St. Luke's J2A Pilgrimage to Germany

St. Luke’s J2A Germany Pilgrimage

Skip's account of the journey

June 22 – July 1, 2013

June 22:  Gathering and Blessing of the Pilgrims

Pilgrims ready to Depart

On a bright, sunny Saturday, the intrepid pilgrims of St. Luke’s 2012-13 J2A class gathered at St. Luke’s to begin our journey to Germany.  Fourteen youth and six adult advisors assembled with great expectations and much excitement.  We were about to lead these young adults on a voyage of discovery so that they could encounter God in a different way.

Tuck gathered us together for a blessing, reminding us that we would be ambassadors for St. Luke’s in a foreign land and asking for God’s blessing.  Unfortunately, my mind was focused on the logistics of the trip -- worrying about late arrivers, wondering about border crossings, praying that we would not become separated from any in our party in the many planned transportation connections during the trip.  I found it difficult in that moment to focus on Tuck’s message – not an auspicious start for a spiritual journey.

The transfer out to Dulles Airport went very smoothly, and all the pilgrims got checked in and through security with plenty of time to spare.  The flight was full, but otherwise uneventful.  With the pilgrims all safely ensconced and resting for our first stop, a 7 hour lay-over in Copenhagen, it became easier to relax and focus on the reason for the journey.  I reflected back on the story Tuck had told us of St. Alban’s martyrdom in Copenhagen – how he refused to renounce his faith, even at the cost of his life.  Pilgrims are not martyrs, but they are seeking to experience God in a new way.

I opened my carry-on and took out a book of meditations Marjy had given me some time ago to look at the section on the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard writes about the unchangeable nature of God, that God loves us and all those around us, no matter what we do.  Remembering that this love is freely given by God, that we don’t have to earn it, in Kierkegaard’s view, helps us “triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for

Luther House- Wittenberg

the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment.”  He writes that, if a person could will one thing, one single thing to which the human heart and mind should strive, that would be to know God.  But as sinners, our search for God entails both promise and pain.

As I pondered those prayers of Kierkegaard, I recalled that, all morning long, the song “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” had been running through my head.  Now, in the darkened and hushed cabin of the aircraft, I suddenly understood why.

Hymn 171

1. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God

and his righteousness,

And all these things shall be added unto you.

Allelu, alleluia.

2. Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by ev’ry word

That proceeds from the mouth of God.

Allelu, alleluia.

3. Ask, and it shall be given unto you.

Seek, and ye shall find.

Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.

Allelu, alleluia.


June 23:  The LONG day

On the first LONG day, the pilgrims learned that feet hurt after a day of much walking, particularly over cobblestone streets. The pilgrims also

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

encountered figures and famous locations from literature (Hans Christian Andersen), church history (St. Alban), philosophy (Soren Kierkegaard), and modern history (Adolf Hitler, the Berlin Wall, the new Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and Checkpoint Charlie). And then we rested.

We all arrived safe and sound; all but Dorothy's bag, which enjoyed Copenhagen so much, it decided to stay an extra day.

The trip over went very smoothly. We landed early in Copenhagen and easily were waved thru immigration. The only thing they wanted to know was, "why do you have to go on to Germany, there is so much to do here?"

Man, Copenhagen is dead at 8 am Sunday Morning!

Our first impression was "where is everybody?”  Copenhagen on an early Sunday morning is pretty empty, if you don’t count the parked bicycles. We visited the castle island which houses the impressive Danish Parliament building (center). With nothing open at that hour except McDonalds, we decided to walk through the off and on sunshine and gathering clouds to see the Little Mermaid statue. Quite a long (around 2 1/2 hour) walk through some charming parts of Copenhagen and along the shipping channel and canals.

Copenhagen Canal

The area around the statue itself was very crowded, with large numbers of Chinese and German tourists. We also passed swarms of Danish joggers on the way. One comment our pilgrims had is that most Danes seem to be thin and fit.  Another commented on how well all Danes of whom we asked directions spoke English (excellent, since none of us can speak Danish), and how friendly and willing they were to provide directions.

An idyllic site for our Sunday worship

After visiting the statue, we returned to St Alban's Anglican Church. Tuck had told us about the martyrdom of St Alban and of the church before we left, illustrating the point of conviction of faith (this will be an essential backdrop when we get to Buchenwald and talk about Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

The schedule of services unfortunately did not fit with our tight time window, but we did get to hear their choir practice in the nave and spend some moments in contemplation and prayer.  Outside in the park, we held our Morning Prayer service, competing at times with the ringing church bells.  Since we were in Copenhagen, we spent a bit of time contemplating some of the prayers of Soren Kierkegaard.

