In 1947 my family moved to Switzerland from the U.S. as missionaries to the Swiss, whom they rarely converted since neither of my parents could speak anything but English. Dad never learned to speak any other language notwithstanding his forty-year sojourn in Europe.
So my parents ministered to American tourists and other English-speaking visitors. Then in 1954—after yet more splits with the home mission board—Mom and Dad were “led” (another way of saying they had to figure something out when they were kicked out of their mission over a theological dispute) to start their own ministry. They called their work L’Abri Fellowship. (L’Abri means “shelter” in French.)
My parents theoretically acknowledged that there were other Real Believers, but (many church splits later) there seemed to be no one besides our family that they wholeheartedly approved of. We were different and (at least in the early fundamentalist incarnation of our family) sometimes smug in the rightness of our difference.
Since our family and my parent’s ministry—the work of L’Abri—represented the only truly theologically “sound” configuration of believers this side of Heaven, my sisters stuck around L’Abri even after marriage. Priscilla and her husband, John, returned to us from seminary when I was ten years old, and none of my sisters left home for good until many years later after L’Abri split up along the lines of various personality clashes. My three sisters encouraged their husbands—who had wandered into L’Abri as young men, got “saved,” and married a Schaeffer daughter—to join “The Work.”
Our family thrived on a somewhat hysterical diet of “miracles” that provided a constant high. Mom and Dad never asked donors for money, and yet—miraculously—the Lord “moved people’s hearts” and we were sent gifts to “meet our needs.” So we knew that From Before The Creation Of The Universe God had planned that in 1954 the Schaeffer Family would found the American mission of L’Abri, located in Huémoz, Switzerland, conveniently near the ski slopes of Villars and the tearooms of Montreux and only five hours by train from Portofino Italy. That was where we vacationed each year.
The rest of the time we lived in the Alps enjoying stunning views of the towering mountains in every direction, which Mom said God had created expressly for our pleasure. Mom said that our job, and thus the reason for both L’Abri’s and our existence, was to “prove the existence of God to an unbelieving world.” We Schaeffers did this by praying for the gifts needed to run our mission. God provided the exhilarating life-affirming “proof” of His being out there somewhere by answering our prayers and sending us just enough money—no more and no less—so that His Work might go forth and so that I’d grow up eating cheese and various other ingredient-stretching casseroles to sustain my life while praying for red (or any) meat!
Sacrificing-For-The-Lord was a pride-filled way of life. No owner of a new home, car, or yacht was ever prouder of his or her venal material possessions than we Schaeffers were of not achieving our fondest dreams. Mom’s father spoke five languages and “could have taught in a secular college, even at Harvard,” Mom said. But he didn’t teach at Harvard; rather, my grandfather taught in a series of small impoverished Bible schools after he returned from China, just like Dad didn’t pastor a huge church, “even though Fran’s a far better preacher than most,” as Mom claimed.
What we didn’t do suited us Schaeffers fine (even if some of us sighed from time to time over missed opportunities). We prided ourselves on how much our family had “given up for the Lord.” So Mom didn’t dance and instead had married a short man after the Lord showed her that together they could Save The Lost, even though “many tall handsome poetic men were interested in me,” Mom said. But as Mom also always added with (yet another sigh) when telling me what she’d given up for the Lord, “Worldly success is not what counts.”
When I compared what I thought of as Normal People to my family, I envied them. They smoked, drank, laughed, never witnessed to anyone, and sometimes even danced to the music from the snack-bar jukebox on the beach when we were in Italy on vacation. Mostly they didn’t seem haunted by the idea that they were foot soldiers in a war between God and Satan.
In The Battle Of The Heavenlies, much was expected of Us Real Christians when it came to doing our bit. This ongoing contest was won or lost one person at a time. The outcome of every battle depended on whether or not the Souls of the people we converted (or didn’t convert) went to Heaven or Hell. It also decided their fate after the Resurrection: to burn forever in the “lake of fire” or to enjoy their indestructible bodies for eternity, doing who knew what.
“Mom?” the ten year-old version of me asked one night after Mom had read me the creation story (again) and Eve had (again) been tempted by Satan, sinned, and taken us all down with her (again).
