Long Journey

This morning in my German integration class we started a new chapter on transportation and holiday.  The instructor asked each person about any recent trips that they may have made, where did they go, and for how long.  One family had said that last year they travelled by bus to Holland for a week long stay with family.  The bus trip was several hours long given a lot of stops and sights to see.

Two men in the class spoke about their last journey and how long it took.  This is when I heard of an incredible journey.  One man in the class travelled from Iraq to Libya on a 15 day bus ride as he looked for work.  After working a year in Libya he was joined by his wife and young children, but things were getting worse politically for them so they joined hundreds of others and took a small boat across the Mediterranean to Italy.  On his mobile phone he passed around photos of their dangerous journey where they sat legs intertwined so that more people could fit in the motorboat (and it helped to prevent people from falling overboard).

Another young man got up and showed the class on the map his journey to Germany.  He left Iraq on a bus, but then spent the majority of his days walking with dozens of others with just his backpack to carry all his belongings.  It took him 27 days of 15 hours of walking a day to cross just one of the countries on his long journey. It wasn’t until reaching Austria that he was loaded onto a train and sent to Germany where he now lives happily.

Each day I have a coffee break with these men who like to refer to me as ‘Uncle Chris’ as I am the most ‘senior’ student.  The students speak of hope, life, family, and new friends and opportunities.  They always smile. They always work hard and come to class attentive and eager to learn.  Some of them pick up languages at an astonishing quick pace.  One would never know the background stories of these men, and many others like them, if we hadn’t asked the simple question – What was the last trip you made?

Recently, the BREXIT vote and outcome has made all the headlines, but we must remember those migrants and refugees who struggle to find a new life, be it in Germany, or elsewhere in the world.  The stories are many, the journey is long.

Got my eye on you

The past two days found me in the United Kingdom for a meeting which was held at a retreat centre.  Once I had landed and found my way I quickly realized that my plans to take the train would not get me to my destination in time as the trains were running very late.  In Germany people often get incredibly frustrated with a 2 minute delay with a train – they should try England.  I managed to board one of the many coaches and found myself dashing to the open door only afterwards realizing that there were people queuing up at the stop.  The whole trip I found myself reflecting that I feel more comfortable in Germany than in England, despite the difference in language.  In fact, in my mind I spent a lot of time translating all the signs from English to German.

Once in the bus and ready for departure the driver announced the safety precautions and added that we would all be filmed on Closed Circuit Television (CCTV).  I realized that down the length of the bus, were small cameras, and a TV screen in front cycled through the views of the interior, the door, the rear, and the front exterior of the bus.  We were filming cars in traffic, and passengers inside the bus.

Down the M23 Highway on tall lighting poles, or on road signs were more cameras.  When I changed buses, the bus stop, the Marks and Spensors, and parking lot all had camera.  At my final stop I followed the directions on my printed sheet of paper and walked through a residential neighbourhood.  Several homes had cameras on their doorways, or on the driveway.  The elementary school had a camera at the entrance and one out on the playground.

It was erie to feel continuously watched by some all seeing inhuman black lensed video camera.  I knew that the UK had many issues with CCTV, but it seemed so Orwellian.

Service and Sanctuary

A couple of Sunday’s ago the parish participated in a broad ecumenical event serving food to those in need.  The event, Freunde von der Strasse, (Friends of the Street) was held at the downtown Roman Catholic Church of St. Martin’s.  Food and service was made in part by the Anglican Church in Freiburg, the Old Catholic parish and the Evangelical Methodists.  Over Saturday and Sunday there were volunteers that set-up tables and chairs, prepared meals, cut homemade cakes, and brewed dozens of pots of coffee.

I was deeply impressed by the level of expert organization as we all worked in shifts and had a variety of duties and tasks.  I was equally delighted to see so many familiar faces both from the Anglican’s and those whom I have met in the other churches.  My own time slot for helping took place after Sunday worship and I had the opportunity to pray in a short Methodist led prayer service, and to eat a delicious meal before I was on duty to serve the traditional 3pm Kaffee und Kuchen (Coffee and Cake) to the masses of people.

