Stories from Germany

I have so many things to share from Germany. Mostly, I want to share with you the people that I met. I want to do my very best to describe them, to capture the beauty of who I saw when I saw them, spoke with them, learned from them. These stories, for the most part, have no punch line, no ultimate point hidden in the text. These stories have no end goal;  they are about people, and people - by their nature - are unfinished and still unfolding. Take a moment with me this morning, and meet some of my new friends as they were brave enough to be unfinished before us. 

But first lets start with my two gladiators. These giant sized humans have hearts of solid gold. Let me introduce you to the two that dropped everything on a whim when I said, "hey, come with me to Germany in a few weeks?" - there is a special place in my heart for those that say that kind of wholehearted yes without hesitation. 

First up, Kaye. This woman is radiant. She is royalty. I forget all the time that Kaye is younger than me, as I often find myself turning to her for nurturing loving big-sister advice. She has mastered the unique ability of being unwaveringly gentle and also untamabley ferocious. I am learning from her constantly. Pretty sure wherever Kaye goes, there is a garment of royal robes flowing behind her. That's just what I see when I look at her. Regal, elegant, gracious woman of God who knows that her title may change throughout life, but her name starts and ends with "Daughter of the Most High".

Then there's Mark. A sweet, sensitive and strong man who is unafraid and unashamed to be soft hearted, to be tender, to be hopeful. His is the most resilient heart I have ever met. Mark doesn't let the world dim the way God made him; he doesn't shut down or turn off love in the face of bitterness or disappointment. A long, long, lifetime ago, I asked him, "How can a man be nurturing? I just can't visualize it. It seems so counterintuitive." And he replied, "He can be nurturing in the same way a lion chooses to be gentle. Not because it's all he can be, but because he is strong enough to choose."

Mark, in his strength, chooses to remain open, to remain soft, to remain hopeful in a world that can feel so treacherous. That is a kind of strength I can hardly fathom, have seldom seen, and could not respect more if I tried. To me and in my story, his heart is the perfect kind of foreign. When everything in the past that has been familiar has ultimately been scary or damaging, I am grateful for the ways his heart seems new and strange, so full of goodness, gentleness and humility. 

And then there was me, and I rounded out our little German trio at a whopping 5'3. It's cool, God is teaching me that being a giant happens on the inside. 

Much of our trip was spent getting to know Eric and the guys at Kirche in Aktion - a Frankfurt based church that is committed to reaching the unchurched in Frankfurt, to changing the preconceived notions of what "church" is, and to being available and present in a city that needs the Hands and the Feet of Jesus seven days a week, year 'round. It's through KIA's refugee outreach programs that we were able to spend time with and love on refugees. 

One of my favorite days was on my birthday, we spent the entire afternoon at Pipeline (shown below). This is a refugee outreach lunch that runs for several hours, where people can come and go as they wish. There's free food, foosball, warm smiles and friendly conversation to be had. I loved this day at Pipeline because it gave us so much time to sit and listen to refugees as they came and went. Every time we spent time with refugees on our trip, I walked away aching for even more time with them. Pipeline is the very simple and literal answer to that ache. The mantra of the Pipeline Lunches is to simply come and be, and be together.  

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Let me start introducing some of these friends of mine. On the left is Sami. On the right is Mical. I will tell you about Mical in a separate more in depth post that you can find here. Below is Mickey (Michael). Together, these three make up the trio of friends we came to love.

Mickey came to Frankfurt from Ethiopia on what is known as the "Refugee Highway". His is a quiet and protective demeanor, always observing. His gentle and cool air instantly reminds me of my friend Josh back home. Through our time with him and his friends, we learn that Mickey faced a lot of hardship on his road to Germany. "He has seen unspeakable things." Mical says quietly while he's away in the bathroom. His boat ride across the waters to Greece nearly killed him, and there are many untellable stories he keeps behind a quiet and kind smile. When I am around Mickey, I feel his eyes questioning why we keep coming back day after day to spend our time with Mical - he doesn't know how to trust us, I can tell, but he appreciates us all the same.

Sami - he makes up another part of the trio. I remember after I took this portrait of Sami, he looked at the image and laughed, exclaiming, "I look like a monster!". Oh Sam, not even a little bit. He is the sweetness in their group - adding the flavor of joy and tenderness even without speaking. Sami is always the first to laugh; I love that about him. He, too, fled Ethiopia, taking the refugee highway like so many others, risking death and horror for the hope of safety. As it is with almost every refugee we spoke with, Sami has no family here in Germany. When I remember this, I think it makes so much sense that he and Mickey and Mical became fast friends (family) when they met at the refugee processing camp in Giessen.

Establishing family seems like a survival strategy for the heart - one can have clothes and water and food, but will still need love. I'm reminded of this truth: our needs are not just physical, but spiritual and emotional, too. With the refugees in Frankfurt, this cannot be more true. They have settled in to a new life, been given food, shelter, financial provision, but most are fundamentally alone. This aloneness is the illness of spirit we are praying will be cured, by building community and relational bridges that are open-armed and Jesus centered. 

Here are David and his wife, whose name I didn't get a chance to write down. We met them at Pipeline lunch. I noticed them quietly together at a corner table, keeping to themselves and observing the group as a whole. I totally get that. Sitting with them a while - I learn quickly that David speaks very little english and his sweet wife none at all. I discover they are Ethiopian refugees, fleeing their home country with "hope for a better life". They are believers, and David wears the Cross around his neck proudly - something he says he could not do back home. Here's the funny thing about language barriers, they open up more communication avenues than they block. From David's eyes and gentle demeanor, I learn so much. His wife's strong and gracious love was evident as I noticed her gently squeeze her husband's hand in reassurance as he speaks with us. 

Something I love about these two is that they have each other. So many refugees have no one, not a single soul for a thousand miles that knows their name or cares how their day was. That these two, miraculously, remained together on their journey is a beautiful gift. During our talk, they never stop holding hands or reaching out for the other one. I smile watching them walk away, thinking about how reassuring a touch can be; how much a hand can communicate without any words spoken at all. 

Loveson. If ever a name were prophetic, it would be LOVE-SON. A refugee from Ghana, it was through his journey along the refugee highway that God made Himself real to Loveson. Before he left Ghana, he says he was "selfish and all about having more more more". He lost himself in indulgence, he shares with me over his second serving of Pipeline lunch, sweat still beading off his face from a victorious game of foosball. But along his journey of asylum-seeking, his heart began to cry out. "Why? What is my purpose? What is this life for?" he recounts his questioning to me over a plate of warm food. I smile - these are questions we have all asked before. These questions supersede culture or geography; they are fundamentally and universally human. They are representative of the human condition, are they not? I love how even with vastly different experiences in life, humans always seem to wrestle with these same few questions: purpose, identity, who created me and how do I respond?

After asking these questions daily along his journey, Loveson finally began to receive answers. One night sleeping on the ground at a campsite along the refugee highway, Jesus came to him in a dream and outstretched his hands toward Loveson, then he woke up. A few days later, he asked his friend for prayer. He said, "I need you to ask God to reveal Himself to me, if He's real. I need to see Him myself."  The rest of the story goes as follows (how I wish I had thought to record it!)

Loveson and his believing friend were in an empty church, as he turns to his friend and requests prayer for God to reveal himself. His friend said simply, "Lord, give him eyes to see you." In that moment, Loveson saw Jesus across the church. He describes Jesus as clothed in a robe of fire, handsome, with kindness behind his eyes, and an arm, again, outstretched towards Loveson. Loveson says "I was scared for my life! I ran behind a pillar to hide from Jesus, but when I went behind it, I could still see Jesus through the pillar! He could not be hidden from me and I could not be hidden from Him, and He would not take his eyes off me!"

Then I heard Him call my name, "....Loveson", and all my terror went away from me, and I went to Him where He was."

