The Making of “Us” by Audrey Weiger
“You fear that which you do not know.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Three Worlds Team in Europe and the Middle East entered into a partnership to help German Church of God congregations ministering to refugees. They brainstormed ways to make this partnership happen and decided to connect Glamorgan Church of God in Calgary, Canada, to the Bad Segeberg Church of God in Bad Segeberg, Germany.
“Some refugees have lost everyone in their family before coming here,” Christy Kihm explained in an introductory seminar for the Canadian group. She and her husband, Dan, and their daughter, Sofie, Three Worlds team members in the Netherlands, drove down to Hamburg to meet the Canadian group to help prepare them for the week ahead. The Kihms work with several churches who have large populations of refugees and are also adept at navigating cultural differences and challenges. They presented the full picture of the ministry that the Three Worlds team is doing in Europe and the Middle East, and gave some context for the interactions the Canadians would be having in the coming week. Having the context is critically important before entering into a situation. The Kihms made sure that the group was set up, as much as possible, to learn and understand.
“Even a simple, ‘Do you have siblings?’ question could throw someone into a downward spiral,” Christy continued. “Not all of them are here for the same reason, so if you see someone shutting down when you ask about a particular topic, move onto a different topic. Food is usually a safe topic, and it’s a good place to start.”
It wasn’t just the Canadians who were preparing for the week. Some refugees were very skeptical, but trying to keep an open mind. After they met, they realized how many connections they had, and deep friendships started developing. I was so impressed with how the Canadian group dove into those relationships — asking questions, playing games, dancing, and getting to teach the refugees and Germans how to play baseball. You could see the walls of skepticism and fear coming down as they played billiards and learned words in each other’s languages.
That Thursday the church gathered for their third culture night of the week. It was the Syrian Night. We had had the German and Canadian Culture Nights already, where Canadians, Syrians, Iranians, Afghanis, Germans, and Americans were all in the same space to learn from each other and to share about the things they love. Jan Anton, one of the leaders of the Arabic church, stood up to give greetings, “We have a mountain of grief in our hearts, but even so, we want to celebrate with you tonight. But first, we prepared a special film for you to see.”
We all trudged up the stairs into the sanctuary space of the more than 50-year-old building. The projector buzzed, and immediately we were caught with images of Syrian cities in their splendor and glory. Beautiful fountains, sculptures, high-rise buildings, and smiling faces captured our attention. This was the pre-war Syria that our refugee friends knew. Pictures of hundreds of people wearing Santa hats and huge Christmas trees at the center of Christmas celebrations were rolling before our eyes, and in the background the Arabic version of, “Angels we have
heard on high,” was playing. By the third time through the chorus, everyone was singing, “Gloria, in Excelsis Deo.”
Suddenly, pictures of the beloved Syria changed by war started scrolling. The very images that we had just seen with beautiful celebrations and moments of such tender joy, were now filled with bullets and rubble. Collapsed buildings covered the streets with militia behind barricades, and the Syrian anthem played solemnly in the background. Many of our Syrian friends stood up and began to sing, and a German carpenter sitting to my left began to cry. He was unashamed to show how he felt for his friends; to allow the sadness to wash over him in that same mountain of grief. At that moment, I looked around; there was barely a dry-eye in the whole congregation. Grief and longing are such a part of the human experience that they are intuitively understood across culture, age, gender, and language.
As we all walked, watery-eyed, downstairs again toward the food and celebration awaiting us, we saw friends hugging each other, comforting each other, and extremely brave souls (Syrian, German, and Canadian) opening themselves to each other. One of the Canadian women on our trip sat with several Syrian grandmas at a table. They had said it was a hard day in Syria, showed pictures of grandchildren still back in their homeland, and smiled a smile that was laced with deep sorrow.
“The Calgarians got to witness how we actually cry and laugh and sometimes mourn and often eat, dance and celebrate together as ONE group. This is very exciting because it takes away the fear of the unknown, which leads to so much conflict in this country.” said Frank Bonkowski, pastor of the Bad Segeberg Church of God.
With so much fear and misunderstanding as the backdrop, it’s difficult to expect an outcome that would promote unity and understanding. But getting to know someone can have that affect on a person. They’re not the “other,” they become part of “us.”
In one story we heard, a young man had owned an electronics shop and in walked the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He liked her instantly, but she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He was a muslim, and she was a Christian. And she knew her faith was everything to her and was unwilling to give that up, even for a charming shop-owner. In Iran, one is not allowed to proselytize for the Christian faith, so she knew it was pretty impossible that he would become a Christian.
One day, she wore a little gold cross at the end of a chain around her neck, and four muslim men interpreted that as her trying to make converts to the Christian faith. They went to attack her, not realizing that the shop-owner would come to her rescue. He fought them off, and has a scar where he was stabbed in his right hand to prove it. After that, she decided to get to know him a bit better. He was introduced to Jesus through her, and did, in fact, become a Christian. They were married, and then had to flee the country because of their faith.
On the Sunday that we were with them, they were both baptized in the lake just down the road from the church. She came up out of the water, and began to cry. I could overhear one German, who knew them well, say, “This is such a dream for her.” The moment was so sweet and tender. One older German man, who had been teaching them German for the previous 4 weeks, was asked to say the blessing over their baptism. The couple call him, “Papa.” And he himself has been transformed by knowing this young couple, becoming more gentle and generous than he
ever thought possible. It is true that the Christian faith community can be one’s family. And the symbol of this couple’s baptism was not lost on the community in Bad Segeberg — a new start, a fresh beginning, a new family, a new “us.” Not only in faith, but for their life in Germany as well.
Many times the impact of this kind of mission trip can be very difficult to quantify. After creating such deep friendships in such a short time, it can feel like ripping a bandaid off a wound when it comes to saying goodbyes. Those friendships start to heal cracks in each of us we didn't even know we're there — a gap in understanding, or a perspective that was missing. And suddenly, with the separation, we see our lacking and at the same time feel more whole and have more compassion than before we met. After spending a week with others unlike ourselves (and yet eerily similar to ourselves) it can reveal to us our own brokenness and flawed perspectives. It can also provide a powerful platform of experience from which to speak to our own circles of influence upon return home. Sometimes, this sort of trip can be a catalyst for other events in the life of the local congregation. Sometimes, the ripple effects of the encouragement and learning (on both sides) are not realized until years later. But one thing is certain, each person was changed by this experience. The unknown became known, and the “other” became part of “us.” If only we would have the grace to extend our sense of welcome further. I am hopeful that the broader church can still do this.