As I stood in line to receive my plate of food I decided to not join some of the other helpers, but to meet some new people.  I sat in the midst of the tables in amongst the clients being served and tried to exercise my German language skills.  No sooner had I sat down that a man came pleading to me for money for his five children claiming that they were all refugees and in need of money.  That’s when the yelling started.  A couple of women started yelling and screaming at the man and telling him to go away and not to bother me. The women claimed the man was a fraud and gives those in real need a bad name.  (I had in fact seen this man kneeling on the street near the Munster begging for change with a small sign saying that he had three children, not 5).  Despite all the yelling, I asked the man to join me and we talked about our own families and how we both ended up in Germany.  I explained that I had no money to give, but we prayed for him and his family.  He thanked me for taking the time to listen.

Once the man was gone one of the women involved in the yelling started to speak to me in near perfect English (with a twang of a Texan accent).  She apologized for her outburst and recognized that everyone should be welcome, but she didn’t want me to be scammed by the stranger who came and left.  It turns out that this woman was involved in the German military and spent three years at Fort Hood Texas, but now she lives a subsistence existence in Freiburg and is grateful for the food offered.  Shortly hereafter one of my own flock came and joined me at the table for lunch and I had some more help in making conversation.

It was soon time for me to set to work.  Instructions in German about where the cakes would be delivered, and how the coffee was to be set out.  It is pretty easy to figure out if someone needs coffee as usually before I asked there were cups and saucers held up in the air and hands waving at me to hurry up and fill the cup.  I joked with some of the volunteers as I carried three coffee carafes in each hand that I was getting training for this years October Fest serving 1 Litre steins of beer…I just needed the traditional dress to go with it.

During the afternoon as cake and coffee were consumed I encountered one grey haired man who spoke English, so I spent a short break sitting with him and getting to know him.  He spoke of the place afforded to him at this event to eat a civilized meal and to be able to sit somewhere and not feel that he will be asked to leave anytime soon.  This was his church, or one of the areas that he frequented and he was able to show me the cloistered garden in the back and describe some of the fragrant flowers in both English and German.  The garden was peaceful compared to the boisterous interior with crowds talking and plates clattering.

As the day drew to a close many of those who had been served stuck around and washed tables, folded chairs and helped to sweep up.  In one of the rooms, now empty and clean, I walked past the doorway and found the grey-haired man standing in front of one of the large crucifixes and smelling a flower from the garden.   The room was absolutely still and it looked like a holy moment where both the body and the soul had been fed.

The day was exhausting, yet it was also exhilarating.  I am convinced that these kinds of events show the love of Christ to those in need, and help us to meet Christ in the stranger.   Each person is loved by God, and for some it is the first time in a long time where someone may listen to their story. The first time they feel served rather than scorned.  The first time they can show that they too have a faith in the risen Christ as they speak of the revelation of God that they observe in a quiet fragrant summer garden. At the end of the day, despite all the cups of coffee I helped fill, it is I who feels served in the presence of those who met my gaze with a kind smile and genuine word of Thanks.

Hedgehog – not the chocolate kind.

01_11_2_webChocolate makers in Canada often sold ‘Hedgehogs’ which are delicious and often the first chocolates in a box to be eaten.  When we lived in Canada, it took my German wife close to 15 years to finally see a bear in the wild despite the rest of the family seeing Black Bear on an almost yearly basis.  Although nowhere near the size of a bear, the Hedgehog is an animal that has remained elusive to me for years.  In all my trips to Germany I was told about the Hedgehog being a common sight in gardens, but I had never glimpsed one…until now.  Walking the dog at dusk I spotted some small creature timidly investigating the garden of a neighbouring house.  It turned out to be a Hedgehog!  I feel like I can complete the check-list of German animals as I have seen a family of wild Boar, and tiny Deer in previous visits.  I have been up close to Storks which are raising a brood on a chimney top nest, and I have seen a few Red Fox whilst driving home in the evening.  I wonder if this recent sighting of a Hedgehog completes the ‘Big Five’ of Germany.

Occasionally while traveling in the car and using the GPS system, or Navi as they say Germany, I am still thrown a bit when I hear announced from automated voice “bear right” as a directional point.  Instinct is to look out the passenger side window and see a Black Bear meandering into the woods.