Out of Africa and Back to France

By Chris Sneller
out-of-africa-gg-465x280.jpg Photo by Guy Gerrard

The French newlyweds needed a refrigerator. Their apartment in West Africa had a foam mattress, four chairs and two stove-top burners. But not much else. The fridge on sale at the French embassy was too expensive and too small. So the Didiers prayed.

Soon, a furlough-bound family offered their refrigerator. The fridge's "American size" shocked Francis and Marie-Carmen. Then came the real surprise. "Is there anything else you need?" asked the family. Soon a king-size bed and mattress, an oven with a stove, a mirror and an oak table decorated their flat, reminding them of God's faithfulness.

Francis Didier loves adventure in places he has lived -- like West Africa, his native France, and Florida; in food ("he is always ready to try new food," says his wife) and in books -- his recent favorite is Le Livre de Saphir, an adventure set in medieval Spain.

The Campus Crusade for Christ staff member describes life in terms of an expedition. "I have learned that while climbing the first mountain, the Lord is developing your faith and courage," says Francis. "He is doing exactly what is needed for the second mountain."

Trusting God for new adventures marks the life of Francis Didier.

An afternoon in West Africa pivoted the direction of the Didiers' lives. He had substituted for his country's mandatory military service by volunteering with Campus Crusade in Bamako, Mali. One afternoon a group of African students showed slides of people groups that had never heard the gospel. Only one slide showed white faces. When it flashed across the screen, thunder struck in the Didiers' hearts.

The white faces were French students. Only two in 1,000 French students profess faith in Jesus Christ. Muslims in France outnumber evangelical Christians, who represent only 0.63 percent of the population. Francis and Marie-Carmen decided to return home as missionaries.

In 1987, Agape France, as Campus Crusade is called there, gave the Didiers two options: lead the existing team in Lyon or start a new campus ministy.

Desiring the untraveled path, they rode 600 miles by train to explore Rennes in western France. The trip seemed fruitless. Francis cried out, "Lord, I need more information to make this decision." Before leaving, he met two Christian students at the train station. They had been asking God to send someone to work with university students in Rennes.

While in Rennes, the Didier family grew to include Anne, Joel and Raphaelle. When Marie-Carmen transferred her ministry focus from campus to their three children, she also began seeing less of her husband.

Though the average work week in France is 35 hours, Francis often doubled that. In 1996, Agape France selected him to direct the entire campus ministry, and Francis spent even less time with his family. "The most difficult thing in ministry was to see Francis available for the needs of the ministry," says Marie-Carmen, "but not for our family and me."

Francis knows that his family felt the weight of him bearing too much. "My family has suffered, especially Marie-Carmen," concedes Francis. "I was too busy."

Typically, Francis' face is characterized by a smile. But his optimism had faded. Almost two decades of frenetic ministry -- with no furlough -- exhausted Francis' vision.

So in 2003 the Didiers ventured to Campus Crusade's world headquarters in Orlando, Fla. For the first few months Francis focused on his family and his personal relationship with Christ. The family enjoyed the year so much that they didn't want to return home. The children liked American schools and the "Christian" culture. And they liked having their "papa" around.

Francis' work ethic stems from both his personality and his family background.

Born on April 20, 1963, near the German border, Francis was the second child of Michel and Anne-Marie Didier. Michel's military job took him away from home for months at a time. So Francis and his sister bonded during their father's frequent absences. True to his adventurous nature, one summer they followed the biggest bicycle race, the Tour de France, hitchhiking across the country. Growing up, Francis learned about independence and hard work, but not about the gospel. That didn't come until college.

In 1980 Francis enrolled at the University of Nancy in eastern France to study civil engineering. A classmate named Didier Viriot (Francis' surname is a common French first name) referred to Jesus as his best friend and Savior.

Francis' religious education had taught him about Jesus, but not in the way Didier described Him. One night Francis understood that Jesus was the only way to God. Kneeling at his friend's bed, Francis placed his faith in Christ and began the ultimate adventure. Soon, Francis helped introduce a roommate to Christ. "God was very far," says Fernand Roth, now a civil engineer, "distant, yes." But not after he met Francis.

France's secularized culture loathes the proclamation that Jesus is the only way to God. The attitude toward the gospel ranges from passive indifference to downright animosity.

"The Evangelicals: The Cult That Wants to Conquer the World" blared the cover of a popular French news magazine earlier this year. In Rennes a Catholic priest labeled Agape France a cult. So Francis invited the priest to his apartment and explained what they believed. The priest realized he had spoken rashly.

The opposition

"Wow! I have seen opposition often," says Francis -- and the overwhelming needs often cause burnout for missionaries in France. They can end up frustrated or exhausted, or both.

But Francis' year in the United States rekindled the vision that began in West Africa: to fill his homeland with the message of salvation by grace through faith. Four years ago, Francis did not feel ready to direct Agape France. Now he does, and in 2005, he will take on the position.

"Francis has a heart for France and a vision for France," says Gerard Lanniee, the current national director. "He sees big things for the country."
Vanna Tang, who met Christ through Francis' ministry, agrees. "Their vision is not a small vision," says the French engineer of Chinese descent. "Their desire is to lead many students to Christ."

"Being Christ's missionary in France is a challenge -- the dominant values are consumption, individualism and indifference," says Catherine Bouchet, who became a Christian through the Didiers' ministry in Rennes. "So people like Francis and his family are very precious."