They werenâ€™t like us. â€œWatch out for les Arabes,â€ I learned as a missionary in the south of France. â€œLes Arabesâ€ were refugees, or the descendants of refugees, from the former French colonies in North Africa, who congregated in large French cities like Marseille. â€œLes Arabesâ€ were dangerous. Some missionary â€“ nobody remembered who, or when, or under what circumstances â€“ had been held up at knifepoint by â€œles Arabesâ€ and his bicycle had been stolen. â€œDonâ€™t carry cash with you because les Arabes will pick your pockets,â€ warned local members.
We had an investigator who lived in a large subsidized housing complex outside of Marseille. These â€œHLMâ€™sâ€ are comparable to the public housing projects in major American cities, and the one we had to visit was as desolate and seemed as dangerous as any I had ever seen on TV. Even the bus didnâ€™t go to this HLM â€“ after getting off the bus, we had to walk on the side of a busy six-lane highway nearly a mile uphill to the complex.
It was an ugly place. There was no grass between the bare concrete buildings. There was plenty of broken glass, though. Babies wandered barefoot through the dirt and broken glass, seemingly without supervision, dressed only in t-shirts; undiapered, they squatted where they were to relieve themselves. Teenagers seemed to be everywhere, usually kicking soccer balls. A soccer ball once hit me painfully in the back of my head; when I turned around, nobody was looking in my direction. Most of the time, though, it seemed like the kids were always staring at us, pointing, saying things in a language I didnâ€™t recognize, and laughing in a vaguely menacing way. Our investigator, who lived on the ground floor, used to spread honey on the low wall in front of her door to attract buzzing insects so that kids wouldnâ€™t sit there. My mother would have been terrified to see where I went every week. To tell the truth, I wasnâ€™t too happy about it myself.
One afternoon we got off the bus and started our hike up the side of the highway. Perhaps a half-mile from the HLM, we were startled to see a little boy â€“ obviously a boy because he was dressed only in his t-shirt â€“ barely old enough to walk, toddling down the hill toward us. He had come all that way without any of the dozens of drivers who had passed him stopping to take him out of danger. Although I didnâ€™t like to hold his dirty, bare little body next to mine, I picked him up and carried him on my hip up the hill, my companion adding my bookbag to her own.
The instant we reached the HLM, we were surrounded uncomfortably closely by a gang of young people. We managed to make them understand that we had picked up this baby on the highway, and asked if they knew who he belonged to. Someone took the baby, the crowd dispersed, and we went to visit our investigator.
Itâ€™s hard to describe the subtle change we experienced on our later visits to that complex. Nobody spoke to us, nobody smiled at us â€“ but the laughing and finger-pointing ceased. No more soccer balls whizzed near our ankles, and certainly no more soccer balls hit us in the head. In a subtle but unmistakable way, the unspoken hostility between â€œthemâ€ and â€œusâ€ had vanished.