“Why did God create Satan?”
“God did not ‘create Satan,’ my Dear!” said Mom, and she shot me a hurt glance as if to say that the phrasing of my question had been needlessly unkind to both God and to her. “He created lovely angels, and one of them was Lucifer, the highest-ranking angel. Lucifer didn’t want to serve God. But Satan can’t change God’s Divine Purposes! Meanwhile, we have to bring people to Christ to help God win. Do you understand?”
“But, Mom, what I don’t understand is why Jesus doesn’t just bring everyone to Jesus?”
“Then they’d have no choice, and He doesn’t force anyone.”
“But Dad says we’re elected.”
“Yes, and that because God knows what will happen, Dear, but we still choose.”
“Because as it says in the Bible, ‘All things are possible with God.’”
“It seems like a lot of bother,” I said.
“It’s God’s Plan, Dear,” said Mom in a tone that clearly indicated that, while she welcomed all questions about the Lord, I should nevertheless not question to a point that seemed to open the door to the sort of doubts that can lead us far from the Lord. Mom’s tone softened as she added, “Darling, we’re finite, so we just can’t finally explain these things.”
“But, Mom, why do we have to tell people about Jesus when God already knew who will be saved before He made them, and why did He make anyone to be Lost anyway?”
“Because, Dear, that way we get to participate in His Plan and also show that we love Him.”
“But it seems so dumb!”
“No, Darling,” said Mom, shooting me an alarmed look and beginning to speak rather quickly. “There’s a difference between asking legitimate questions and questioning God in a way that makes it seem as if we’re rebelling against Him. I’d be careful if I were you about using the word ‘dumb’ in this context, and for another thing, that’s such an American word and not terribly sophisticated, and to use that word is not the sort of use of vocabulary that I know that you know, Dear, which is the reason I only read good books to you, so please say, ‘I don’t fully understand,’ or ‘That concept seems contradictory’ but avoid the sort of words that make it sound as if you’re being raised by ordinary American Christians who derive their tragically limited vocabulary from what they hear Billy Graham say, read on cereal boxes, and see on television!”
I grew up feeling that Mom, Dad, my sisters, and I were a separate species from the Normal humans I would see going about their business as if there were no Battle Of The Heavenlies.
We were Set Apart From The World. We had no TV and no American cereal boxes either. And we’d done it to ourselves—on purpose! God wanted us to walk among Normal People as His Chosen Outcasts.
By the time I was eight or nine, the only conversations I felt comfortable having with strangers were those that happened out of my parents’ and sisters’ earshot. When they weren’t around, I could temporarily pretend to join the human race. Lying was necessary because otherwise I’d attract The Look and The Uncomfortable Silence that always followed any truthful answer to the question “So what does your father do?”
If my sister Susan was there, or worst of all Mom, I’d have to mumble something truthful about being missionaries and Dad being a pastor, and then I’d pray Mom wouldn’t launch into the explanation of how God had called our family “to live by faith alone,” otherwise known as “The L’Abri Story.”
“But what do you live on?” a perplexed British vacationer on the beach near Portofino might ask the cringing eleven-year-old version of me after hearing Mom talk about “living by faith.”
“People help out,” I’d mutter, while scanning all possible escape routes.
If Mom were within earshot, in other words anywhere within a mile or so, she’d offer a glowing and animated explanation: “The Lord answers our prayers as a demonstration of His existence to an unbelieving world. We live by faith alone!”
“So strangers send you money?”
“Yes, as the Lord moves their hearts!” Mom would say.
The listener, who had been expecting something like “We’re living in Switzerland while Dad’s on business” would give me The Look and sidle off. If the listener didn’t sidle off while the going was good, Mom might pull out a witnessing aid or a tract and share the Gospel right then and there.
This sharing of Jesus with strangers would be done to some inoffensive agnostic, Anglican, Catholic, or Jew—in other words, to someone of a different (or no) religious persuasion. The target might have been on the way to the snack bar for a slice of pizza and an espresso and instead would end up pressed into a one-on-one Evangelistic rally as her reward for politely remarking on the fine weather.