Pilgrims at site of former Berlin Wall

The short hop to Berlin was marred by the discovery of Dorothy's errant bag, but buoyed by the chance to meet Paul, his cousin Adam and girlfriend Jill, his co-worker Martina as well as Dean, the brother of one of the pilgrims, who is doing an internship in Aachen this summer, and happened to be in Berlin this weekend. After dinner at the youth hostel, we caught a bus to the Reichstag and spent the next two hours touring Berlin sites by foot with Aria, a friend of Martina's. Here the pilgrims are lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, just in back of the Reichstag building (old German Parliament).

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The Holocaust Memorial is amazingly simple and yet overwhelmingly powerful. A 4.7 acre mass on which an unevenly undulating cobblestone base has been laid, like random waves, topped by 2711 simple granite blocks of identical top surface area (about 4x7), but vastly varying height (from flush with the cobblestones to over 7 feet high).  Although all blocks are laid out in straight rows and columns, the unevenness of the base and varying height of the blocks creates a confounding sense of disorientation. One pilgrim commented this struck her as an oppressive maze, which brought to her mind a sense of Holocaust victims seeing no way out of their terrible situation.Checkpoint Charlie was also an eerie lesson for many pilgrims who never experienced the tension of the Cold War.

When we finally returned, footsore and bone-tired, to our hostel, we all knew more than fatigue and aching arches had challenged us. It was a day truly to be remembered.

June 24:  Berlin and Wittenberg

Fun at Dinner

Yesterday’s lesson about pilgrims risking sore feet and tiring journeys was reinforced today. However, we also experienced God in places we probably could not have imagined before heading off for the trip. And we had the opportunity to spend a very pleasant evening in a charming "hof" sitting outside in a tree and umbrella-lined courtyard for dinner.

We started our day off with a quick trip to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Church in Memory of Kaiser Wilhelm). When I visited in the 1970s, I remember little more than a small, modern worship space at the base of two ruined (by allied bombing) church towers of considerably older vintage. The church, like much of Berlin, has changed much from what I remembered from 40 years ago. Although sheathed in construction scaffolding now for renovation, the towers are surrounded and tied together with a glass and steel building that produces a curious mixture of tradition and avant garde. The octagonal worship space is lit from light coming thru walls of dark blue stained glass squares and the focal point on the front wall is a giant, suspended bronze figure of Christ on the Cross, without the cross.

Church in Memory of Kaiser Wilhelm, Berlin

We took in the stark beauty of the space, then had a wonderful service led by Kelly that tied in themes of responding to God's call to love your neighbor, even when inconvenient or at some considerable risk to yourself. Kelly read us the remembrances of a Jewish youth whose grandmother was saved by the quick-thinking actions of a German man randomly sitting next to her on a bus when Gestapo troops stopped the bus to check papers and arrest Jewish riders. She did not know the man, and never saw him again, but his willingness to engage in a clever way for what was right had a lasting impact on the family of the girl telling the story. We seldom are faced with moments so dramatic and immediate in their impact, but we face choices daily about how to act in situations large and small in a manner that responds to our call to love God and love others as Children of God.

Wittenberg Town Square

After working our way through the subway system, and finding a few things for Dorothy to wear, we caught the train for Wittenberg. Many of the pilgrims spoke of the beauty of the city and the architecture, some contrasting it to the cosmopolitan large city feel of Berlin. One added that Wittenberg is the type of city that Americans want to experience in Germany.

We walked about 20 minutes to the local YMCA, guided by the very timely discovery of a city map on the outskirts of town. After a very friendly reception at the Y, we were treated to a fascinating tour of Wittenberg by a German grandfather (about my age, I would guess) named Dieter, in 16th Century costume.

This is where it all began

Here he is showing us the current bronze doors at the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), the site where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the earlier wooden doors that kicked off the Reformation. Dieter and our guide for the evening tour, Barbara, reminded us of some of the key issues that had given rise to the call for reform of the church, the selling of indulgences, the focus on the need for intercession to earn God’s grace rather than realization that it is freely given, the reluctance to expose believers to the Word of God in their own language.

Many of the youth pilgrims spoke of enjoying the tour and learning first-hand about Martin Luther and his taking a stand in support of what his conscience told him he could no longer abide. Seeing the spot where the 95 theses were supposedly nailed to the door seemed to have driven home what they had learned in school or at church. Several of the pilgrims picked up on how the two, Dieter and Barbara, were able to weave in personalized stories, for example, tales, real or imagined, of rivalries between Luther's and Melanchthon's wives. Per the pilgrims, "16th Century Desperate Housewives"!

