After 45 years of Mennonite Mission Network ministry based in France, Janie and Neal Blough are beginning a stage of life they call reorientation rather than retirement.
They continue to teach in seminaries and congregations throughout France and Switzerland and in their Parisian suburban community.
They continue to present at conferences and maintain relationships throughout the French-speaking world. And they continue to write as well as invest in the publication of French-language Anabaptist literature.
Gratitude for the Bloughs’ extensive academic ministry is interwoven with appreciation for their equally wide-ranging network of friendships.
Siaka Traoré, a Mennonite leader in Burkina Faso and chair of the Mennonite World Conference Deacons Commission, describes Paris as an international center, where it is important to have a Mennonite “embassy.”
“Neal and Janie are Mennonite ambassadors,” Traoré said. “The Paris Mennonite Center has been a refuge for so many of us from Burkina, Chad, Congo, Canada and the United States — even people from France. We have all enjoyed the Bloughs’ legendary hospitality.”
Traoré credited the diversity of the Mennonite churches in Paris to the Bloughs’ teaching ministry and their openness to other cultures.
César García, general secretary of MWC, added to Traoré’s praise.
“A cross-cultural ministry has a cross-cultural impact,” García said. “This is especially true in the lives of Neal and Janie Blough. Their [ministry] in France has been honored beyond Anabaptist circles. On a global scale, we are profoundly thankful for their work and their ongoing teaching ministry in the areas of theology, church history, liturgy and peacemaking. Their lives continue to be a gift for our global communion.”
When Anne-Cathy Graber, the Bloughs’ friend and Paris Mennonite Center colleague, thinks of them, hospitality immediately comes to mind. Graber said that although she was always offered generous and delicious meals at the Bloughs’ table, she has also been nourished by their warm embrace of the ideas of others.
“[Janie and Neal] knew so well how to knit together [physical and spiritual] hospitality!” Graber wrote in a tribute to the Bloughs.
“I’m deeply grateful that in so doing, [they] didn’t just create the Paris Mennonite Center, [they] created the Franco-American Inn of Paris with a typically Mennonite welcome.”
Two words, Janie blough said, characterized the couple’s vision for ministry: hospitality and multiculturalism.
Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor of MMN, commissioned the Bloughs to work in France. Arriving in 1975, they joined MBM colleagues Eleanor and Larry Miller, who were creating Foyer Grebel, a home for African men and women pursuing studies in France. At the time, racist attitudes made it difficult for African students to find lodging in Paris. The city was unwelcoming in other ways too, with its cold climate, its reserved culture and its secularism.
Foyer Grebel opened with a handful of students. The Miller family and the Bloughs had evening meals and weekly Bible studies with the students. At its peak, Foyer Grebel hosted 30 students at a time — a dozen in the original building and others in a network of off-site housing. Attendance at Bible studies increased, and in 1981, regular Sunday services were added. French people, who were not students, began joining in worship and provided stability to the growing congregation, which joined the national French Mennonite structure.
Within the first decade of the Bloughs’ assignment, their vision of Christ’s body as a multinational, multicultural, multiracial church sharpened.
“A sign of the future God wants for the world is the birth of a multicultural church,” Neal Blough said.
Foyer Grebel closed in the 1990s due to an urban renewal project, and the building that had housed it became home to the Paris Mennonite Center and the Blough family.
The Paris Mennonite Center nurtures Anabaptist theology through relationships with French-speaking Mennonite churches around the world. It encourages Christians to unite for global peace.
Neal Blough held a half-time, salaried position at the Vaux-Sur-Seine Evangelical Seminary outside of Paris. He also taught at the Catholic University of Paris and the Mennonite Bible school in Bienenberg, Switzerland. He is often called upon for conferences throughout Europe and beyond — Congo, Guadeloupe, Ivory Coast and Morocco, to name a few.
In 2009, La Vie, a Catholic magazine, named Neal Blough one of 100 most influential Protestants in France, noting the importance of the Mennonite stance on nonviolence.
Two aspects of the Paris Mennonite Center’s ministry since 2000 give Neal Blough great satisfaction: publishing Anabaptist literature and the creation of the Mennonite Francophone Network. Perspectives anabaptistes has made 20 titles available in two decades. And relationships among the network of French-speaking Mennonites in Africa, Europe and Quebec are flourishing under the auspices of Mennonite World Conference.
Janie Blough launched her teaching ministry with English classes at the city hall to reach out to community people. At first, the neighbors were apprehensive, thinking the Bloughs belonged to a strange religious sect. But after 30 years of a respectful exchange of ideas, the English class participants have become a close-knit group, supporting each other through crises and joys. She often chose Mennonite themes for conversation topics, such as the importance of peace and nonviolence in human relationships.
She also teaches at Nogent Bible College, at Bienenberg Bible school in Switzerland, at the Vaux seminary and in several other continuing education assignments. She speaks at conferences and leads worship workshops.
Over 45 years of ministry, Neal Blough said, “my strong Anabaptist vision has been tempered by multicultural learning and new perspectives on colonialism and North-South relationships. We must de-ethnicize our Mennonite identity and be more consciously involved in efforts to promote Christian unity.”
The Bloughs are continuing all of their ministries except the work of the Paris Mennonite Center. Matthew and Toni Krabill, who began serving with MMN in 2020, have taken responsibility for the center. The Bloughs hope this will free up time to dedicate to the families of their three children, including three grandchildren, who live within a 10-mile radius.