A year and a half has passed since that day of encounter to the person I saw before me. In that time, he had arrived finally in Frankfurt, losing his nationality but holding his claim as a Child of God.

Loveson is currently a preacher at a local church in the city, and working to get his document. The "document" refugees often speak of is a form showing that they have passed their language test, proving they have learned the German language enough to begin working in the country. Many refugees take classes to learn, some churches even offer free classes. Every refugee I spoke with was eager and willing to learn the language of their new home, though the process does take time and dedication. 

I ask him, "Loveson, once you have your document, what will you do? What are your dreams?" He smiles and says, "My dream is to be an auto mechanic! This has been my dream for many years. I love to work on cars and build things up that were once broken," he says.

Feeling a deep connection to the "things that were once broken", I recognize in Loveson an ability to call things to life. I wanted some of that. So after we spoke for a while, I ask Loveson if he would pray for me. He takes my hands into his hands, and begins to speak life-giving, anointed words of blessing over me. After, I thank him, sharing that it is my birthday and his prayers and his story were a sweet gift to me on this day. His eyes light up at the mention of my birthday, and he begins to sing, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU..." loudly, and soon everyone at Pipeline joins him. It was humbling and precious, to say the very very very least.

Let me tell you about Yasif, whose photo I cannot show here for security purposes. Yasif works with KIA and has made his life about reaching the refugees with the Gospel. Yasif is desperately in love with Jesus and he spends his days looking for opportunities to tell people about it. The evangelistic anointing over his life is unlike anything I have ever experienced or seen before.

You see, Yasif was born in Pakistan and was born into a line of high level imams. An imam is a high ranking leadership position within Islam, and Raza was being groomed and set up to continue in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and great grandfather as a leader in Islam. 

When sharing his story, Yasif says that he was being recruited to become a jihadi. Jihadism is a fundamentalist movement within Islam that seeks to leverage violence and terror for religious gain. Many find themselves being recruited in and often forced into greater and greater violence. 

He goes on to share with us how he had been taught that if he could die and take infidels with him, his family and him would be promised a place in heaven. It was being preached to him as a noble cause, a way to save his family. The propaganda was ripe and he was surrounded by only this one way of thinking. He said he would come home each day and ask his mother to pray that he would be given a suicide bombing opportunity. 

This is where Yasif came from. Eventually, he started to question different behaviors and messages of the Quran and the Jihadi movement. He felt something was wrong, something about the message didn’t add up to who he thought God would be. 

His story from there gets really complicated, and extremely beautiful. I don’t want to minimize it or skip important details, so I'm going to follow up with a link to Yasif's Youtube testimony as soon as it's sent over to me! 

What I will say is this, Yasif found the true Living God. Or more accurately, the true Living God found him. And this encounter began a journey where Yasif had to flee his country and his family, for everyone he knew and once loved was trying to kill him, including his own parents. It was totally unacceptable for an imam to now proclaim Jesus, and he barely escaped Pakistan with his life. 

The man that I met in Germany was completely different than his back story would imply. He was joyful. He was lighthearted. He was humble. His kindness was disarming, his laughter filled with love. I remember one afternoon, over a warm and laughter filled lunch he had prepared us, I interrupted light hearted conversation to ask a question that was heavy on my heart. “Yasif, did you always laugh so much? When I see you, you are always laughing and smiling. Were you always this way?” 

He stopped, silent. “It’s funny that you ask that. You might not know this, but where I came from, laughing is prohibited. In Islam, it is considered unrefined and morally wrong to partake in laughter.”

I smiled, and I said, “I think that’s why I was supposed to ask about it. I think God wants to tell you that He made you to laugh. Specifically, you, carry something powerful in your laughter. Little bits of heaven fall down around us like confetti when you laugh. Please never stop."

