Marlène’s curiosity was her worst and best characteristic. It isolated her but brought community. It stung her but later brought relief.
It ruined her.
But it also saved her.
On the weekends, as a child, Marlène would travel with her family just outside of Paris, France, her hometown, to feast with her aunts, uncles, and cousins. While the adults prepared sandwiches and barbecued in the house, the children would scale trees and swing and seesaw outside. After the meal, everyone would go for a walk. Marlène’s thick, wavy blond hair would fly back as she ran ahead of the adults to pick as many flowers along the dirt path as possible. With her flushed cheeks and vibrant blue eyes, she would hand the flowers to her aunt, who’d thank her, albeit hesitatingly, suggesting that it might be better to just leave the flowers unpicked. But Marlène would not hear her. She’d simply nod, skip ahead, and cheerfully pick some more.
On Sundays, Marlène, her parents, her brother, and her sister would walk through one of Paris’s main woodsy parks, Bois de Vincennes. Along the way, she’d curiously pick shrubbery and flowers to take home. Her mom would often open a book to discover leaves, petals, and whole flowers, flattened between the pages, saved for who-knows-what.
And for holidays, the entire family would windsurf, build sandcastles, and collect seashells along the coast of France.
When Marlène reflects on her childhood, she describes it with one word: beautiful. After all, her memories overflow with family gatherings, countless explorations, and outdoor adventures.
explorations, and outdoor adventures. She never had a shortage of other children to play with and family members who loved her.
But when Marlène describes her childhood as “beautiful,” she hesitates. Because there was just one thing.
Marlène was born into a closed community, who believed that they were the chosen people of God—although church was bad—and it was important to protect themselves from La Gentilité, or those outside of the community. To preserve the community, many rules and regulations were established, such as only marrying within the community, all made in the name of God. Those that did not abide were simply rejected.
Marlène went to a public elementary school in the 11th arrondissement, or district, of Paris. It wasn’t uncommon for four, five, or even six of her cousins to be in the same class, which didn’t even include the cousins that were in other grade levels. On average, about 25 children from her community went to school together. During recess, they’d all meet at the playground to eat together, play together, and talk with each other.
When school ended at 4:30 p.m., all of the mothers, whom Marlène refers to as “aunties,” would wait at the school to take their children home.
And while Marlène loved having her cousins around to play with, her curiosity for the “others” intensified. The ones she never spoke to outside of school. The ones who invited her over, but she always had to say “no” to.
She began wondering why the answer was always “no.” Why it couldn’t be a “yes” for a change. But whenever she confronted her parents about this, she’d rarely get a clear answer.
she’d rarely get a clear answer.
As Marlène got older, she began questioning the exclusivity of the community. And her ears began picking things up here and there, like when her cousins would say, “We can’t say things to others at school because they will not believe us, and they’ll call the police and maybe take us away...” or “God chose us, so we’re different, and we cannot be with others because others do bad things…”
“After that,” Marlène says, “I began realizing how it was impacting my own life.” She speaks with a heavy French accent, each word melting into the next.
Like in elementary school, when her entire class traveled to Albertville, France to watch the closing ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics. For weeks, the class had researched and created projects revolving around the Olympic Games. And finally, they’d be able to see it in person. But Marlène’s parents said, “No.”
“My class went there, and I had to stay in school, in another teacher’s classroom, alone, doing whatever,” Marlène says. “And I remember a Muslim girl had to stay as well…her parents didn’t want her to go either. I remember looking at her, and I was like, ‘Why am I here? Why are we here? What did we do wrong?’”
Time after time, Marlène missed out on class trips, birthday parties, group outings to the mall or movies, and all-night sleepovers.
But she didn’t give up. In middle school, a classmate invited her to a big end-of-the-year party. Everyone would be there, including the boy Marlène had a crush on. She knew what her parents would say, but she really, really wanted to go. So, she insisted until she got her answer.
“You can call her mom, and talk to her about the party…it’s safe,” Marlène pleaded with her mom.
Her mom said no.
“But why?” Marlène insisted. “I need an answer to why…”
Marlène’s mom couldn’t give her one.
“I kept pushing her, saying things like, ‘Give me an answer because this isn’t ok for me,’ and then she said, ‘Ok, go, but don’t tell your dad.’ So, I went to the party.
“And then, it was kind of the open door when she said that.”
It became evident that Marlène’s mother questioned some aspects of the community. While she loved the people—she grew up with them, after all—she didn’t like the exclusiveness and how she always had to tell her daughter “no.” Nor did she agree with how women were strongly discouraged from getting a higher education or working.
Her father, on the other hand, accepted and believed the ways of the community to be true. In 1998, when Marlène was 16-years-old, her mother and father separated. Her mother left the community. Marlène went with her.
“When my mom told me she found a new place for us to live, I was happy because it was, for me, a new freedom,” Marlène says. “I would not have to hide from my dad, or lie to him every time I went out with friends from school.”
The next couple of years, however, proved confusing. Marlène liked the freedom. She did. But she didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to stay close to her friends in the community as well as those outside.
“It was some time after my mom left, I was still close to some of my cousins,” Marlène says. “I had a some friends outside [of the community], but I didn’t really have lots of friends outside.
I didn’t really have lots of friends outside. So, that was hard because I was expecting my friends from the community to still be friends…I just thought I’d mix them altogether in my mind. But then I realized, it is very hard to keep relationships with them. It’s just hard…”
Although Marlène left the community with her mother, because it wasn’t technically her decision, she knew she could always return.
But Marlène didn’t want that. So, to sever that relationship, she began dating Nicolas, who she thought would bring her happiness and freedom.
“From 16-18, I stopped going to birthdays and baptisms…I just stopped,” Marlène says. “And then, they [the family] noticed, and they’d say, ‘We didn’t see you for so-and-so’s engagement party. Why aren’t you coming?’ and I’d just say, ‘I didn’t want to.’”
“But then, when I was 18,” Marlène explains, “I told the community that I had a boyfriend.”
Marlène was throwing in the towel. Showing her cards. Making sure she was out of the community, once and for all.
Her godfather, a man Marlène deeply respected and practically considered a second dad, just looked at her and said, “I feel sorry for you.”
“I was driven by anger to make my life successful. I broke the rules of the community and went to university, supported myself, looked for a good man, became independent and tried to move on,” Marlène explains. “To prove to the community that I could still be a good, respected, honorable citizen of the world even being outside the community.”
But the burden of doing things to simply prove the community wrong weighed heavily on her. And then, her boyfriend, who she thought she was going to marry, broke up with her after two and a half years.
“I was expecting Nicolas to make me happy,” Marlène says. “I put so much pressure on him, saying things like, ‘I left my whole family for you, so be exceptional. You better be great.’”
Suddenly, without a boyfriend and without the community, she realized how lonely she was. While going back to the community never crossed her mind, she couldn’t help but wonder if this was all that the outside world had to offer. Was there nothing else?
When Marlène first left the community, she hated God. But then, since the community wasn’t educated, she rationalized, they must be wrong about God. He must not be real.
“I hated God,” she says. “I was so angry with God because I thought, ‘It’s all your fault.’ So, first, I was really angry and then, I just decided that God would not exist because what the community believed was wrong. They made something out of nothing.”
But God does exist. And His plans were unfolding perfectly.
In 2008, Marlène had enough. She was done with the circuitous pattern of depression and loneliness in France. She needed to get out. So, that March, she moved to Suwon, South Korea to teach French at Kyunghee University.
she moved to Suwon, South Korea to teach French at Kyunghee University.
A couple months later, her friend visited from France. They spent the day exploring nearby Seoul, and as they were riding the bus back to Suwon, a Korean woman in front of them turned around and asked if they were French. They got to talking. By the end of their bus ride, phone numbers were swapped, but Marlène accidentally gave the woman a wrong number. Unaware of her mistake, Marlène waited for a phone call that never came. She must have blown me off, Marlène thought to herself. Then, an administrator at her university notified her that a woman had called, looking for a Marlène Fert.