"Jewish Pig" on City Church wall, Wittenberg

Among all of the information about Martin Luther, the reformation and the people around him, the pilgrims got a good tie-in to the next day's program when Dieter pointed out that Luther had done little to counteract the mistreatment and negative stereotypes of the Jewish people in his time, while his colleague Phillip Melanchton took a much more enlightened view. To reinforce this, Dieter showed us a stone carving of a “Judensau” (Jew pig) dating from 1305, high up on the outside wall near the back of the Stadtkirche (City Church), where Martin Luther had preached. The following is from the Wikipedia entry for Wittenberg’s Judensau:

“It portrays a rabbi who looks under the sow's tail, and other Jews drinking from its teats. An inscription reads ‘Rabini Shem hamphoras,’ gibberish which presumably bastardizes ‘shem ha-meforasch’ (the complete name of God). The sculpture is one of the last remaining examples in Germany of ‘medieval Jew baiting.’ In 1988, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Kristalnacht, debate sprung up about the monument, which resulted in the addition of a sculpture recognizing that during the Holocaust, six million Jews were murdered ‘under the sign of the cross’.”

Holocaust Memorial, Wittenberg

This sculpture, pictured at left, recalls the mass genocide inflicted upon the Jews of Europe during Hitler’s reign, and matter oozing up from between the bronze squares is intended to represent hope that man’s basic humanity will bubble up even in the face of extreme evil.

Returning to the Wikipedia entry regarding the Wittenberg Judensau:

“In Vom Schem Hamphoras (1543), Luther comments on the Judensau sculpture at Wittenberg, echoing the anti-Semitism of the image and locating the Talmud in the sow's bowels:

Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.”

I think the pilgrims will have a lot to chew on when we get to Weimar and Buchenwald about what it means to be a person of faith, even in trying times.

Sharing a Laugh with our Guide at the Luther House

One unexpected and fascinating addition to our program came from Dieter’s frank comments about life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) as opposed to life in the West. He had grown up in East Germany and was willing and able to go off script extensively to answer questions from the youth about life under the former Communist regime. He did not describe life after reunification as uniformly better. He talked about things which he had found good and bad in East Germany, and things he found good and bad after reunification, which he described with pride as one of the few, or perhaps the only recent example of the successful, peaceful integration of two separated and fundamentally different political entities. His basic message was that people are people with similar hopes, joys and sorrows, and make the best of what they have. A very interesting detour from the 16th into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Evening Ice Cream in Wittenberg

We also learned today that pilgrims have their limits. It is hard work traveling to a different land and being presented with a large amount of new or at least very direct information about something so fundamental to your faith. Add to that the jet lag that comes from flying all night and being on the go once you land, and I have to say the pilgrims have been really trying hard and doing very well. In the middle of today's tour, however, they reached a wall that only a stop at a German cafe, and kaffee und apfelstrudel, could surmount. Actually, it made a big impression on the youth that the cafe staff insisted that the youth switch their orders for donuts and other familiar treats for the unknown - apple strudel. Another small triumph for "pilgrim hood"! Stopping at sidewalk cafes was frequently also a chance for the pilgrims to make music together, as the above picture of an evening foray to another Wittenberg ice cream parlor shows.

Pilgrims at Work in Luther House

Another opportunity to encounter God in different ways came in the context of the magnificent art we viewed throughout our trip.  One expects traveling in Europe to have the joy of experiencing religious and secular art in museums, churches and public spaces. Here the youth are engaged in puzzling out the Ten Commandments, done by Lucas Cranach.

Cranachs Ten Commandments, Luther House, Wittenberg

This pictorial depiction of the 10 commandments (above) really grabbed their attention, as they tried to put themselves in the place of people who suddenly had access for the first time to the word of God in their own language (a key touch point during the Reformation), but could not read. Art in the form of paintings such as the one by Cranach served as a graphic reminder of the lessons they heard about in Church -- tough to miss the point of the ten panels pictured here!

Dinner in Delightful Wittenberg Courtyard

Dinner that evening was a charming event. Michael, the YMCA director, had told us about the Altes Brauhaus (old brew house) that had a lovely tree-lined courtyard with large umbrellas to ward off sun or rain. According to Michael, this is one of the few spaces in this relatively small town that could easily accommodate a group of 20. They reserved two large tables for us and, per our choices, brought large quantities of pork and potatoes in any one of about a dozen different delicious varieties (one or two of us actually managed to find a tasty, non-pork option from the menu). The food was excellent, the service attentive and the atmosphere was "sehr gemuetlich" (very convivial). An authentically German experience in a space that added considerably more ambiance than the somewhat austere surroundings of the youth hostel the night before, where the pilgrims had nevertheless feasted on a tasty dish of spaetzle and goulash.

And the highpoint of the dinner in Wittenberg was the call from SAS airport services that Dorothy's bag had gotten tired of Copenhagen and finally showed up in Berlin. This was about 1 hour after we returned from H&M with some basics for her that we could not find in the Berlin train station. We were promised that the bag would be delivered to the youth hostel in Weimar. Warten wir mal ab!  (We'll see about that!).