 

The next day we journey to Giessen - a small town about 30 minutes train ride from Frankfurt. Here, they have two refugee camps. I learn that a year ago they had around 1,000 refugees at these camps, six months ago they had 7,000 and today as we walk up these tree-lined roads bursting with autumn colors, they have 14,000 refugees housed there.

As we walk to the camp, I notice the beautiful fall canopy above us - a familiar way the Lord speaks peace to my heart is through light bursting past tree canopies. It's specific, I know, but God cares about our details and often meets us in specific whispers meant only for our hearts to hear. Light bursting through trees has been so meaningful to me, that I have been known to stop a car, pull over, and marvel upwards at the way the light bounces.

When I see the trees at Giessen, I hear the Lord saying, "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here" to the cadence of my footsteps. I cannot reiterate enough how personal to me and God this type of scenery is, and to see it lining the path to Giessen births all sorts of peace inside of me as we walk. 

Days later, over coffee with Mical, I recount the beauty of the road to Giessen. She stops me and says, "REALLY? Not to me. To me, it holds memories I try to forget. That road was the very end of my asylum-seeking journey, and it was sad and scary to walk it alone and not know what was up ahead."

What a difference in our experiences of the very same road, I think to myself. Just as the thought crosses my mind, the Holy Spirit interjects my thoughts with: "But I was the same. Your experiences are different but I am the same God, and I was with you both, each as you walked up this road."

When we walked past this particular part of the camp, Raza smiled and said, "Look this is where I stayed!" It was amazing to see this man, who is so loved and has tremendous community around him now, who is in many ways leading the great commission here at the camps - to see the humble beginnings he came from when he first came to Germany for refuge. I was reminded that the camps aren't the end of the story, they are the beginning of new life.

We cannot go inside that camps anymore, as the over crowding has caused mayhem in trying to keep track of who's who and who belongs where. But we are able to come sit outside of the camps, where new refugees come and wait hours to be processed. The image above is inside a makeshift tent designed to provide some comfort to those waiting to be let in. Imagine walking for three months, almost dying every day due to one risky situation or another, perhaps losing a friend or a brother along the journey, and this is where you sit at the very end of your trek, waiting aimlessly to be granted asylum. 

It was here, in this waiting area that we found three young girls by themselves. Many children are refugee orphans here. A fact that is both heartbreaking and simultaneously hope-filled, that they made it. That they survived the journey, and they are here in the care of doctors and nurses and officials who are working hard to find them a longterm safe home. 

At first, as we approach them, they are very cautious. You can tell that life has trained them to be fearful of strangers. After a few minutes, we coax a few reluctant smiles from them, which grow and grow until laughter, giggles and playfulness erupt from the waiting tent. There is something holy about a child feeling permission to still be a child. Each time one of them laughs, I feel something crack and break off in the supernatural. Not just in them, but mostly, in me. I realize that I had been carrying around despair and hopelessness - just a small seed that had been taking root - and their laughter is cracking the atmosphere like lightning, electrifying what needs to be refined. I realize looking back, their laughter brought hope. And hope, hope sends doubt and discouragement running. Hope insists on light in dark places. Hope persists against all reason. Their laughter was healing to me in the deep places of my heart that were forgetting one simple word: hope.

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We spend a couple hours walking around the camps, making conversations with people here and there. Eventually we run into Manreal as he waits at the bus stop. We learn that he is on his way to Cafe Hope - a local basement cafe that offers free German language classes to refugees and is run by a local church here in Giessen. Refugees gather underneath a pizza parlor in a basement with 6ft ceilings and rows upon rows of chairs set up for those eager to learn. I smile when I learn the name. Cafe Hope. Yes.

Manreal is from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Like many refugees we spoke with, he escaped his native land for fear of religious persecution. You see, much like Raza and many others we met in Germany, he was born into islam and on the path to becoming a jihadi. Manreal lifts up his shirt sleeve to show us the tattoos and scars from torture he experienced while being terrorized into a jihadi role. “They tried to convince me to join Jihad with promises of money and security”, commodities that are incredible scarce where Manreal is from. “When I still refused, then they tried to torture me until I said yes. But I said No. Because I knew it was wrong.” 