Sometimes Mom brought her Gospel Walnut and/or “The Heart of Salvation” booklet along to the beach, and she’d use those on The Lost. The witnessing aid was an actual walnut hollowed out and packed with a long strand of ribbon: black for your heart filled with sin, red for Jesus’ blood, white for your heart once it was washed of sin, and gold for Heaven, where you’d be headed provided you prayed the Sinner’s Prayer right then and there and asked Jesus to come into your heart and to be your Personal Savior, while Mom acted as a midwife for your second birth before the pizza oven exploded and killed you (or you got cancer—whatever) and it was “too late.”
“No, Dear, the Bible is very clear. Hebrews 9:27 says we’re ‘destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.’ Another passage that tells us there’s no chance after death in Luke 16. The parable is about that rich man who died and went to Hell. He’s told a chasm separates Heaven and Hell. Difficult as it is to fully understand, we know there’s an Eternal Separation as the Punishment for people who won’t accept Jesus Christ while they have the chance right now.”
“What about the ones that never hear the Gospel?”
“They’re all Lost, so that’s why we have to always witness!”
Because there were no more chances after death, we Schaeffers were responsible for Every Lost Person we ever encountered—including all the Italians we met, except for Dino and Lorna in Milan because they’d come to L’Abri and already been saved. Dad said, “They’re probably the only Real Christians in Italy, but they don’t count because Lorna is English.”
Sometimes Mom would leave the Gospel Walnut in her room and bring along “The Heart of Salvation” instead, a booklet about ten inches by ten inches cut out in a heart shape and made of five pages: black, red, white, gold, and green. Mom had taught my sisters and me a cheerful little ditty to sing as she turned the pages: “My heart was BLACK with sin, until the Savior came in! His precious RED blood, I know, has washed it WHITE as snow! In His Word I am told, I’ll walk the streets of GOLD! A wonderful, wonderful day, He washed my sins away!”
The props for witnessing that Mom carried were in her gospel-sharing repertoire only until the early 1960s. My parents had deployed witnessing aids in their ministries back in the States, but I caught only the tail end of Mom and Dad’s fundamentalist incarnation. Once a bit of European sophistication rubbed off on my parents, their witnessing methods changed. They became more subtle.
The Gospel Walnut was retired and replaced with conversations about philosophy, art, and politics. But these “conversations” were then steered and inevitably ended with a consideration of the Meaning of Life. And THAT, of course, led to a “discussion” about that “feeling of guilt we all have” and you can guess Who the only Answer to that feeling was…
Anyway, once our “The Heart of Salvation” song ended, we’d add, “Green is the color that shows how a child who loves Jesus will grow.” I don’t know why the explanation of the green page had to be delivered as a brief soliloquy after the song. But the recipient of our serenade never asked about that, mostly because by then his eyes had glazed over, and he (or she) was backing away and/or rooted to the spot in a horrified Normal-Pagan-and/or-Theologically-Confused-Liberal-Vacationing-Anglican-caught-in-the-headlights-of-an-oncoming-Born-Again-Express-Train sort of way.
If the recipient of the Schaeffer family’s attentions happened to be a forty-year-old Italian businessman, standing barefoot on the cracked sandy concrete floor of the snack bar terrace while clad only in a Very Small, “tragically immodest” Speedo bathing suit, chest hair black and oily against his leathery tan chest, redolent and glistening with the tangy extra-virgin olive oil he used as suntan lotion, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Campari in the other, the bulge of his genitals outlined in startling detail as he casually adjusted them by scratching, then shifting his generous package while reaching within his Speedo while we sang, the scene would become surreal.
Here was the epitome of The World, a caricature of Fallen Humanity being confronted not just by The Gospel, but also by four (or post-Priscilla-leaving-home three) Very Virtuous Women and one little boy. The women were radiating disapproval of the man’s Speedo and his clearly visible genitals—balls to the left, penis folded to the right—while also exuding a severe love for his Soul. The little boy was thinking of bolting for the water and swimming to the horizon.
