At 7:30 in the morning, a few old boards begin creaking as students and workers tip toe down the stairs of Bellevue House at the foot of the Alps. Quietly, they begin setting out warm homemade bread, coffee, and Swiss müesli for breakfast. One by one the chalet’s residents wake up and prepare for their morning study. This is Swiss L’Abri.
Comprised of several roadside chalets in a tiny village called Huémoz right outside the ski town of Aigle, L’Abri was founded here over 60 years ago as “The Shelter” (the English translation of “L’Abri”) for those seeking security in their faith or answers to life’s biggest questions. During the 1960s and 1970s, L’Abri attracted hippies, but today many come desiring to study a topic or aspect of God’s Word. Since reading about it in the back cover of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? I knew I wanted to visit L’Abri. This past year, while studying abroad in Switzerland, I had the perfect opportunity to pay a visit. I was able to stay two separate extended weekends and have longed to return ever since.
Now fondly remembered by America’s Baby Boomers and Generation Xers for his short videos on philosophy and Western culture, Francis Schaeffer considered himself an amateur philosopher, theologian, and historian. And amateur he was—his works have been criticized by historians for incorrect details—but he, nevertheless, was cited by many of my favorite teachers and mentors. I quickly learned that I was among the few who had read of L’Abri and sought it out after being raised with a knowledge of the significance of Francis Schaeffer.
Although the occasional atheist comes to make a final grapple with God, most of them are young Evangelicals who are disenchanted by the American Church. Retirees and college students alike find ways to extend their stays, whether because of the homey fellowship or the intellectual fulfillment.
So how are America’s youth finding their way to the same tiny chalet I visited, nestled in the hillside of a quaint Swiss village? Many of its current residents heard of L’Abri from a friend, pastor, parent, or mentor who studied there. Some passersby stop in out of curiosity. L’Abri offers a rare chance for students of all ages to gain perspective on their lives. For some reason Swiss L’Abri has always drawn proportionally more Americans, although it is increasingly attracting other international visitors.
After Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded it 60 years ago, Swiss L’Abri turned into L’Abri Fellowship International which consists of nine locations around the world, three of which are in North America. Most people stay for one of L’Abri’s terms. But some, like myself, stay for shorter periods—yet it is not uncommon for people to remain longer than they originally intended. The site has become home for a hodgepodge of people of all nationalities and phases of the Christian life. And indeed there seems to be a good retention rate – almost all of the staff were former students who fell in love, married, and chose to stay.
Though founded as a shelter for those seeking answers and while upholding that Christianity can be rationally defended, L’Abri emphasizes on its website that it is “not a place for intellectuals only” and “not primarily a ‘mind’ place.” It appeals to many young Evangelicals who are struggling to confront the reality that they may believe all the right things and still wrestle with their faith. They are drawn to the philosophy that life in community is best to see and understand the grace of God.
Daily life is built on a strict study and meal schedule. Everyone is expected to spend the hours between meals productively utilizing the resources in the library down the hill, affectionately called “Farel House.” For stays of six nights or longer students are given tutors to help them work through their philosophical questions or simply act as a mentor. Over lunch they hold intentional conversations. Someone usually ask a question, which can be on any topic. The ensuing discussion is sometimes on topics as deep as Christian and Church engagement with certain aspects of culture, the roles of the persons within the Trinity, or the correct intersection of faith and science. According to the staff, there are fewer deep questions towards the end of the term as students have generally addressed their most pressing topics and also know each other better.
L’Abri offers a charming study atmosphere. After cozying up with tea and a wool blanket in the stacks to study baptism or glancing up at the blizzard outside between reading N.T. Wright on one of their desks, I quickly felt that I was in Bible Study Heaven. Farel House offers a plethora of resources on a range of theological topics, which, in my study, carried a little of Francis’ Presbyterian bent. A library shelf holds old cassette tapes of Schaeffer’s lectures and tape players for guests to listen.
As one might imagine, with Switzerland’s high taxes, it is not cheap to maintain a chalet. Generous donors keep the lights on. They pay for utility costs as well as cover the majority of student payments. In fact, students on average pay only a third of the cost of living per individual. It is why students are limited to two showers per week and the boards are still creaky. L’Abri functions off of the willing help of the whole house toward meals, maintenance, and cleaning, so everyone has chores. During one extended weekend, I helped pay my keep by taking the trash out in the special bags for which L’Abri paid the Swiss government, sorting trash metals and PET plastic bottles so that we could recycle everything in the village dump properly. It would be weighed and L’Abri would be charged accordingly, per Swiss law.
Since electronic devices are discouraged, for some it’s the first time they are removed from technology and have an ordered, daily routine. They enjoy the pleasures of working to contribute to daily life in community. Students have weekends off, so a student team makes ham sandwiches on homemade bread and packs them in lunch sacks for adventuring together in nearby towns. Every Sunday they gather for chapel and an optional early morning worship. Every other Sunday afternoon is “High Tea” which consists of anything from swing or Cèilidh dancing to chocolate tasting. On weeknights there is an occasional event. I attended a wonderful poetry workshop.
It is hard to believe that for the amount of 45 Swiss Francs, minimal manual labor, and a willingness to participate in the L’Abri community, one can spend a weekend enjoying a Swiss getaway complete with good food, spiritual encouragement, and possibly lasting friendships. My stay was priceless, and many of America’s young Evangelicals would agree.