A Mighty Fortress is Our God,  Tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg

After dinner, half of the pilgrims headed back to the Schlosskirche (castle church) to meet for an "into the 16th Century" tour. This was led by Barbara, who played the role of the wife of Lukas Cranach, the painter, art teacher, pharmacist and owner of the 100 room house, the largest private residence in Wittenberg at the time. Her explanations went deeper into the complaints Luther had about practices in the Catholic Church in his day.

The pilgrims were impressed that Luther had brought participatory music (hymns) to the service. As Luther put it, hymn singing is a form of praying twice. That thought is reinforced by the inscription around the tower of the Schlosskirche (left) “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God).

Pilgrims Making Music

This particular group of pilgrims is quite participatory when it comes to praying twice, whether that was a cappella renditions of "What if God was one of us" in the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche, to informal ukulele jams in the Berlin train station, to a heartfelt rendition of Amazing Grace in this morning's worship service.

And on that note, I think that's about all for now.



June 25:  Wittenberg to Weimar

Buchenwald Crematorium

Day 3 was a very tough day for the pilgrims on a number of levels. We learned that pilgrims can and must deal with adversity, that seeking God is not always a picnic (as Kierkegaard put it, it is a combination of promise and pain). I am happy to report that we all came through, well as it seems with a bit of hindsight. And we were challenged to think about a fundamental question: Where was God in a place like Buchenwald?

First, the day was hard because we were all tired. Jetlag often hits hardest the second night, and it is difficult to sleep under the best of situations.  There were at least several challenges the previous night.  We were awake enough to be aware of unfamiliar sounds of an old building shifting and settling. Ask the pilgrims about the “haunted hostel”! In addition, the heavy rains that had plagued the area just prior to our arrival had yielded a bumper crop of mosquitoes spawned in the Elba's soaked floodplains. This posed the tough choice in the YMCA of being rather warm with bedroom windows closed, or opening the windows and fighting off the bugs. As a consequence, a number of us spent until the very wee hours that morning staring at the ceiling rather than sleeping peacefully.

Second, the day began with ominous, leaden skies - cool, damp and blustery -and only got worse. We walked to the train station in Wittenberg under a steady, light rain. By the time we were leaving the toughest part of the Buchenwald tour, the cool had turned cold, the rain had intensified, and the wind was turning umbrellas inside out.

Third, this was a challenging day logistically; all the connections had to go just right and the pilgrims had to remain sharply on focus all day to make everything work. Tiring in and of itself.

Gate at Buchenwald "To Each His Due"

Finally, there was Buchenwald. We knew this would be challenging, and we were not mistaken.

The trip from Wittenberg to Weimar was surmounted with aplomb. We were so efficient moving as a group of 20 that we had some time to spare, and that gave rise to the only momentary lapse of focus of the day. One backpack tried its best to stay behind on the platform in Wittenberg, but fortunately an observant German passenger called this to our attention in the nick of time. All other logistical arrangements came off OK, although a slow first train ate up all of our margin of safety at our transfer point.

Upon arrival in Weimar, we encountered a very helpful Youth Hostel employee, who facilitated bag storage and made dinner recommendation and reservations for us before we left for the bus to Buchenwald.

Buchenwald, Assembly Place for Forced Laborers

And then we were there. On top of a wind-swept "mountain" outside of town.  As a "labor camp", the site may not be quite as oppressive as Dachau or Auschwitz or others of the extermination camps. That being said, however, the history presented made clear that the "workforce" there was viewed by the Nazi administrators as being entirely expendable. There are few original buildings left at Buchenwald, but one grasps the inhumanity of the forced laborers being compelled to stand at muster for hours on end on this plaza, rain or shine (longest recorded muster was 19 hours) after working a full day, clothed in only the thin, pajama-like clothes they were compelled to wear.  And this was not the worst part of the history learned there, by far.

Genocide, the pilgrims learned, can occur in a number of direct and less direct, but no less intentional, means.

I am very proud of the pilgrims for all being willing to learn this awful lesson of history first hand. They made the connection that standing out on a wind- and rain-swept mountaintop for 1 1/2 hours was a minor inconvenience as compared to the unending, dehumanizing treatment endured by the inmates. They made the connection that being confronted by horrific examples of man's capacity to be brutal and inhumane in the treatment of others was a life lesson worth learning, so that history does not have to repeat itself. They made the connection that each person who really forces her/himself to deal with a site and a history like this will be aware in a concrete and compelling way of our responsibility as persons of faith to see and respond to the God that is in each one of us. And they really wrestled with the very difficult admonition to all Christians not to forgive 7 times, but 7 times 70, and what that actually means in a context like Buchenwald.  Difficult questions, for which no one but God really has the answer.

Yes, the pilgrims certainly encountered God on that mountaintop. I pray that encounter will stay fresh and help guide their actions and life-choices for the rest of their lives.


 June 26:  Weimar

Today was a recovery day for the pilgrims. No up, out and on to the next city, no "three hour tour", no strict timeline to meet in order to make things work. For that, among other things, the pilgrims thank thee, oh Lord! But this was not a day of rest. In fact, the pilgrims did their most significant work to date, wrestling with what they had experienced and how that relates to their faith.

Weimar Reflection Churchyard

This was the stop in which men and women were staying in separate youth hostels (they were sufficiently full that neither had enough space free to house us all). In the morning, the men walked through the city towards the other hostel. On the way, we scouted out places to hold our debrief session. The original plan had been to find a sunny spot in one of Weimar's parks, but the unrelenting grey forced a change. We found a church tucked into a quiet spot, surrounded by a tree-shaded graveyard. A sign by the Jakobskirche said this was the site of Weimar's oldest marked graves, dating back to the 12th Century.

Organ in the Jakobskirche

After picking up the women, we headed back to the Jakobskirche. It is an Evangelical (Protestant) church with a traditional, rectangular nave layout -- center aisle and two side aisles. One enters from the west, under the bell tower, which is roughly as high as the church is long. The altar is very simple, as is the rest of the church, with Christ on the cross hanging on the east wall, behind the altar. One’s gaze is drawn upwards by the three levels of balconies extending along the narrow west end and roughly 2/3 of the way down both north and south walls. The paneling on the low balcony railing walls is surrounded by a thin strip of gilded piping. On the third balcony level sits the pipe organ, taking up about half of the roughly 10 meter width of that west wall. The pilgrims found the church beautiful. A church attendant kindly allowed us to use the nave for our reflection and service. For the next two hours, the pilgrims chewed on what they had seen the day before, what it meant in history and what it meant for them personally.

Pilgrims Preparing for Discussion of Buchenwald Experience

The conversation, in which all participated, was thoughtful, respectful of others' opinions, sensitive to both the personal and the societal impact of the Holocaust, and deeply probing into the theological implications of this horrific event. The pilgrims worked very hard in those two hours. While wishing to respect the confidentiality of the discussion process we have in the J2A program, I did foreshadow some broad outlines of the conversation held by the pilgrims in yesterday's report. Again, the pilgrims did St. Luke's proud.

When we had finished our discussion, several pilgrims led a short prayer service in which we concentrated on prayers of intersession. It occurred to some that the rain of the previous day might be seen as an allegory of sorts - God's tears for the brokenness of his people, whom He loves. The pilgrims leading the service also reached back to a recent reading, Luke 7: 25 to 37 (Jesus being anointed by the woman) to illustrate the theme that those whose sins have been greatest are also in need of the greatest forgiveness, and that God’s forgiveness is available to all.  This is the wonderful thing about being a youth leader, one never ceases to be amazed by the perceptiveness and depth of thought and faith our youth exhibit.

Meal at the "House of Potatoes" Restaurant

All of that hard work left the pilgrims hungry. We searched for something typically German (the previous evening we had an excellent meal in a tapas restaurant directly across from the hostel). We landed at the Potato House and were well satisfied.

Striking a pose in Weimar City Park

That afternoon we split into two groups and just wandered around town. Some went to the Liszt house and for a walk to in one of Weimar’s many parks ( left) to see the Garden house in which Goethe did some of his writing.

Poets Plaza (Goethe and Schiller) in Weimar

Others encountered a film crew working on an action movie (star signatures were reportedly collected). The picture to the right shows the film crew working in the “Poets Plaza”, next to the statues of Goethe and Schiller.

Boy, that food was GOOD!

In the evening, we met at a half-timbered house near the St. Peter and St. Paul Kirche, where the staff had set aside a separate room for us and we enjoyed specialties from the Thueringen region.  Here, Kelly and Claire comment on the quality of the food and the overall ambiance of the restaurant.

After returning to their hostel, the female pilgrims were delighted to see two German female groups who had arrived on their floor earlier in the evening. A few of our ladies immediately struck up a conversation with them and soon almost all were in the common room engaged in conversation, laughter, and singing with their new European friends. A wonderful cultural exchange after a reflective and enriching day and an experience they won't soon forget.

And in the 23rd hour, we rested.


June 27:  Weimar to Kassel and Wolfhagen

 Day 5 saw the end of the tour portion of the pilgrimage, where we dealt with reformation and holocaust, and the beginning of the Julie Andrews ("getting to know you") portion of the trip, where we will be spending time living, talking, recreating, and worshiping with German families.

This day sort of reminded one of a John Candy movie. Before the day was done, we had walked for miles, been on four different trains, two different streetcars and one (women) or two (men) buses and ridden in private autos on the way to our guest families. (The men had to take an extra bus in the morning to get over to the other hostel, where the women were staying.)

