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A Kingdom of Tea and Strangers

November 22nd, 2023 | 9 min read

By Houston Coley

“This is God’s work. It grew like a tree, and in God’s own time it will die. The shelter didn’t begin as an institution; it began as a family. And by the grace of God, it’s a family still. There are flowers on the table; they call you by your name. There is a fullness of humanity there in a fallen world.”

This quote, lifted from the introduction to Sylvester Jacobs’ photography book called A Portrait of A Shelter, has often lingered with me as a fond and esoteric way of explaining the ministry of L’Abri Fellowship—a place that is known by many as both powerfully transformative and notoriously difficult to explain.

Is it a study center? Perhaps, but that sounds a little too academic. A retreat? Sure, but that comes across too leisurely. A conference? A church camp? A commune? Decidedly none of those. The term “monastery hostel” has always been my favorite in casual conversation, but L’Abri is admittedly neither monastery nor hostel. A former L’Abri worker named Wade Bradshaw once said, “any explanation of L’Abri brief enough to keep the interest of the questioner is going to leave them with misconceptions.”

Perhaps the simplest description is this: in French, L’Abri means “The Shelter.”

L’Abri Fellowship was founded in 1955 by the American theologian Francis Schaeffer and his wife Edith in the Swiss Alps. It all began with Francis and Edith opening their chalet home to strangers with deep questions about life, allowing their hospitality to create a space for people to be honest and vulnerable. Francis, especially, was driven by the belief in “true truth”—the idea that if the claims of Christianity are indeed based in reality, they can (and should) be questioned and examined without fear of them falling apart. Schaeffer’s work resonated deeply with young people (many of them hippies and agnostics) who were still reeling from the evils of World War II and harboring profound existential and theological questions about God, meaning, goodness, and the universe.

The Schaeffers did not intend to start a community, but their hospitality and openness to the Holy Spirit’s work within every person who showed up on their doorstep created one anyway. Eventually, the work, hospitality, and ideas of L’Abri outgrew their home. Since the 1950s, L’Abri has slowly and prayerfully expanded to other branches around the world, with the largest in England and others in the USA, Brazil, The Netherlands, Korea, and Canada.

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L’Abri did not start with an inherent goal of expansion or growth, though—and it doesn’t have one today, either. A worker at English L’Abri once recalled to me that when quizzed about the “five year growth plan for his organization,” he simply told the questioner that “our only growth plan is that we hope everyone who comes here will grow.”

But what is L’Abri? That question might be part of why my wife Debbie and I decided to make a feature documentary about it instead of using our feeble words. The two of us first met each other at English L’Abri, and last summer we spent 3 months shooting a feature film about the English branch. Now, we’re raising the final funds for finishing and release on Kickstarter through December 1st.

I’ve found that in the absence of an image or a feature film, metaphors usually help people to understand the work of L’Abri better than an objective description. The way Tolkien describes Rivendell in The Lord of The Rings remains the closest I’ve ever heard: 

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the sea. It was a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.

In the real world, English L’Abri is located in a 16th-century manor house in Hampshire, and students of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities come to stay during three-month windows—some for a day, some for a weekend, others for the entire term. A small community of full-time workers and their families live in the various flats and small houses on the property, helping to take care of the manor, prepare meals, and aid students in processing their questions.

An ordinary day at any L’Abri branch today usually includes three hours of work, three hours of free study, as well as regular tea breaks, an often-lively lunch discussion, and something like a lecture or a film/game night in the evening. English L’Abri probably has the highest percentage of long walks to the pub, too.

A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers, the film that my wife and I shot last year, is a feature documentary chronicling one summer at English L'Abri. The film follows a group of students from around the world as they look for belonging, wrestle with doubts and uncertainty, and grapple with finding spirituality and community in their ordinary lives back home.

If you’ve never heard of L’Abri before now, it may be because they deliberately avoid advertising themselves; in fact, when the staff of the English branch agreed to allow us to make a documentary, they did it under the condition that it would not be a commercial trying to get people to attend. One of the core ideas of L’Abri, since the time of Francis and Edith, has always been wholehearted dependence on prayer. L’Abri workers believe that this intentional vulnerability (through lack of fundraising) goes toward demonstrating the reality of the supernatural. If the students, workers, or funds cease to continue at a particular branch, it is believed that the branch may not be needed anymore. Because of this prayerful dependence, life at L’Abri often feels like a miracle, and the workers treat students with a sense of welcome that suggests that their very presence is an answered prayer. One student we interviewed last summer described it by saying, “if it’s true that God brings people to L’Abri, then that means that many of the conversations are so easy because they’re God-ordained conversations.”

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One of the most common questions you’ll encounter at L’Abri is a simple one: “How did you hear about L’Abri?” It seems straightforward, but it has often strikes something deep very quickly. The fact that L’Abri does not advertise means that the people who have made the 2-mile trek from the train station and stumbled their way through the creaky wooden door usually have a surprising and intimately personal story to show for it.

