One of France’s largest megachurches gathered this fall to remember those lost to COVID-19. The memorial service was intensely personal, “a very trying time” and “a real heartbreak,” said senior pastor Samuel Peterschmitt, because of how dramatically the congregation had been affected by the virus.
Just nine months before, Eglise La Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (the Christian Open Door Church) in Mulhouse, France, held its annual worship conference, where participants prayed for the sick, celebrated miraculous healings, and praised God alongside 2,200 attendees, most from Europe but some from as far away as Africa and South America.
But the four-day event, held weeks before France’s lockdown, spurred one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks in the region. At least 500 people from Porte Ouverte were infected, 82 were hospitalized—including Peterschmitt himself—and 32 died as a result.
The Pentecostal congregation grappled with the spiritual and physical toll of the aftermath. Worse, Porte Ouverte was quickly blamed by neighbors and the media for its supposed recklessness, though the February conference began before health directives had been made in earnest. While isolated and grieving, church members faced insults and death threats; leaders required security as they returned to the building to livestream services.
Peterschmitt, whose father founded the 54-year-old congregation in northeast France, felt the strain of doing ministry during the pandemic. From his sickbed, he prayed with his congregants over the phone, including a sister in Christ whose husband died in intensive care while she was also hospitalized. It was “meager consolation” just to be able to offer her a video feed of her husband’s funeral, filmed by another pastor.
“This tells you just how difficult the situation was,” the pastor said, “but at the same time how important our fraternal relationship was in those moments.”
Porte Ouverte will not be the same after the outbreak. Peterschmitt asked, like many in his community, why God brought this plague on their fellowship and why he spared some but not others. “My friends who died,” he said, “had a faith as strong as mine.”
As Porte Ouverte nears the end of the hardest year in its history, Peterschmitt spoke to fellow French pastor Jean-Paul Rempp, European regional director of the Lausanne Movement, about how the COVID-19 outbreak affected his church, leaving its people with a deeper understanding of God’s providence, a greater sense of humility, and a more urgent desire to seek God in their grief.
Even though you saw people healed during this conference, what were your first thoughts when you realized that some of the participants had been infected by COVID-19?
At first there was indeed a questioning as I said to the Lord, “Lord, on the one hand, we have seen your glory, and on the other hand, we have also seen your people being affected by sickness.” What is ultimately essential for me at this point is to accept that God, in his sovereignty, does not make mistakes, even when it seems to be a paradox: healing on the one hand and sickness on the other. We believe, and I deeply believe, that even this painful and difficult situation will contribute to the glory of God.
Of course, still today my thoughts go out to all the families who lost a loved one....I lost some of my friends. As brothers and sisters, we had served the Lord together for many years. I really experienced it as a real heartbreak. But at the same time, there was this consolation from the Lord in relation to the hope that we all have of seeing each other again one day.
What were the greatest challenges to ministering to sick, suffering, and quarantined people while you yourself were infected?
I was isolated at home, then I was isolated at the hospital, then I was re-isolated at home, which made it indeed difficult to carry out this ministry toward the sick since it wasn’t possible to go and visit them. It wasn’t possible to lay hands on them, as Scripture teaches us.
In the hospital, I was also on oxygen, so I was out of breath. I had members of the church who were hospitalized at the same time as me— some were on the same floor as me, others two floors down. Others were in intensive care or in the basement wards. What I did, as much as I could, was to pick up my phone. I tried to reach them. They weren’t long calls. We took the time, even very shortly, to pray for each other.
Which passages of Scripture, hymns, or spiritual disciplines were particularly helpful to you?
When I was at my lowest point, I experienced visitations from the Lord, such as I have rarely experienced in my life. Those were times when, both by his Spirit and by his Word, God spoke to my soul. He brought me to an extremely deep repentance, especially when I was reading the Psalms. The Psalms proved to be of extraordinary help. I had the feeling that David had written them for me. They had become literally personal.
And there was a song that accompanied me a lot that our American friends certainly know: Don Potter’s “Show Me Your Face.” It was a song that did me a lot of good, through which I too said, “Lord, reveal your face to me even more, show me who you are in this period when it’s like my soul has been scanned.”
In those moments, I realized that in the end, God didn’t need to say anything to me or reproach me for anything. His presence alone, well, led me to judge myself. It was his presence that brought me to look at myself and finally gave me such a conviction of sin that I said, “Is it possible that I was that man? Is it possible that I could have had those attitudes?” They were moments, paradoxically, of great sadness and at the same time of great hope. Moments of deep desolation for myself and, at the same time, moments of change in my heart and soul that I do not regret at all.
