I’m not surprised this came to me this morning. A Sunday morning. Church awaits. And yes, the Super Bowl. A former and latter. The former always pre-empts the latter. At least personally.
In reading the news this morning about “so-called-judge” and “protect the homeland” and all the protests and last night the truck shown with clenched fists on the outside and inside and a Confederate flag on the back window…as the truck creeped by the protesters, the thought came to me.
It came again this morning.
Like this: how fear and witness are often at odds.
Circa 1971. September. I was asked by my denomination, the United Church of Christ, to join with 9 colleagues and team up with five clergymen from the United Church of Canada to visit Evangelical Church of the Union churches in East Germany. The Berlin Wall blocked our way. However, we were given instructions and papers that defined us as tourists “to visit the DDR.” All we were told is once through the gate which corner to stand on and “Frau Bretsch will meet you.” Nothing more.
I remember standing on that corner. Freedom didn’t leap with joy. Nope. My eyes were sharp [remember I was 31 then and didn’t need glasses] and a very old lady struggled in her walk, pointed to us, raised her hands and said, “Gut!!!”
That started ten days—we were in teams of three—to visit every section of East Germany. We met in homes, we met in church basements. And in each instance [I was linked with two ministers, one from Canada and one from Wisconsin, who only knew “Guten Tag,” in German–so, yours truly was the ubersetzer. When I would need some ubersetzing from one of our guests, the line that brought laughter was, “Mensches Kinder.” I had no idea what it meant, but it worked for us.
We visited a seminary president, we worshipped in a church in Leipzig, where Bach was buried. We heard a boy’s choir. But, mainly we visited with people who didn’t let repression and bondage tear their faith apart.
We visited a pastor who knew the better wine. When he heard my son’s name is Matthew who at the time was almost 3, he handed me a bottle of white wine…the name on the bottle, “Mattheus Muller.” Brought it home—at the time I lived in Eugene. Showed the bottle to Matthew but didn’t give him a sip.
But what I remembered most of all…leaving East Germany for West Berlin…I looked up from a train to an apartment building. Sitting at one window looking at us, still in East Germany, was a man…maybe my age. He knew we were headed to freedom. I will never forget the look on his face. Hollow eye sockets, wiping his cheeks of the tears and making the cross. That impacted me greatly.
That moment took me to Nordka, Russia, where both sets of my grandparents, the Miller and Schnell families lived—my parents Es Schnell and Hank Miller were not born yet. But the grandparents, when learning all bets were off for non-conscription and their own acreage and free worship in White Russia along the Volga River, migrated to Portland, Oregon. They crossed the Atlantic in the steerage of cattle transporting boats. Started a new life in Portland, Oregon. My Grampa Schnell a butcher and my Grampa Miller a garbage man.
I remember all that this morning.
And yes, I hear about safety…and homeland security. I value that. But in a deeper part of me, I have next to no doubt the current vetting is better than good…and wonder…if we can keep open doors and not slam them…for immigrants? Because, honestly, who isn’t an immigrant?
I would imagine today, in some parts of the damaged villages, there’s a family who needs to escape from torture and unspeakable pain, to have a new chance. That is not romantic. That is not fanciful. In my lingo, that goes much farther than Mensches Kinder. Much farther. That says something about at the deepest level the Statue of Liberty can stop weeping.