in the back.

The pastor holding the sermon that morning did not reside in the platz. He was short, round, and on fire with the Lord. He called on us to stand up, to sit down, to kneel. He invited us to pray out loud, on our knees, which the congregants did with relish. They shouted and moaned their personal supplications. Several parishioners took turns singing; they held the microphone too close to their lips and alternated between modern synthesizer music and folk songs. At some point Jozsef took his turn. His voice was unworldly — high, pure, searching. When he finished, the pastor called on others to come up and give it a turn, but no one dared to follow the boy. The pastor called out individuals by name, goading them, and they mumbled excuses about how they’d left their songbooks at home or had sore throats.

Though built from junk — and soon to be returned to junk by bulldozers — the chapel could not but call to mind for me the churches of the early Christians of Rome. Under siege and in danger, their members practiced an effervescent faith while remaining indifferent to local laws and customs. They were moved only by a passionate commitment to their idea of the universal. But the devotion of the people who lived in Le Samaritain — or their ambitions or affections or frustrations — was not what the French officials chose to see.

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