From Islam to Christ: the conversion of Mehdi Djaadi: Enraptured by the Eucharist

01-22-2023Weekly Reflection

A French-Algerian actor recounts his conversion from Islam to Catholicism via Protestantism. Born in a difficult neighborhood, rescued from the theater by delinquency, in his show “Coming out” he bears witness to his spiritual journey and his journey towards true freedom. The one staged by Mehdi Djaadi, a French-Algerian actor in the theater, is decidedly out of the ordinary. No, it's not what you think. The one represented by Mehdi in his monologue entitled "Coming out" is not the story of an exit from some dark closet: it is the story of a conversion, of a gaze that gradually opens up to the true light, the one that illuminates every man.

Mehdi Djaadi was born in 1986 in Saint-Étienne (capital of the Loire department), in the Crêt-de-Roc district. He is the second of four children of a family originally from Algeria, the father is a laborer and the mother is a kindergarten teacher. As a child, he confides Medhi to Pierre Jova of La Vie, he was as a child a loner, with few friends at school. However, he has a talent: to imitate others. So to amuse his companions he imitates accents and dresses up according to the imaginary characters that his imagination inspires in him....

The first theft

At the age of 14, the first setback: Mehdi steals a few euros from the mosque's donation box to buy a kebab. The rumor of the theft circulates quickly and, in the best tradition of the wireless telephone (the "Arabic telephone" in French) ends up being distorted and magnified beyond measure. Mehdi thus becomes for everyone the fellow who took off with the cash-register, an absolute disgrace to his family of pious and practicing Muslims. It was also the end, overnight, of his reputation as a model Muslim earned over years of attending the Koranic-school. He also ends up in the crosshairs of the kaid, the little bosses who in the suburbs pose as policemen trying to make their laws prevail over those of the state (or rather, of the République). Be that as it may, he abandons religious practice by ceasing to make the five canonical daily prayers of a good Muslim while, he says, "remaining thirsty for the absolute".

A painful conversion

It is precisely this unsatisfied thirst that leads him, one day, first to notice an evangelical church in the neighborhood, then to attend it. Initially he does it to provoke the local pastor, who in his eyes has a strange claim: he claims that Jesus is the Son of God ("unacceptable from a Muslim point of view!", Mehdi comments). But those meetings continue and it doesn't take long for the pastor to offer him the Gospels. Mehdi is 16 years old: reading those texts shakes him deeply. «Reading them, I am shocked by Jesus. I begin to pray to him, to live a very strong friendship with him». The following years, however, are not easy at all: Mehdi, who in 2002 had also dropped out of school, hangs out in bad areas. He ends up in a ring of thugs and gangs who organize to defraud the banks. He continues to turn to Jesus asking him to change his life. At the age of 21 he left Saint-Étienne and went to Valence (Drôme), the guest of a Protestant publisher. It was he who baptized him, one morning, by a river in the Ardèche. It goes without saying that baptism also marks a break with his family: "My conversion was painful for my family, which had always been there for me". When he becomes a Protestant, his father, the one who traveled miles every time to go and receive him back from the various institutions where he was imprisoned, who regularly tried to appease the family court judge, at first believes that he has fallen victim to some sect. It would have been better for him to know that he had been propagandized, than really convinced of his choice, a fact that for a Muslim family means only two things: dishonor and insecurity.

Rescued from the street by the theater

It's 2008: in Valence things start to turn out differently. He begins attending evening classes at the National Drama Center, then the leap in quality at the Manufacture, the prestigious school of dramatic art in Lausanne, Switzerland. A real shock for him, who had left school at 16 and now he has to try his hand at a university-level course. Moreover, he is the only North African among the students of the school, as well as the only one of popular extraction, with completely different artistic references compared to those of his classmates, who dote on radical-chic-directors like Pedro Almodóvar, while he is fascinated by Denzel Washington and the boys of Goodfellas of Martin Scorsese. But the shock is also spiritual. Upon arrival in Switzerland, Mehdi is happy to be in the homeland of Protestantism, to finally be able to discover Calvin. Instead, he discovers a universe that claims to be tolerant but is fiercely anti-clerical. In Lausanne he then suffers the temptations of student life. He does not come to abandoning the word of God, from which he continues to nourish himself, but he finds it with great difficulty in the sermons of evangelical pastors, "many of which make me think of performances", he says.