Were there times when you or your church questioned God’s plan that allowed the virus to infect your church?
Yes, of course. I think that if we hadn’t stopped to ask ourselves the question, it would have been abnormal. I started—but not only me, the pastors, and everyone in the community—to ask questions like, “But why did this happen to us? Why us?” I’m not going to tell you that I have all the answers today. I’ve seen all the change in my own heart. I expressed it earlier, and I bless God for it.
It has also brought us a lot of humility, since this infection has reminded us of God’s sovereignty—of which we were already aware before—but it has also reminded us that God acts sometimes in one way and sometimes in another. We were already aware of this, but there we were, brought together as a community to accept this reality—not by just accepting his sovereignty in the life of an individual whom we had walked with, for whom we had prayed, and who had still died anyway, but rather by accepting his sovereignty as a community. Because suddenly we are living it as a community, and we are living it on a relatively large scale. We have many of our church members who have been infected by COVID, and even a large number who have died.
One last thing I would like to say is that when I asked the Lord “Why us?” one of the answers that came to me was “But how would you have reacted if it had happened in another environment? Yes, let’s use the example if it had happened in a mosque. How would you have reacted?” Clearly, and I have to say it with sadness, I would certainly have seen or interpreted it as a judgment of God. And the Lord showed me there that in the end, we judge very quickly, especially when it happens to others.
This has led to a change of perspective, not fundamentally on Islam, but a change of perspective on the judgment that one could quickly have when something bad happens, especially when it happens to others, always trying to conclude with an explanation, with a cause.
If it had happened in another milieu, I would probably have reacted, unfortunately, as some have reacted toward us. We were immediately judged by the Christians themselves; we were blacklisted. Some people immediately tried to explain spiritually why these things happened to us, saying that we don’t do this enough or too much of this, and so on. But I have to say with humility that in the end, today, I can only forgive them because perhaps I would not have been better than them.
You have talked about how you set out to practice forgiveness toward those who put the blame on your church, including the media.
We decided from the very beginning simply to go along with what Jesus himself said when he said that you will all be hated because of my name.
We realized that—beyond the pandemic that had taken place, beyond the disease of which we were accused of being the vectors—there was a truly anti-Christian wave. It was in the face of this that we decided to forgive and to remain in an attitude of forgiveness. We had it from the beginning, and I think I can say that the whole fellowship had that attitude. We also expressed that forgiveness in the media, whether on television or in writing.
How does Porte Ouverte today compare to before the pandemic?
There is one difference that is obvious: The number of people present is very limited since we have to respect social distancing and health guidelines. In a church building in which we used to host 2,400 people, today we put between 600 and 700 people. The second thing is that some of our members have felt a certain fear, which I can easily understand. But at the same time, I also saw a different side of our fellowship. I saw a solidarity being expressed that I would not have suspected.
Even though I knew that the brothers and sisters were standing together, there was a manifestation of love and support in prayer that I found quite extraordinary.
It was, for example, the setting up of a 24-hour prayer chain, spontaneously. It has continued since then and never stopped. We saw our young people during the pandemic, when we were all in lockdown, taking the call to heart. These young people were calling the elderly, seeing them, going shopping for them, etc.
We saw the importance of our house groups. More than ever, we believe that the church of Christ must really reach that maturity where those who are part of it are truly disciples. They must be more than just parishioners and members. They have to be disciples.
And that’s what we are praying for. I sense that there is a deep desire to go in that direction. Moreover, after the lockdown was eased, our first worship service was extremely powerful in terms of fellowship. There was a joy, an explosion of joy. We hadn’t started the service, and people began to applaud. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but it was just a party to get together, a real party.
What do you see as the ongoing spiritual effects of the pandemic on your church?
There is—I feel it deeply and I see it—a movement of holiness. There have been many testimonies from those who have said to me, “You know, this has changed my view of my spiritual life. It has brought me closer to the Lord. There are things that I can no longer do today. I don’t want to waste any more time with what the world stole from me for a while.” There is really a return to a consecration and a surge of love for the Lord, which is extraordinary.
At the same time, you have people who have few roots. A little like in the parable of the sower, some wither away, others are a little afraid of suffocating. But to me, it’s still too early to make an assessment. However, this surge toward holiness, the desire for God’s presence, has been obvious, really obvious.
With Kate Shellnutt. Translated by Andrew Wiles.
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