Marlène later learned that after the woman had called the wrong number, she tried calling Kyonggi University, asking if there was a French teacher with blond hair who worked there. When no one fit that description, she thought that perhaps she misheard Marlène’s school, and in fact, it was the other university that sounded strikingly similar: Kyunghee University. And that’s when the administration notified Marlène.
When Marlène and her new friend, Jin, finally connected, they grew quite close to each other. As time passed and they met more often, Jin began dropping tidbits of “God” and “faith” into her conversations with Marlène, who would simply shrug it off, pretending like she didn’t hear Jin correctly.
Then, Marlène went to a Meetup.com gathering at a local bar for people who wanted to practice their French. There, she met a Belgium woman, close in age, who vacationed in France. After a long chat, they exchanged numbers and met up frequently to talk about everything from dating to memories of France.
After two or three months of this, her friend had a confession.
“There’s something I didn’t tell you,” she said to Marlène.
“What?” Marlène asked nervously.
“I’m a Christian,” she confessed.
But because they had become such good friends, and since Marlène expected a much worse confession, she simply responded with relief.
“And I just began to open up,” Marlène explains. “I said, ‘Ah! Let me tell you, I know a lot about God and stuff. And I know about Jesus, so don’t worry. That’s nothing. We can definitely stay friends…as long as you never ask me to come to church with you, we are fine.’”
But as Marlène shared about God and the community, her friend responded with, “That is not God, Marlène.”
Two years later, in 2010, one of the top international schools in Seoul hired Marlène as a French teacher. Although the school was Christian, Marlène went into the interview, vowing that she would not lie about her faith, or lack thereof. If she didn’t get it, at least she wasn’t a hypocrite about it.
“I think the Spirit really led the discussion,” Marlène remembers, “because I don’t really remember everything, but I remember clearly what he said. He said, ‘Tell me more about you and Korea…’ and I just started to speak a lot, and I talked about the community and everything.”
The principal simply nodded and listened as Marlène spewed details of her aunts, cousins, uncles, godfather, parents, and siblings. When she was done, he asked her two questions.
“Are your parents still in the community?”
“Do you want to go back to the community?”
He offered her the job right then and there.
After her first year at the international school, Marlène wanted to move to a neighborhood closer to the school.
A man named Chris was interested in her old apartment. When he stopped by to take a look, he mentioned that his church, New Philadelphia Church, was right around the corner from the apartment.
How interesting, Marlène thought, that I lived right by a church without even knowing it. Maybe there was a reason…
Being surrounded by all of these Christians at work and even in her social circle surprised Marlène. They were not at all like the community.
“You see, I think God is very smart,” Marlène giggles as she explains. “I saw that Chris was normal. He bikes, and I bike…little things like that. I thought that someone couldn’t be crazy and bike at the same time. He must be a normal person.”
Marlène started accepting the idea that, perhaps, people who believed in God were ok. But people who went to church? No. They were intense and fanatical; plus, the community taught that church was forbidden.
But if Chris, a very normal and nice guy, went to church, maybe she’d be ok, too.
On August 28, 2011, Marlène stepped into New Philadelphia Church. A little nervous, but really, more curious, she wanted to know what kind of people went to church. What they talked about. What it looked like. What they did there.
But as the pastor, Christian Lee, came to the end of his message, “The Words of a Father,” he said,“There are some people in here who feel empty, and you’re longing and thirsting for the words of a spiritual father to set you free. To help you reach new levels, to help you to put behind the past, and move forward into your God-given future…”
Suddenly, Marlène remembered the last thing her godfather said to her: “I feel sorry for you.” And she began to weep. The burden of her family’s disapproval came to the forefront of her thoughts. The lie that she couldn’t be happy if she left the community fell heavy upon her. And she couldn’t bear it any longer.
“Some of you have issues with authority,” Pastor Christian continued. “You’ve been beating yourself up over it. And you’re like, ‘Man, why can’t I just submit to authority? Why do I distrust authority? Why am I so rebellious sometimes?’...And you beat yourself over the head about it.
