When I met Dean, he was a widowed, stooped, pipe-smoking, eighty-five-year-old retired journalist living in an RV. We struck up a conversation – I was an aspiring journalist, fascinated by his stories. Like the time he met Jim Morrison before the Doors played a mid-60s concert – “A very polite young man when he was sober,” Dean said.
By the darker late 60s, Dean was in a dark place himself. He left California for a newspaper job in St. Louis. On his way into the city, he heard a woman’s voice on the radio, reading the news. He decided he wanted to meet her. He did. They quickly fell in love and were married by the only clergyman they knew – their Unitarian-minister pot hookup.
The couple soon discovered that they hoped to find something real in the world, something that could make them believe in good things again. So they traveled to Europe in search of enlightenment. They did not find it.
The last night before returning to America, they ate at a café in Madrid, talking about the disappointing trip. A couple nearby overheard them – “There’s a place you should visit in Switzerland,” they said. “It’s called L’Abri.” Neither Dean nor his wife was interested in another guru, but they didn’t have any pressing need to return. So they went.
They found a hippie commune without a bed to be had; they were offered a mattress on the floor. At breakfast, Dean’s wife asked him what he thought. “Another commune, another guru,” Dean replied.
Still, they set out on a winding mountain trail to meet the “guru”; as they hiked they met a long-haired, bearded man in mountaineering knickers, who brightened on seeing them. He’d been coming down to meet them, he said. He introduced himself: this was Francis Schaeffer.
L’Abri (Shelter), still operating around the world, is the residential ministry that Francis Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, began in 1955. The idea is relatively simple: A group of people live together, work, study, and pray together; most of the residents are short-term guests dealing with some long-term struggle. The community is open to anyone willing to participate – it is safe to doubt, safe to ask questions, safe to be honest.
But the genius of L’Abri lies in that conversation on the mountainside. Telling the story thirty-five years later, Dean was moved. “I’d never been greeted like that by anyone.” There was nothing smarmy about Schaeffer, he says, nothing fraudulent. There was only a man who found human beings fascinating. He cared about them. So intense was his focus on each person he met that many others report the same feeling of being truly seen for the first time.
The feeling at L’Abri is of coming home; it is the kind of place where a person can be fully seen and fully loved. It is, in other words, a place that encourages people to see one another as God sees them through Christ. For Dean and his wife, who became Christians soon afterward, the greeting was a welcome into the rest of their lives.