As Mom would turn the pages while we sang, she’d point to her heart and then to the man’s heart, tapping him firmly on his chest, thereby making his Pagan Saint Medallions and assorted gold charms, including his cornuto (an inch-long horn-shaped amulet carved from red coral to protect against the evil eye), to bounce. After we sang, the Lost Italian (who could not understand English) would nevertheless clap while smiling at us children, especially at my “developing” sisters. Perhaps all American families burst into songs as a way to greet strangers. “Congratulazioni!” he’d exclaim somewhat nervously, then try to turn away.
The Pagan Symbols dangling around his Lost Oily Neck were all the proof we needed—his alcoholic drink, cigarette, and penis wrapped around his thigh aside—that our target was Very, Very Lost. Had he been even moderately born again, he’d long since have tossed out his “Catholic trinkets.” When Israel committed spiritual adultery, God called His people “whorish women” and accused them of fornication (Ezekiel 16:26–32 and Jeremiah 3:1–25). And we knew that the Roman Catholic Church was even worse than Israel when it chased after False Gods and Strange Women!
If on the off, off chance the Lost Italian showed interest and—after changing into born-again modest boxer-type swimming trunks—wanted a longer answer as to why he should take off his Pagan Saint Medals, Mom would have said, “What does the Bible say about Your Catholic Idols, you ask? That little horn miniature carrot thing you wear was once sacred to worshipers of the Moon Goddess! In your Catholic heresy, these awful things relate to the Virgin Mary standing on a lunar crescent! So turn with me to Exodus 20:4–5. Here let me show you! As you grow in the Lord, you’ll get more familiar with your Bible! Here it is! ‘Thou shalt not MAKE unto thee ANY graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not BOW DOWN thyself to them nor SERVE them.’ Don’t you Catholics MAKE graven images? Don’t you then serve the moon goddess?”
“Io suppongo di sì.” (I suppose so.)
“Don’t Catholics KNEEL down to statues of Mary?”
“Io penso di sì.” (I think so, yes.)
“Don’t Catholics SERVE Mary?”
“Don’t Catholics BOW DOWN and kiss the foot of the pagan god Jupiter, which was renamed St. Peter?”
“É vero.” (Yes, that’s true.)
“Then turn with me to Leviticus 26:1. Susan, please show this poor man where it is. See? ‘You shall make you NO IDOLS nor GRAVEN IMAGE,’ and THAT INCLUDES CORAL CARROTS, OR WHATEVER IT IS YOU CALL THAT SILLY THING! ‘Neither rear you up a STANDING IMAGE. Neither shall ye set up any IMAGE OF STONE in your land to bow down unto it.’ Don’t Catholics rear up STANDING IMAGES?”
“Io non lo so.” (I don’t know.)
“What do you mean ‘I don’t know’? Don’t Catholics set up IMAGES OF STONE?! Haven’t you ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica? Turn with me to Deuteronomy 4:16. No, no, my poor Dear man, it’s in the Old Testament! Here, Debby, you show him! He’s obviously never even seen a Bible! ‘Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and MAKE you a GRAVEN IMAGE, the similitude of ANY FIGURE, the likeness of MALE or FEMALE.’ Don’t you Catholics make graven images of MALE and FEMALE?”
“Debby, what did he say?”
“I think he said it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, Dear, haven’t you heard anything I’ve been telling you? Turn with me to Deuteronomy 16:22. Here I’ll show you. ‘Neither shalt thou SET thee up ANY IMAGE: which the Lord thy God HATES.’ Don’t Catholics SET UP ANY IMAGES? Yes! Doesn’t God HATE those IMAGES?”
“Io non lo so.”
“Don’t you know what God hates?”
To which our Italian might have answered “Si!” and torn off his wicked trinkets and been saved or kept his trinkets and muttered “Vaffanculo!” and remained as Lost as ever.
But this never happened. In all the years of witnessing, while on vacation we never saved one cornuto-wearing Italian, though several Italians, including the aforementioned Dino (and Lorna if you count English wives married to Italians), did come to L’Abri and returned to Dark, Lost Italy and started a home church in Milan. “But, sadly,” as Mom once said, “even Dino still wears a medallion of some ‘saint,’ so I’m not entirely sure about him.”
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His new book is —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace