Lahde on the Weser is a village in the east of Westphalia. With views of the so called Weser- and Wiehengebirge it is set between Kaiser-Wilhelm-Monument and the coal power station. The locals are born and bred, down to earth people – reliable and plainspoken. It is here that I grew up. The Protestant church with its energetic pastor wielded great influence over the village youth. There’s nothing surprising about that! What else was there to do besides the village disco in Bierde on a Friday evening? So we all rallied to the local church hall – sixty – seventy – eighty youngsters. We went on bike rides. We organized barn dances. We read the bible together. But where the pastor’s answers left off that’s where my questions began. And this marked the beginning of my desire to look deeper into things and to fathom out more difficult issues. I enrolled at the University of Hamburg to study Theology. Hamburg was my choice because of love.
Have your children when you’re young! It’s very rewarding. And it’s easier to juggle degree course, family and household at twenty rather than forty. “My” girls are now two beautiful and independent young women. Dorothea lives in Den Haag. She is a doctor of medicine and is bringing up three children with her beloved husband, Christoph. Johanna has studied Equine Science at university in Iceland. Breeding, training and trading Icelandic horses is her line of business. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from her yet! Both my daughters have their feet firmly on the ground. I am very proud of them and admire their combined learning and enthusiasm. Need I say more?
The interval between university and ordination needed filling and my daughters needed to be fed. It was time to earn some money. “Waltraud Bethge Papiere is looking for a Sales Associate for its luxury stationery boutique in Eppendorf. The successful candidate will be adept in dealing with customers and will have an affinity for beautiful paper products and exclusive accessories”. This is how the job advertisement read in the Hamburger Abendblatt, the daily press. What started as twenty hours per week soon became a four day week occupation. After the first half year I was made branch manager. I ended up staying four years at Bethge Hamburg. I nearly even put my theology on the shelf. At all events I now associate the turpentine smell of a screen printer’s studio with the pleasurable things of this world. Product knowledge. Cash management. Shop organisation. Staff training and supervising. Developing sales concepts. Customer service. Consulting on screen printing. I learnt all these skills during my Bethge years. A lesson for life. And for the pulpit. It’s amazing how much you can learn about needs and requirements over the shop counter.
Does the church make the pastor or does the pastor make the church? Both, I would say. It has certainly been my experience that large, gothic houses of God have moved and impressed me from my childhood to the present day. The neo-gothic church in Lahde where I grew up, St. Johannis in Hamburg Harvestehude where I trained for ordination, St. Mary’s in Lübeck, one of the largest brick churches in Germany and the Meldorf Cathedral in Dithmarschen. But no one needs to be awestruck. It is important for me always to keep my feet on the ground, no matter how large the church is. In the meantime I know that such churches withstand a lot. Not so the people who gather in them. If they find themselves in church and encounter a normal and human manner, then they are surprised and often delighted. And they come again. That’s what counts. Not the size of the place of worship.
Despite local authority cuts and penny-pinching bureaucrats it is still possible for schools and churches to be active and test new ways of religious learning with joy and commitment. As a headmaster’s daughter I knew what I was letting myself in for. My time as theological adviser at the Institute of Religious Education in Hamburg is proof of this. For three years I was responsible for setting up the “KoKuS” programme – a co-operation between churches and schools in the local boroughs. A variety of projects in many parts of Hamburg helped school classes to discover their neighborhood church as a place of religious and cultural learning. This in turn afforded an opportunity for interfaith dialogue. Learning from each other promotes living together in peace. “Your Koran on that table over there, don’t you have a different name for it?” asked Hassan, 10 years old, pointing to the Bible on the altar. When he and his classmates from year 4 descended on the local church this led to a lively discussion: why do Christians keep their shoes on in church while Muslims remove theirs in the mosque. Why are there pews, an altar and a pulpit. The children discovered that many of the old stories are told by Christians and Muslims alike. The one about Noah’s Ark, for example, or the one about Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.
Six years of invigorating, intensive and consistent work in adult education lie behind me. The Protestant Church in Hamburg made me director of one of its educational institutes. It was my job to implement and sustain decisions initiated during four years of mergers. Many walls needed tearing down; in the literal sense too. The task at hand was to improve the relationship between the Protestant Women’s Council and the Protestant Family Education Board in Hamburg Eppendorf. The recognition of a common future had to be developed and nurtured. We needed to network with the church café in the inner-city and with the affiliated branch in Hamm-Horn in order to support and promote these other two “open church” venues. Providing 800 courses and events each year and maintaining a team of 180 men and women as trainers requires a balancing act between ambition and bureaucracy, pragmatism and principles. Something between serenity and supplication; ideally a mixture of the two. Nearly 10.000 addresses were sent the new course program every half year. This brought people of all ages together. They experienced fellowship for a given time while sharing information and partaking in discussion. It is said that a break in daily life is the smallest component of religious experience. The “open church” offers this. Its motto is: Your partner for the future: Caring, Diverse, Committed, Christian.