Refugees help German MB church learn about hospitality

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Youth club opens door to congregation's ministry to refugees

by Walter Jakobeit

Refugees have been part of the story of the Mennonite Brethren church in Neuwied, Germany, since its beginning: the history of our church is marked by efforts to integrate people from different cultural backgrounds.

Evangelische Freikirche Mennonitische Brüdergemeinde Neuwied was founded after World War II by refugees from West Prussia (now Poland) and is the oldest Mennonite Brethren church in Western Europe. At the beginning, the Mennonites who founded the church had to work out a way to worship together with brothers and sisters from different Christian traditions: Protestant, Plymouth Brethren and Baptists. The next generation learned to integrate Christians from Croatia and South America who joined the church in the 1960s.

In the mid-1970s, the integration of great numbers of Mennonites from the former Soviet Union was a challenge. Even though they had the same Mennonite roots, they held to some specific traditions that differed from the culture of our church. But with God, nothing is impossible. Over the years, brothers and sisters from North America, Asia and Africa have also become part of this colorful community of Christ followers.

Presently, we are a congregation of 460 members that Christians from more than 14 different nations call their home. Even though the background and traditions of our church members are sometimes very different, their faith in and commitment to the one Lord Jesus Christ help to build bridges between each other.

 

A new chapter begins

A completely new chapter of church life began about eight years ago, when we had the courage to open our doors to people with a completely different religious background. How did that happen?

Community leaders from our city came to us with the request: Would we be willing to open a youth club and help the city take care of young people 12 to 17 years of age with an immigrant background? Looking back, we know we were very naïve at the time; nevertheless, we were faithful when we said yes to obey God’s command “to seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7).

And so, this youth club of 30 young people from Muslim and Yazidi backgrounds found a home in our church building. We quickly realized that these young people took it for granted that they could attend “their meeting place” at any time. When the doors opened, they entered, whether it was to a ladies meeting, a prayer time or another event. When they found the doors locked, they would simply sit on the steps in front of the entrance and hang out there, not caring if it was day or night.

The first three months this youth club was opened were really stressful for the church. We only survived this time with much prayer, patience, discussions and by setting up some rules and consequences for the youth.

 

Appreciation, respect and Christian charity

To our surprise, the relationship with the young people got better in the coming months. In our church, the young people experienced something they had not received so far: appreciation, respect and Christian charity. The leaders of the city were amazed to see the behavior of these young people change in a positive way.

Through the experience with the youth club, we were prepared to welcome the refugees and asylum seekers with open arms and hearts when they came to church looking for help and fellowship. For us, their religion is very foreign. It’s hard to hear what these people have experienced on their journey to Germany, fleeing from war and terror. But on the other hand, it is also hard for them to get settled in a completely new culture with all these traumatic experiences that happened to them. We hear often that it is not what we say that makes them come to church but the warm love and care they feel.

This love opened their hearts to learn more about this Jesus of whom we speak. And so, we started with a Bible study group in Farsi and later another in Arabic. When people out of this group find faith in the living God and are baptized, we are aware that there will be more changes in our church through these new brothers and sisters.

 

Every nation and tongue

Everybody noticed that when the first brother from Iran was baptized. When he came out of the water, his Persian friends responded with a storm of true jubilation that struck the rest of the congregation speechless with surprise. But when we realized that we were witnessing God’s promise come true—that people from “every nation and tongue” will be part of his kingdom (Rev. 7:9)—there was joy everywhere!

Meanwhile, we have learned that it’s a blessing that our typical German characteristics such as punctuality and order are being supplemented with characteristics from other countries, such as spontaneity and hospitality. Though hospitality is supposed to be a special trademark for Christians, we are learning a lot about it from people from an Eastern background. They always seem to have time to talk and enjoy a cup of tea while having fellowship. Their doors and tables are always open for guests.

Investing in strangers takes courage, because in doing so we leave our well-known comfort zone. But what we learn living this way is indescribable. The encounters with my new friends from around the world, has changed my life so positively that I cannot imagine what it was like when they were not yet a part of my life.

Walter Jakobeit is pastor of the Evangelische Freikirche Mennonitische Brüdergemeinde Neuwied, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Germany. He is chairman of the AMBD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Brüdergemeinden Deutschland). This article was first published April 2016 in Courier/Correo/Courrier, the magazine of Mennonite World Conference. Photo of Jakobeit provided by MWC.

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