Our morning reflection, carried out in the Aufenthaltsraum of the Youth Hostel Germania, centered around prayers of thanksgiving. Among other things, the pilgrims were thankful for the support of their families and the greater St. Luke's family in helping to make this spiritual journey possible.

Bernd and Simone

The train connections from Weimar over Bad Hersfeld worked well, and awaiting us on the platform in Kassel-Wilhelmshoehe were Marjy and Bernd (the father of Sjard, the German exchange student who was active in St Luke's during the 2008-09 school year). Bernd and his wife Simone are pictured here.

South end of Hercules going North, Kassel

Once in Kassel, we first traveled by streetcar and bus to the statue of Herkules and the castle water gardens. The former is made up of a massive stone platform topped by a tall pyramidal base on which rests the ginormous statue of Herkules standing with one hand resting on his proportionately enormous club. This structure sits on the ridge of a tall hill overlooking the city of Kassel and the Fulda Valley. When you finish climbing the 330 ever-narrowing stairs to the top of the pyramid (just under Herkules), you have a magnificent view of the city and valley, and also a pair of aching legs!

View from Herkules, Kassel

Descending from the Herkules statue was just the start. Beginning at the statue and proceeding down the hill for about 2 - 3 km is a water park, where water released from reservoirs at the top cascades down the hill through raceways alongside the steps, dropping in 2 meter falls every 3 or so linear meters of run. When the steps end, the water courses through stone-lined races onto a lengthy, Romanesque aqueduct until reaching an abrupt end and diving some 25 meters into a final creek-bed, which in turn winds down to a final broad, stony fall spanned by an arch-shaped "devil's bridge".

Pilgrims in the Park at Kassel, Wilhelm's Heights

The entire park is a fantasy come true, built by the prince for the amusement of his summer guests. The whole grounds, including also the former summer castle in pseudo classical style (much had to be rebuilt after WWII), now an art museum, and a fairy-tale castle without real function were designated only last week as an UNESCO world heritage site.  One of the pilgrims considered this part of the trip to be her personal highlight.

Another significant stretch of walking followed by a streetcar ride took us to the Brothers Grimm museum, which unfortunately was closing just as we arrived.  The pilgrims consoled themselves with tea and coffee at an outdoor cafe with a beautiful Talblick (view of the valley).

Simone, whose planning made the trip possible

Two short train rides later, we arrived in Wolfhagen to find our guest families anxiously awaiting us.  Pictured here is Simone, without whose hard work setting up the magnificent program for our pilgrims we truly would have been lost. As always, the friendly, warm, heartfelt village greeting enveloped me, drawing me instantly into their loving fellowship as easily if I were only returning from the day's labor. No matter how short or long the intervals between my arrival here in the villages, I can be certain of the welcome to my home away from home. The other pilgrims were similarly embraced in this gracious "welcoming of the stranger" and could relax in the comfortable surrounding of hospitality and interest in their welfare.

The pilgrims had truly come to a land of milk and honey, evident to them through all their weariness, where they could relax and enjoy the company of fellow children of God.


 June 28:  Bad Arolsen, Ehringen and Nothfelden

 Today the pilgrims traveled from the 21st to the mid 20th, then back to the 18th Century, bouncing around a bit on the cultural timeline. We started the day at the International Tracing Service (ITS), also sometimes referred to as the Schindler's List Society. This is an organization set up by the allied governments and the International Red Cross after the War to help displaced persons return to their homeland or emigrate to a new country.

The organization also took on the responsibility for collecting and organizing documentation concerning holocaust victims and survivors to be able to help reunite families or trace what had happened to family members. While the latter function is still active, it appears that the future role of the ITS is likely to be more of an archive. The funding for the organization comes entirely from the German government in a gesture of continuing contrition.

First Outing with Guest Families

After a short noonday service in the parish hall of the Evangelical Church (it is nice to know the regional choir Director, Bernd, as this opened many doors for us - quite literally), the pilgrims feasted on a delicious lunch organized by the host families.

Castle at Bad Arolsen

Next we moved on to a tour of the princely palace, where 1/3 of the extensive building is a personal library and family archive, 1/3 is open for public tours and the remaining third is occupied by the current Prince and family.

A quick train ride back in the direction of Wolfhagen took us to the tiny village of Ehringen, where we were met by Simone, Frau Neumeyer (one of the guest parents) and Marjy with coffee and cakes.  Afterwards, we were joined by

Evening of Music with German Youth, Ehringen

some 25 local youth from a Christian fellowship organization known as Ten Sing. Groups all over Europe and now beyond meet weekly for music, drama and fellowship, working towards putting on an annual "show" of some type in their region. It is also possible for members to attend an annual international Ten Sing convention to share experiences with groups from all over. That evening, the Ehringen group engaged in two hours of fellowship, that included song, dance, drama, and band (rock & roll), followed by a devotional reflection.

