Part of our History: Little Sisters of Jesus in Tunisia, The tent of Friendship

Our desertOur desertWe want to gather all that has marked our spirits and our hearts during the fifty years of presence of our community in the midst of the Tunisian people, gathering it in order to give thanks and to let you participate in our thanksgiving.
CamelsCamelsTunisia, “Tounes” in Arabic, is a name that suggests attentive accompaniment. For one who has resided there it evokes a very human landscape in a divinely beautiful light: a light over the blue of the sea, over the blue of the sky, and over the blue of the land with its whitewashed houses – over the green of its olive trees stretching to infinity, over palm trees enlivening the oases – and over the ochre of the desert which opens onto the mystery of God.  And, since 2011, the blood-red flag of newfound freedom flies proudly above.    This name also invokes the spontaneous kindness of a people with a long history of invasions which have been successively assimilated and integrated into a harmonious mixture.
However, for us, this people appeared otherwise, other, so “OTHER”!  You be the judge, already in a simple thing like counting to five on your fingers!  Tunisians count in the opposite direction than we Europeans are used to doing: they go from the little finger towards the thumb, folding them as they count rather than extending them.
Tunisia friendsTunisia friends They are a gentle people who eat very spicy food. They dress colorfully and love adornments. They know how to refuse without ever having to say NO. Hurrying and hastiness are unknown to them. For them, a guest is sacred and they always have time for hospitality. And especially: their Faith is different from ours, uncompromising and written in stone. We encountered this OTHER, this people, as they were and we welcomed, recognized, accepted, and appreciated them.  And they accepted us as we were: European –Christian – celibate by choice, with our (to their tastes) tasteless food, with our classical, serious clothes, with our clear-cut, seemingly brutal refusals, with our chronic lack of time.
And we were:taught language, customs, cooking, weaving, integrated into the landscape, into family events, into religious feasts, into their political evolutions, fed, how often our neighbors shared their delicious dishes with us! accompanied in our joys and difficulties, and in our times of mourning, stimulated in our Faith by non-Christian believers, amazed by their patience and their acceptance of all adversities in submission to God, and by their natural generosity.
Carpet makingCarpet making We had only to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. So much was given us, experienced as big and little gifts from God: being welcomed in friendship at the heart of families, being able to share the daily work of those around us, the long active hours at the loom to weave the wool, the joy of being introduced to family gatherings, the joy of harvesting the widow’s olives with her, receiving friendship endlessly, even from the indigent, and remaining indebted.
On the big loomOn the big loomWe participated in so many festive occasions, births, birthdays, success in exams, weddings, and have accepted so many glasses of tea offered to those upon entering a house that it makes us think of Jesus whose ministry was so often that of the shared table.
We discovered handicapped children, who were initially kept hidden, and we were able to participate in their development.  And we were taught by their amazing capacity for life and by the admirable patience and love of their parents.
We also accompanied some couples in the adoption process and in their search for a child to love.
With those around us we have shared at great length the weight of mourning in the silence of friendship and with words coming from the heart and from faith.
We have been able to facilitate a schoolchild’s learning to read when he needed help and to give moral support over a long period to young people whose unemployment seems endless,   to bandage up wounds of body and soul, and to accompany the path of sickness to its very end, astonished to see the dying person’s self-surrender to God.   And what can’t be expressed are the intense moments of encounter overflowing with gratitude, not knowing what allows us to receive a friendship so profound and fulfilling.  Is it an echo of the burning of hearts on the road to Emmaus?  
Through this daily proximity over the years, we were gifted with being able to deeply experience the history of our people right along with them: the gloomy years of dictatorship, hidden exteriorly by a smile, the gradual growth in importance of religious discourse and the diverse positions taken in regards to it, the increase in educated young people, unemployed and impatient, until the enthusiastic explosion of the 2011 revolution with its newfound patriotism and freedom of speech! And what followed: the hopes, the trials and errors, the choices, the failures and the successes, and the persevering hope.
We lived these years twinned with Libya, forming one Region with them.  This was a great source of joy, sharing, emulation, solidarity, and a big “plus” in our life as a community.  And together we shared our neighbour Algeria’s difficult years, conscious of the great challenge these States are facing in their efforts to achieve unity in the Maghreb.  
During this painful time, we were able to welcome a good number of little sisters from different countries in formation, with the joy of seeing that they were able to discover the origin of our charism here, despite the absence of the “places Br Charles had lived” and the places of the foundation.  
Some stays of little sisters from the Orient showed us the rapidity and depth of bonds that can be formed between brothers and sisters of the same blood and language.  
Our parish groupOur parish group It was also with our tiny but diverse Church that we experienced lively familial celebrations, times of fellowship, and spontaneous mutual help between religious communities.  This tiny Church was also concerned with being attentive to the evolution of the country and the good of its citizens, and its priests were often on the road in order to be with its dispersed communities.  
Our parish in OudrefOur parish in OudrefAnother source of durable friendships was the arrival of Eastern European Christians as specialists and teachers, working with Tunisia on development.  With them came a sense of renewal.
Then there was the revitalization of our communities by the arrival of Sub-Saharan Africa students, young people full of faith and joy.  
And now the time for us to depart has come, whereas for the country a time of blind terrorism, said to be “religious”, has come.  But we also note the resistance of the people, the tightening of its unity, and the reflection on faith and religion that the situation has brought with it – so many reasons to hope!  
We are leaving, but the gift of a friendship has been given us!  It’s up to us to be faithful to it in confident intercession that God will continue to accompany the wisdom of the people just as he has done up until now.  
We have made a visit, a Visitation, to an OTHER, and we have also been visited.  We are aware that our very strangeness has made a breach in the world of our friends and that they themselves have made quite a big one in ours.  

On both sides, we had reason to suspect that God is “bigger” still than what we were thinking.  Allah  Akbar – may his tent shelter each and every one of us, and still many more along with us!  Perhaps we will know how to make this discovery “resound” wherever we are so that little by little it will extend to those both near and far.

Our parishOur parish