A clearing in the Black Forest near Goettelfingen, Germany
Few countries know more about the dark side of the blend of Christianity, nationalism and strong-man politics than Germany. And few peoples have shown as generous a spirit as have the Germans in recent years regarding the horrors of the Syrian experience. As I think of our own troubling passage as a people, nation and faith, this word from Jim Cochrane seemed my best gift on Christmas.
Today, a year ago, a group of 30 or so Syrian refugees arrived quite suddenly, in the dark, to our little Black Forest village named Goettelfingen (one translation: home of little gods). We knew some people were coming but not who or even exactly when. Renate, as the local pastor, immediately jumped in to help them get into the unused B&B that was now to be their home. None of the Syrians spoke German, or French, one a tiny bit of English, but fortunately, a young man, Mohamed, also a refugee but in Germany for a while, came from a town some 20 miles away, and helped translate.
The next evening, tomorrow a year ago, as is the custom in Germany, Renate led the key Christmas eve service — far more important than Christmas Day, the one day you can be sure the place is jam packed. It is also the time for the children’s nativity play that they had been rehearsing over the past weeks. However one assesses it, it is a genuinely holy day, a day “set aside.”
Renate had invited the Syrians, thinking that they might find it helpful to get a feel of how Germans are culturally on a special occasion, a contribution to some kind of warmth and hospitality and an opening for some potential integration over time, in both directions. Knowing they were Muslims and in any case would understand very little, she did not expect them to come.
The church filled up, yes indeed, jam packed, kids in front of the tree near the altar, all dressed up for their play. The bells began to ring to signal the beginning of worship. Just then the woman who greeted people at the door rushed in to Renate: “They are COMING! What are we going to do? Where will they fit?”
Out of the dark down the one significant road came the Syrians, the whole group, half of them children of various ages. Renate asked the stewards to clear a space in the front, got all children to sit on the floor, has some folks go upstairs to sit on the stairs or squeeze in, and the Syrians were all accommodated up front.
Later we learned that the Syrian children were particularly excited that one of the nativity play figures was “just like us” — Mary, with a shawl over her head.
Meanwhile the service continued. As it came to an end, Renate began the benediction, the prayer of well-being and release back “into the world.” She was barely into this final prayer when a cellphone rang — one of the Syrian guests has forgotten to switch one off and in embarrassment scrambled to shut it down. But enough had been heard. The phone was set for the final and fifth call to prayer for the day: “Allahu akbar!” it rang out into the middle of the Christian prayer. What a moment … it was stunning, it stopped everyone short. And it changed Goettelfingen forever whether all the inhabitants had recognized it or not.
That is the new world, and even if already part of the present, that is the future. There is nothing that can stop human beings from spreading, from having to encounter each other across many strangenesses or barriers, and from having willy-nilly to live up to the best of which we are capable in that regard. We have that capacity, and we know it, and we can live out of it. All those who are frightened by that thought or resist the apparent loss of some imagined “pure” or “originary” or “unadulterated” previous identity will have to come to terms with it no matter how much they may in the meanwhile hurt others in their fear or anger. And in that lies our hope and the task of helping everyone along.
And that story and thought, despite the negativities our this time and the pathologies that seem so strong, is what I want to share with you all in wishing each of you on behalf of the Leading Causes of Life Initiative Core Group a richly festive and enlivening season at the end of this year and a promising new year ahead.
James R Cochrane
Emeritus Professor (Religious Studies) &
Senior Research Associate (School of Public Health & Family Medicine), University of Cape Town.
Adjunct Professor (Dept of Social Sciences & Health Policy), Wake Forest School of Medicine, USA.
The view from the sanctuary of the Lutheran church in Goettelfingen