A caravan of guest families' cars then conveyed the pilgrims on the last 5 miles of their day's journey, to the Nothfelden Grillplatz (communal outdoor barbeque) for the Johannesfest.

Festival of St. John, Nothfelden

While the origins of the festival remain shrouded in mystery, at least to the pilgrims, this was an opportunity for the village community to gather for fellowship, eat sausage and salad, light a bonfire and gather to sing German folk songs, accompanied by guitar and accordion. The pilgrims dove in on all aspects, following along in the German songbooks with gusto. They even presented several ukulele-led renditions of current American pop songs and then joined the guitar/accordion duo for an impromptu Beatles jam.

Today the pilgrims learned things about civic responsibility, youth-led Christian fellowship and intergenerational community fellowship. And by the looks on their faces, they had a lot of fun doing so.


 June 29:  Niederelsungen

Niederelsungen, Half-Timbered Houses

 The pilgrims had a chance today to spend the morning with their guest families. Nothing planned on the schedule until afternoon. Both hosts and guests welcomed this opportunity alike, as the two got a chance despite language barrier to start to get to know each other a bit better. Some took a simple walk around the village to look at the gardens, while others lingered around the breakfast table for a chat, or helped with the preparation for the next communal meal.

One interesting thing this pilgrim learned was the origins of the Johannesfest (see yesterday's report). It is a festival to honor the summer solstice. Like many other cultural/religious holidays in the Western tradition, this festival of St. John the Baptist (held on the Friday after the feast day of St. John) hearkens back to and incorporates customs from the pre-Christian era into a Christian context, an approach that provided a certain legitimacy for nascent Christianity by allowing new believers to continue long-established customs and practices with a new spin or twist. A clever way to co-opt earlier belief-systems and spread Christianity.

Bonfire at Festival of St. John

In this case, the historical custom of the Johannesfest apparently either did not develop or was not maintained over time in this central German area where we were staying. Rather, it was introduced or perhaps re-introduced by a clergyperson in the Nothfelden village who had experienced the festival in Estonia. This makes sense, since the areas in the far northern parts of Europe certainly do have many reasons to celebrate the long Midsummer Day, in contrast to the short-dark days of winter.

Interestingly, my seat companion on the flight back from Copenhagen to the States had just experienced mid-summer festivals in both Denmark and Sweden on her trip. In Sweden, the festival was marked by weaving of garlands of birch leaves, decorating crosses with wild flowers, and the gathering of village folk outside for food and song. In Denmark, bonfires were lit all along the coast with figures of witches on top. (Fortunately, the custom has changed, and it is only figures that are burned these days, and not people accused of witchcraft.)

Lunch with Skip's AFS Family,  Mutti, Dorothy and Timm

Coming back to day 7, the pilgrims all met at the home of Elfriede (or “Mutti” to me), my German host mother from the family that had hosted me 40 years ago as a high-school exchange student. She, her daughter-in-law, granddaughter and several friends had prepared a wonderful feast for us: gulash served over steamed potatoes or noodles, peas, carrots and cauliflower, tomato and cucumber slices with a yoghurt-based dipping sauce, and cherry and "waldmeister" flavored Jello (in German, “wackelpudding” or “shaky pudding”) with vanilla sauce for dessert.

We sat around two large tables in a party room that my German father had converted from a space in which, when I was first there, farm equipment and hay for the cows had been stored. While carpentry and construction had been my German exchange father’s profession, he, like most others in the village had done some subsistence farming on the side.  My German mother also had run a "pension", taking in and cooking for vacation guests for the spring and summer months of the year. I was always amazed at their industriousness, and truly blessed that, on top of that all, they had been willing to take on one additional chore -- caring for this clueless American who didn't know the language, didn't know the customs, couldn't tell a field of potatoes from a field of sugar beets and ate enough for two additional mouths. That year was my first real experience with distant pilgrimage (other than church summer camp or cross-country camping trips or other vacations with my family), one that was as much cultural/linguistic as religious.

After the pilgrims presented Elfriede with some gifts of appreciation, we headed down to the community center to briefly practice the two hymns we would sing the following day at the church service in Wolfhagen. We then walked up to the Waldbuehne (theater in the woods) for our tour and show.

Niederelsungen, Theater in the Forest

The Waldbuehne sits on the north side of a hill overlooking the town of Niederelsungen. Every two years, the villagers put on a play, completely by themselves. They build the sets, set up lights and sound, build dressing rooms for the cast, rewrite the chosen piece to fit the space, choose parts, rehearse and then put on a number of performances during the summer (weekend nights).