When he says the word “wrong”, it’s as if the word spoken out is in italics, bolded and all capital letters. His voice drops low and his face grows stern, I sense in him a deep conviction that is palpable. WRONG.

He explains that he believes in Jesus, and he fled West Africa over night, leaving behind precious family members, due to immediate death threats. He asks us to pray for his safety here in Giessen, that they wouldn’t find him there. He asks even more fervently for prayer for his family still in Côte d’Ivoire. He says, “For me, life will always be hard. It is the path I’ve chosen.” (referring to choosing into Jesus and what feels right, even when it risks his safety.) 

And so, given this information, we pray for our brother. 

While we are praying for Manreal, a new face appears standing just outside of our group. It is Rahut from Afghanistan, who knows no english or german. We communicate in smiles and comically over exaggerated hand gestures until eventually, we find peace with the silence and he settles into our pace as we walk to Cafe Hope. Often on the journey, I catch him watching me as I chat with my team. I smile and acknowledge him often, though we can’t communicate in words, I want him to know that he is seen. I notice as we walk closer to Cafe Hope that Rahut is keeping a protective watch over me. It was the kind of protection that felt selfless and sincere. I felt like I had been adopted into his wolf pack, if you will. I was tremendously grateful to Rahut as we walked, his kindness and attention were not lost on me. It was yet another time on this trip that I was reminded how much is communicated without words. 

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Above, a single image from inside Cafe Hope. We stayed just long enough to introduce ourselves, then let them get to their German lessons. The rest of the evening we spent wandering Giessen as the sun set, wondering aloud about how to best love and serve refugees in Frankfurt. Our hearts were heavy with the burden of a problem that feels unsolvable. Finally, I stopped and prayed for us. Immediately after the prayer, we felt peace, had heavenly ideas, and we're freed up to be silly and laugh together again. I found myself wondering why I had waited so long to turn to prayer, to turn to God Himself. 

What I learned on this trip is simple. So simple, in fact, that it makes people uncomfortable. But most truth causes discomfort, at least at first, because it grates against our nature and calls us higher. That's how you know it's worth hearing. 

The call over the Church to these refugees is to become family. To lay down our rights, our armor, our judgement and our fear; to welcome the bruised and the broken with open arms. If it feels uncomfortable, that’s because it is. This is an uncommon love born of heavenly reality - one that will speak of Christ more than our words ever could. 

The call of the Church is not to talk about Jesus, but to be Him. What a ridiculous honor, that Jesus trusts us with the hurting.  That He invites us to be His hands and feet, to be His open arms to a weary world - this is like a Father handing you his hurting child and trusting you not to just fix their pain, but to care about it. Can you even imagine? 

If you call on Jesus as your savior, then He is calling on you to rise up and love the spiritual family you have inherited. Ps, your spiritual family is the entirety of humanity, because He loves us all and calls us all HIS. There are no exceptions and there are no outcasts in Heaven. With Jesus, no one is unloveable. If this doesn’t jive with your theology, I lovingly challenge you to rethink what you are believing about God’s heart.

At its core, the Great Commission is a call to become family with the unfamiliar, to take in the lost, not just by meeting their physical needs but by calling them brother and giving them a place at the table. In this way, we invite them into the ways of the Kingdom; in this way, we usher them to the feet of the King. 

This is the call of Christ over all of our lives and I believe it is the most urgent need for the asylum seekers, the weary and burdened, slowly making their way to safety in foreign lands. As Christians, being citizens of heaven, having no allegiance above Christ our King, if we cannot find kinship with refugees, perhaps we have not truly understood our position as foreigners on earth. Perhaps we should ask God what He says of the exiled, the homeless, the lost, and the weary sojourners of this world. Truly, we have so much to learn from them as they journey for safety, strangers in a foreign land, wild in hope. 

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him,

for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."

(Exodus 22:21)

Shannon SmithComment