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Letter from Germany

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ute letter Twitter

Dear Friends at Wardie Parish Church,

Many apologies for not writing earlier to you. It seems like a very long time ago since we left Wardie. The world we live in has changed dramatically in the space of only three months or so. When we left, we did so with the promise to keep in touch and to build bridges to the continent. What better time than a time of crisis to reassure each other that we are one in prayer, in faith, in hope.

Firstly, Kenneth and I would like to thank you all again for your very generous parting gifts, your extremely kind words and farewell. The love and hospitality you have shown us helped us on our way down South on a very dreich Friday morning. Once we had crossed the tunnel by train early next morning, we took the opportunity to go for a long walk along the beach of Bray-Dunes near the Belgian border. The tide was low as we walked towards Dunkirk. It felt strange just after having left Britain to arrive in a place where so many British people lost their lives to free Europe from the horrors of the totalitarian, racist, antisemitic state Germany had become under Hitler. We didn’t stop again until we arrived at my mum’s where we stayed overnight. The car did well but when we arrived the next day at the new Manse, it refused to budge again. Our first purchase in Germany was a new battery!

We are very lucky to live only 3 minutes’ walk away from the Black Forest. Baden-Baden is nestled along a valley by the river Oos. We both immediately started work in our new parishes – Kenneth in the Luthergemeinde Lichtental, I am ministering in the Paulusgemeinde Baden-Baden. Our offices are only 20 minutes away by bike, 10 min by car. In Germany, elders are elected for a period of six years and not ordained, but inducted. The last election took place last December so that I have a new team of six(!) elders. This is the number given to a congregation of just under 2000 members. Due to a long vacancy, church attendance is very low, between 20–30 people each Sunday. However, there is a very active youth group (around 12–15 young people, similar to Network) and the same is true for the young people preparing for confirmation. There is also a small team in charge of Sunday services for children which take place every so often. There is a lot of work to be done, but there is also a lot of potential and very enthusiastic people. I keep mentioning here all the great work that takes place at Wardie! We could certainly do with a visit from the gardening group as there is a huge meadow right beside the church halls.  They are situated below the sanctuary which is built on a slope.  The church itself is very modern, it just had a very expensive renovation completed on the outside. The concrete had been crumbling. It is a listed building with a very tall – separate – bell tower and five(!) bells as well as beautiful stained glass windows. Thankfully no need to restore them (no secondary glazing). Only the worshippers are still missing.

Wardie Walkers would love the beautiful walks in the Black Forest, too. As soon as you enter the forest, you are immersed in bird song.

I have been told that the members of the congregation like to celebrate a lot and it is true. We had a number of special services this year when good wine and food were served. The recent Lenten Faith studies always began with a meal. Sadly, with all the restrictions placed on us due to the coronavirus, we will have to wait for some time before we can celebrate again.

Kenneth and I were lucky as our ministerial colleagues stood in for us in late January and early February so that we were able to visit our daughter Tamsin in Australia. It seemed a good idea at the time to go before all the church committees on local and presbytery level start back, before the busy time of Lent, Holy Week, Easter vigil and Easter Day. Little did we know at the time that the coronavirus would force churches to cancel all the services (since 16th March). It is especially hard on our young people as they usually organise a sleepover on the night leading up to Easter Day. The special Easter vigil service begins usually on the Saturday of Holy Week at 8.30pm outside the RC Church, where both congregations light their Easter candles in a joint service. This year, we had to cancel everything just as you do at Wardie. But this is not the end of the church. Instead, we are looking for new ways of being church and of worshipping and serving God. Every evening, churches in every town and village in Germany ring their bells, inviting people to join in evening prayers at home.

You will have heard in the news that people are encouraged to observe social distancing. Not more than two people are allowed to meet outside and only if they keep 2 metres’ distance. Shops other than food stores were closed earlier than in Scotland. For 10 days, every day we were faced with new restrictions. We have a huge collection of signs for each new regulation. We are still allowed to keep our churches open for people to come and pray. However, we have to put up signs that visitors must keep a distance of 2 metres and observe the usual hygienic rules.  On the whole, people here are very sensible with the exception of some older people who at first played the severity of the health risk down and felt that they should shake hands (that is how we greet each other in Germany) or even hug, whereas out of care for each other we really need to refrain from doing so for some time.

Of course, one of the major questions here is how to ensure that no one feels lonely or cut off from the community. Within a short time, two people in the congregation agreed to set up an outreach group. It’s called “Paul is helping” as the congregation is named after St. Paul. I have just been served a letter which allows me to go places as part of my work. The restrictions are not as severe as in Britain. People are still encouraged to get plenty of exercise in the fresh air and to take their bike when the go to work or shopping. There is no limit to the times you can go out, but no more than two people of the same household should walk together. Thankfully we have had very sunny spells. Temperatures vary greatly from frosty nights to 19–21 degrees, before dropping again. The climate is very erratic. Climate change clearly is here.

People who engage in helping others are also allowed to go outside. The police only disperses groups of people, but does not stop people as we see on the British news. Of course, nothing keeps us from being in touch with each other by phone, mail or via the website. I’ve had a steep learning curve familiarising myself with the webpage www.paulusgemeinde-bad.de and learning how to upload YouTube videos. Now a small number of parishioners is producing videos to keep in touch with families and children, mostly games or storytelling so far or how to bake banana bread. They will be posted over the coming weeks.

Our young confirmands have been registered for an app which allows the group to stay in touch. It also provides them with input and tasks to prepare for their confirmation. Sadly, this had to be moved from May to October. It is a big feast here with families putting on big celebrations either at home or at a restaurant. Baptisms had to be cancelled, too. They can take place in an emergency, but with no more than five people attending. We don’t expect things to return to normal for some time. However, pupils in their final year have been asked to prepare for their final school exams on 18th May. It is a difficult time for them and for all the people who have been put out of work. Thankfully the German government is stepping in financially, but just like in Britain, there is much uncertainty over how long the crisis will last. There is certainly no monitoring going on via mobile phones; the idea had been put forward but there has been an immediate outcry as it cannot be reconciled with data protection and civil rights. The suggestion is to create a corona-app which people can download voluntarily.

The medical system seems to cope well, whereas the situation in nearby Alsace (15 minutes’ drive by car) is heartbreaking. There usually is much coming and going. Many French people work in Germany and vice versa. All this had to stop to keep the virus from spreading. Germany now has taken in Covid-19 patients from France and Italy.

There are several patients here in Baden-Baden and sadly we had the first death. Funerals can no longer take place inside chapels (most cemeteries have their own chapels), but only outside and with no more than 10 people attending including the minister. This is very difficult as it puts grieving families into a position of deciding who can and who cannot attend the funeral. Now we are given the task of channelling our energies into finding new ways of weeping with those who weep. It is as though we are moving forward in hope, trusting that God will guide us step by step. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.”

Our daughter is still in Australia, it is a very stressful time but she is in good spirits picking jujube fruit at present.  Our son still leaves in Edinburgh, he was due to visit us last week, but his flight was cancelled with the offer to rebook anytime before 30th December. Let’s hope that the restrictions will have ceased to be necessary long before then.

I wonder how you are all coping with the quarantine – especially those of you who have been unstoppable so far. It will be a real challenge and worry to many of you, having to stay inside. At least, I hope you do.

I started with apologies and now I close having written rather a lot.

Kenneth and I think of you often. We hope that before too long, we will be able to meet up again. Until then, may God keep you safe in his great love.

Kenneth & Ute