The history of the theater is interesting. In the immediate post-war period, there was apparently a lot of tension in the village (now about 700-800 people), as prisoners and other displaced people returned to the village and tried to pick up "normal" life again. The left could not get along with the right, people who had been in positions of responsibility came back to find new people in those positions, the role of women in society had changed somewhat during the war.

Production of "Romeo und Julia"

A teacher living in town (the grandfather of one of my schoolmates for the year I spent there) got the idea to found this theater company to bring people together to work on a common project. Although the idea took some years to fully take hold, the operation has grown and matured over the past 65 years until it is now one of the largest amateur theater productions in Germany. We saw a wonderful production of "Romeo und Julia", in which a large number of our guest families participated in one fashion or another. Despite the German dialogue, we could all follow the story line, and the pilgrims remarked how well Shakespeare's verse had been translated into German rhyme. Of course, if you are a Star Trek Next Gen fan, you know Warf's famous line, "Yes, but have you had the pleasure of reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon?"


 June 30:  Wolfhagen, Nothfelden

On Sunday, the pilgrims gathered at the evangelical (protestant) city church in Wolfhagen, where Bernd (Sjard’s father) is the church musician. We had

Pilgrims practicing for Sunday Service in Wolfhagen Stadtkirche

rehearsed two hymns the day before, and we practiced them once again Sunday morning with the organ accompaniment. The first was Hymn 171, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God”, described above. As mentioned, this seemed truly fitting, as it formed a leitmotif for the trip as a whole, in addition to being hauntingly beautiful. The German congregation knew this song and joined in heartily on the “alleluias”.

The second hymn was a favorite of several of the pilgrims: “Is it I Lord” from the Wonder Love and Praise Hymnal. One of the German host mothers told me later that when she had dropped off her daughter and American guest, she had not really intended to stay, but she was glad that she had done so. She said the service in general and this particular hymn had touched her deeply, hearing the youth ask this simple but profound question, Lord to what are you calling me? She said she cried all through the song. I guess this was a concrete manifestation of Luther’s precept that the inclusion of hymns in worship (something introduced during the Reformation) is like “praying twice.”

Eucharist was held with groups of parishioners gathering in the large space around the altar and passing the bread and white wine. The church choir also sang several songs that we knew, including “Now Thank We all Our God” (Number 321 in their hymnbook, in Luther’s original German, of course). We were able to sing along, in German or, as some pilgrims chose, with the English words.

View from City Church Tower in Wolfhagen

After church, many of us climbed up to the bell tower to get a splendid view of Wolfhagen and the rolling hills surrounding the town.  The area is vaguely reminiscent of the area around Lancaster, PA, only with many half-timbered (Tudor style) houses still standing that had been built in the 17th Century or even well before.

German and American Confirmation Classes

Later, we walked over to the Parish Hall and had a lunch with the German confirmation class. They were all mainly 13 to 15, so a little younger than our youth. Nevertheless, we had a very good time working through several exercises prepared by their youth pastor and exchanging views on perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic on issues and concerns of the youth.

Wolfhagen Newspaper Article

Following the lunch, we were treated to a walking tour of the beautiful town of Wolfhagen, led by one of the host parents, a teacher who does this as a hobby.  We were met at the town square by a local reporter, who took pictures of the group at the Brothers’ Grimm fountain (complete with wolf statues), which gave rise to the newspaper article that Erika and her dad translated for the Pilgrimage presentation at St. Luke’s upon our return.

Celebrating Final Evening by the old Mill Wall, Niederelsungen

After a final ice cream, we travelled back to Nothfelden for a debrief of the week and then rejoined our families for a final evening of thank-yous and good- byes. A group of youth and host families came together at the baker’s house in Niederelsungen (one of the host families), where they had a small campfire by the old mill wall (the oldest intact structure in town, dating back hundreds of years) and ate, sang and talked until late in the clear, crisp evening.

July 1:  Wolfhagerland to DC


Very early the next morning, the entire group gathered in Wolfhagen to get on the bus to go to Frankfurt airport. The 4 am meeting time did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the youth and host families, all of whom expressed their joy at having had this wonderful opportunity to get to know each other. Several host families told me, “The next time you arrange this, please plan to have the youth stay longer. We were just starting to get to know them and now they have to be on their way. It has been such a wonderful experience.”

We couldn't have done it without their help!  Pastor Katharine Ufholz and Simone Geiersbach

After circling up for a send-off prayer by Pastor Katharina (pictured here with Simone), we boarded the bus and headed off for Frankfurt and home. The pilgrims tried valiantly to watch as the lovely and welcoming town and new friends slipped away into the dark. As beautiful as the area is, one by one the pilgrims soon succumbed to fatigue as the bus wound through local roads towards the Autobahn.

By the time 20 minutes later when we joined the highway, most of the pilgrims were sound asleep, dreaming of their experiences and home.