Enraptured by the Eucharist

At the end of the first year of courses, he returns exhausted. It is precisely then, that Jonathan, a Catholic childhood friend, offers him a spiritual retreat in the ancient Trappist abbey of Sept-Fons (Allier). Mehdi accepts the invitation and for the first time experiences the Liturgy of the Hours, which has the effect on him of being slapped. “As a Protestant – he confesses – I loved the psalms. The whole mystery of Revelation is contained there: consolation, expectation, joy, the heavenly Jerusalem. There, near those monks, I feel God singing in me. Then I go to worship. Nothing has ever been as profound as this exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. I am certain that the Jesus I love, whom I pray to, is really present. As if I could speak to him: there, now! I am wrapped up in his presence."When he leaves, he finds Jonathan and says, point-blank: "I understand." The adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist, recalls Mehdi Djaadi, "opens up an incredible world for me". He goes to the extern-monk and asks him: «Is it always like this?». And he answered him: «At every Mass and at every adoration». As he leaves the abbey, the young French-Algerian feels tears wet his cheeks: tears of joy, on one cheek, for having met Christ; tears of sadness, on the other cheek, for still not being able to join him in the Eucharist.

Surrounded by the love of Jesus and the saints

The following two years will be for God alone. Every day, at six in the afternoon, after classes, he rushes to the basilica of Notre-Dame du Valentin to attend evening Mass and to take part in catechism. Mehdi's big day came in 2013, when he received Holy Communion and the Sacrament of Confirmation. «All the confirmed are with their family, with their friends... I'm alone in the pew. But when they call me and I answer: «Here I am», deep down I hear: «Here we are». I feel surrounded by Jesus and the saints». A few years later – in 2019 – Mehdi meets Pope Francis in Rome. «And taking him in my arms I felt even more my filiation with Jesus». Converts often denigrate their former co-religionists, feel the need for a clear break with their past. This is not the case for Mehdi, who indeed shows a feeling of gratitude for all the stages and the people who providentially accompanied him towards his encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist.«After some time I give thanks for what I have received from the Protestants. For that pastor from Saint- Étienne who offered me the Gospel, for that publisher from Valence who took me under his wing. The Spirit breathes upon them. And I dare to say: the Evangelicals bring us the zeal and love of the Word; it is up to us, Catholics, to share the beauty of the Eucharist with them".

The birth of love for France

With the Catholic faith, his love for France and for French culture was also born, without ceasing to speak Arabic to his barber or to appreciate Algerian fried-omelettes. But in addition to being a "son of the Church", Mehdi also begins to feel like a "son of France". He became aware of this thanks to a pilgrimage to Compostela, where at every street corner a church, a museum, food, or landscape bore witness to a centuries-old history. A valuable lesson in a France torn apart by rifts and separatism: "To reconcile ourselves with the newcomers, let us be reconciled with ourselves," says the actor. But 2013 is also the year of the Manif pour tous and of the protests against the Taubira law. And in spite of him Mehdi begins, only for his Catholic faith, to be regarded with a certain suspicion at the Manufacture. And so he ends up, even without having been interested in politics before and without having asked for anything, to become the spokesperson for Manif in the world of atheist and progressive culture, where he passes for being an extremist, homophobe, a reactionary… (Note: Manif pour tour, Protest for all, is a political protest movement La Manif pour tous include: demanding that the gay-marriage act be repealed; protesting against what they call the French government's "family-phobia"; protesting against the government's teaching of "gender theory" in French schools, or plans to impose sex education starting in kindergarten) He also confesses that he hesitated to become an actor for fear of being targeted by the dominant ideology, until he feels that being an actor is a vocation for him, a calling, a mission. His job has made him a bridge between different universes, giving him the opportunity to deal and discuss in depth even with LGBT militants. “They understand that I am not the caricatured-Catholic they imagine. Once you get over the clichés, you can appreciate and even love each other».

After winning the César award - the French Oscar - for his interpretation in the dramatic comedy Je suis à vous tout de suite (I’m Instantly Yours), in 2019 Mehdi marries Anne. That same year he launched his own play in the theatre: the monologue “Coming out” where with finesse and humor he told, among other things, the story of a progressive conversion decidedly off-beat, not to mention unclassifiable. But above all he reflects deeply on freedom, the family heritage, living together, demonstrating that the light of Christ does not oppress, but fuels creativity and truly sets us free.