My wife Debbie, for instance, first learned about L’Abri through an offhand reference in a book called Imagine by Steve Turner—written in English, but translated into her native language of Czech and gifted to her by her youth pastor. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered that one of her closest mentors at L’Abri had actually founded the Czechoslovak publishing house which translated Imagine into her language in the first place. Stories like this are constant and always mundanely miraculous.

While many of the early students at Swiss L’Abri in the 1950s were hippies, atheists, agnostics, and intellectual questioners, the demographics of people (and the questions being asked) have shifted over the years. The problem of evil and the conflict between science and God were watershed issues in earlier decades, but they are not the defining issues of recent years.

As Christianity Today noted in 2008, one of the most prominent groups of people coming to L’Abri today could be described as “disaffected evangelicals”—people who were raised in the church but still feel a sense of spiritual homelessness, desiring to connect with the transcendent but unsure whether their church at home can truly meet this need. Many people carry scars and hurt, confident that something transcendent exists but unsure whether the Christian life can truly be all that fruitful given the pain they’ve experienced at the hands of people who claimed to believe in it. Many others feel a sense of isolation and loneliness in the modern world and desire community, rest, and care. Regardless of the decade, everyone searches for real meaning.

Several L’Abri workers I’ve interviewed have described the gradual shift from a culture that knows truth through intellectual ideas to a culture that knows truth through experience. Some people might place a moral judgement on this shift, but the L’Abri workers I’ve encountered tend to accept it for what it is. In a sense, L’Abri has always been uniquely equipped to balance both of those needs; intellectual and theological ideas are central to work of L’Abri, but seeing those ideas lived-out and integrated into daily life is part of the way that L’Abri tends to enchant the people who stay for a while.

The divide between the spiritual and the secular is so pervasive in Western Evangelical culture that for many who first arrive at L’Abri, it can feel near-heretical to accept the idea that washing dishes, chopping firewood, gardening, cooking food, engaging with truly excellent art, making beautiful music, playing games like volleyball and Settlers of Catan, and sharing a meal with friends all might be described as “spiritual.” It’s the harmonious integration of life at L’Abri, though, that feels revolutionary—especially to Westerners who have been taught that programs and spectacle set apart the spiritual from everything else like wheat from chaff.

A quote I’ve heard often around English L’Abri is from Schaeffer’s close friend, the Dutch theologian and artist Hans Rookmaaker: “Christ did not come to make us Christian; Christ came to make us fully human.” It is the full richness of this humanity which is so often on display in the mundane ordinariness of family life at The Manor House. Children run around playing imaginary games of monsters and heroes, accompanied by a dog named Stella. Laundry is hung out on the lines to dry—and abruptly taken inside when it rains. Piano notes drift through the halls and up into the attic, where the sun sets above rolling downs. Norse Mythology is read aloud alongside The HobbitThe Chronicles of Narnia, Flannery O’Connor, and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

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The fire is stoked and people gather close to sip their hot cocoa and share what they’ve written during the week for a poetry club. People munch on popcorn while watching Kieślowski’s Dekalog and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. At tea break, everyone stops their work or study and gathers to hold a warm mug and laugh about the youngest child clumsily filling his cup with nothing but milk and sugar. Friends gather in the front hall to say farewell to a stranger who has become very dear to them, as they climb into a taxi to return home.

When I first arrived at L’Abri years ago, I spent the first two or three weeks bracing myself from what I’d come to expect from church camp: an emphasis on spectacle and mountaintop moments, a fear of “the world” outside these spiritual walls of safety, and a chaperone asking me to pray a certain prayer to secure my soul. These moments and attitudes never materialized. I’ve said many times since then that “L’Abri was the most compelling evangelism I’ve ever experienced, mainly because there was no overt evangelism.” 

Like any good writer, L’Abri at its best allows the Holy Spirit to show instead of tell, communicating love and hospitality and humility with every meal, every board game, every lecture, and every shared discussion. Life at L’Abri is not glamorous, not made to generate spectacle or flashy miracles. Life at L’Abri is an hourly embrace of The New Creation amid the often unimpressive normalcy of family life. And that’s why the truth and reality of God’s presence everywhere tends to last long after the term is over.

It would be against the ethos of L’Abri to prop its own work up too highly on a pedestal. At its best, this place is still a fragmented vision of something better to come—and something we’re meant to learn to embody in our lives outside. Colin Duriez said this:

It is not a monastic community…rather, it is a pilot community, inspired by Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, which gives tantalizing hints of proper human living in the world today, and where God is working in constantly surprising ways. The style of living that it signals is not just a beautiful dream but something that is real, faithful and true, that brings substantial healing in our fractured lives.

In making A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers, our documentary about English L’Abri, our hope is that we will be able to go beyond idolizing the particulars of this one place and instead explore a “way of being” that can be embodied anywhere. Our belief is that while the disenchantment of young people with church is palpable, showing surprising images of God in the world can serve to reawaken the imagination with a vision of what The Kingdom can be. That’s what L’Abri did for both of us. We hope to provide a glimpse of it to others.

Watch the trailer and support A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers on Kickstarter here.

Houston Coley

Houston Coley is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and voice-actor from Atlanta, Georgia. Coley writes, shoots and edits video essays, documentaries, and short films for an audience on YouTube.