“But here’s the word of the Lord for you: it’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not that you’re in rebellion. It’s just that you’re wounded. You’ve been wounded by spiritual authorities and that’s why you distrust spiritual authorities.
“…if that’s you, I want you to stand up. I believe that God’s going to kick start a season of healing in your heart that’s going to eliminate all that poison of distrust.”
Marlène stood up.
After that week, Marlène started going to church regularly. She felt good.
The messages inspired and encouraged her. But when her Korean friend, Jin, asked if she was saved, Marlène couldn’t say.
What did that mean? Was I saved? Safe? From what? North Korea?
Because, outside of church, Marlène didn’t open the Bible, afraid of what she might find. She had no idea what salvation meant.
So, a few weeks later, when Marlène injured her ankle and had to rest at home for 20 days, Jin took the opportunity to invite her pastor, who could speak French, to Marlène’s home to learn and read through the Bible. Marlène, who denied Jin’s offer for the last three years, reluctantly agreed.
The pastor arrived at Marlène’s apartment on a Wednesday morning. He asked her if she believed in God and everything the Bible said about God.
He then explained that the Bible is sometimes difficult to understand, so he was there to help her. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., they went through the Bible, starting with creation.
The next two Wednesdays, the same thing. The history of Israel, the Psalms, the Gospels, Jesus’s second coming.
“We learned about being sinners,” Marlène remembers, “and I was like, ‘No, I’m not. It’s not my fault if I grew up in the community. From the beginning, I was screwed…'”
By the third Wednesday, Marlène understood.
“I didn’t even have to ask him,” Marlène says about that last Wednesday.
“I just knew.”
She was saved.
The same night Marlène accepted Christ into her life, she had her first small group meeting. They asked Marlène about her life. Then, they asked her when she got saved.
“I know that she was so ready to learn,” remembers Cassandra, Marlène’s first small group leader. “Ready to hear. Ready to read and study the Word. Ready to grow in sonship, even not fully knowing what that was. Ready to forgive. Ready to love...she was just so willing to do whatever the Holy Spirit was leading her to do.”
In 2012, as the end of her two-year contract at the international school approached, Marlène faced the future with a new hope. Now, she was saved. Now, she had purpose and vision. Now, she had what seemed like an endless supply of joy. She excitedly anticipated God’s next step for her.
She did not, however, think His plan included leaving Korea anytime soon. In fact, when three better positions at her international school opened up, which included higher pay, better benefits, and housing—perks she did not receive before—she thought that God set that up just for her.
However, as door after door closed, she started to worry. I just got started here, she pleaded with God. I’m a part of an amazing church and community. I just became a Christian. It’s not fair...You can’t take me away now.
“I felt like I was almost ready to be angry with God again,” Marlène says.
“But I calmed down, and I chose to have faith and believe that He closed those doors for a reason.”
So rather than taking things into her own hands, as she had previously done for 32 years, Marlène decided to just trust.
She sent 80 resumes to jobs around the globe, praying that she’d only get one response back. And she received just that. One answer. Sri Lanka.
When she arrived in Sri Lanka, she knew why God had brought her here. He just wanted to bless her.
He gave her a spacious apartment that far exceeded her expectations. He provided the ideal environment for her with a local gym and pool to lose weight and get healthy again, a desire that had been on Marlène’s heart for years. And He gave her a new church, where she could bless others the way her church in Korea blessed her.
For 32 years, the Lord pursued Marlène relentlessly, knowing that one day, He could lavish His daughter with His love. The time had finally come.
“I realized that when you trust Him and honor Him,” Marlène says, “He really does give you everything.”
Marlène’s curiosity drove her to ask questions about the community.
It left her feeling uneasy that, perhaps, something wasn’t quite right.
Her curiosity challenged her to see the “outside” world, which brought independence and freedom, but also confusion and pain.
It pushed her to walk into a building she vowed to never step foot in.
It kept her going to that building, week after week.
And it peaked her interest in a book she was too afraid to open.
Her curiosity led her to Jesus, who encouraged her, comforted her, and contended for her freedom, all along the way.
Marlène’s curiosity saved her.
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