MEETing BIEN in Hamburg


Hello friends in the ecumenical movement,


we had a great few days with our German ecumenical network in Hamburg (harbour city in the North of Germany) last week (21. to 23. of July). Our network is called MEET, More Ecumenical Empowerment Together, and it was started by a few young people you had been to the Porto Allegre General Assembly of the Word Council of Churches as youth delegates.


After that experience in Porto Allegre they thought: “We met so many beautiful people from around the world and heart so many stories, what can we do in Germany, our church paid so much money for us to travel there, so what could we do HERE in Germany to share this experience so that it will become a real “fruit” of the ecumenical movement???????”.


Since then the network has been meeting ONCE a year. That meeting was organised by a coordination circle of 4 people. And each time we MEET, the coordination circle is thinking about a “theme” or a “place” we could go to, where we can MEET people and discuss and do things that have to do with the World Council of Churches work and with ecumenical work.


THIS year, we met and during our little “discussion” round it got pretty clear that we from now on want to MEET once a year and do this as part of the PILGRIMAGE. So for next year it is planned to have a whole few days only being pilgrims and thinking about the pilgrimage already IN DOING the pilgrimage of justice and peace (as it is not the Pilgrimage TOWARDS justice and peace, but OF justice and peace). I think that will be very exciting.


WELL BUT, the real reason I am writing you is because THIS time during our meeting we had an amazing day with the participants of the festival BIEN (Baltic International Ecumenical Network).


They had organised a day with workshops that took us around the city of Hamburg to places and are linked to REFUGEES and ASYLUM SEEKERS. So places that were visited were the HARBOUR. Every day, there are millions of products shipped in and out and the wealth of the world seems to be coming in and out from there. Machines and workers in there never rest, they are up 24 h arranging containers and ships. People who are trading there can make a lot of money. Funny enough, that seems also to be there main issue. For example, when a ship does not arrive or is late or got lost on its way to the harbour it is not so much in the managers interest what happened to the ship or where it got into troubles and why. Also, we met one pastor who sheltered around 120 asylum seekers from Africa in his church, who had come to Hamburg after arriving in Italy. In Italy, the situation is very difficult with several hundred migrants arriving every day. If they don’t arrive at the coast they often die on sea in storms or by crashing with bigger ships or because they had run out of food and water or because they have been overloaded on the little boats that come from the coast of North Africa in the search for a better life in Europe.


Anyway, this pastor told us that seeing the many containers and goods that are coming into the harbour while sitting on the seaside with some of his friends from Africa, who came to find refuge here in Germany since life in their homes has become unbearable due to different factors, he can’t help but thinking: all these goods that we took from the continent Africa when we were colonisers in Europe created so many problems that countries, ethnicities, people, nature has suffered so much and so much wealth has gone that now that people are coming here to live with us in the comfortable life we created for ourselves we treat them like invaders and criminals…


Other people also visited a refugee camp on the very outskirts of Hamburg. It took some time to travel the containers where people are crammed into are probably not a pretty picture to have in the centre of the city. So on the periphery of Hamburg there are these few containers and some visitors reported how very much they felt like visiting a zoo while being in there, watching people that must be horribly bored by the few things that are provided and the days and months that they have to spend in there waiting for the bureaucracies of Germany to get going with their cases, their applications for the permission to stay and work and life without fear and to start their lifes.

Many people have their children with them and one visitor of the centre observed that it was very touching to step into a room and have the children running towards them, taking them by their hands because they were so surprised by the sudden guests and taking them to their toys and tables to play with them. Another visitor told us how they also saw classrooms where children are taught some German and he said that in the mid of this restricted life that is limited to those few containers in the class room, receiving education, the children looked as if they were normal children like anywhere else.


Another group went to visit a community of people that live with Asylum seekers and refugees in a building that belongs to one local church in Hamburg. The centre is called “Brot und Rosen” (bread and roses), which has its backgrounds in the Catholic Worker Movement. AND THAT WAS REALLY INTERESTING. In Germany, there existed a law in the middle ages that said that people are protected in churches and free from persecution of the state or from anyone. A church is a sacred place that offers shelter for those who need protection. 40 years ago, when many Vietnamese people came to Germany (probably to escape the situation during the Vietnam war), there was a church in Germany who used that OLD LAW again and sheltered a few of them in their church building so that they would not be deported and send back to Vietnam. Back then the protection of them was really limited to the very territory of the church building. As soon as they stepped out, the police could have caught them and took them to the immigration authorities. So they had to live only in the church for a few months. Today more churches are using this “CHURCH ASYLUM” to give shelter of asylum seekers or refugees, but in some federal states of Germany, the churches are so progressive that they are negotiating with state authorities a lot (the relationship of state and church in Germany seems to be kind of special) and that they have slowly broadened this space that the people under their protection can live in. In Hamburg, we learned if a person is about to be deported but a church decides to take them into CHURCH ASYLUM, a letter of the head of this church can be send to state that to the authorities and the person can go to live in the church OR church buildings that belong to the church. It is just important to have AN ADRESS that the person can register at, so that if he or she is controlled by officials he can say he is with the church at this and that address and not just illegally somewhere. In some churches this is even broadened to the whole neighbourhood, so the address does not have to be part or a building of the church, but a building within the area of the neighbourhood that is taken care of by this church.


I thought it was fascinating. The community we met, was living in the old home of the pastor of a church and it seemed to be like a family living, sharing, cleaning, shopping, cooking and taking care of the garden behind the house together. IN the community, there are 16 people living together. 8 are asylum seekers and refugees who come and go. They stay sometimes for a night if they need a spontaneously or many years. One young Hindu guy, who had come from Afghanistan told us that his plan is to stay for 6 months, that is the time that an asylum seeker has to be in Germany before the government might take him as a NEW case. According to European law (which is called Dublin 1, 2 and 3 because European leaders met there to discuss the regulations how to deal with those people coming to seek asylum and refuge in Europe), a person gets a stamp in their passport in the country that he first arrives. So that is often the already economically struggling countries (Greece, Italy, Hungary…). Those people often face horrible opportunities and don’t receive support or help to find jobs because authorities are helplessly overwhelmed by the influx of people or because the economies are so weak that they cannot even provide jobs for their own people. People are free to travel within the European Union, but unfortunately, as soon as they want to settle in the other , richer , better equipped countries they are ALWAYS SENT BACK to their country where they got their stamp and the whole struggle and travelling starts all over again. In between the person can get into prison, detention, immigration or refugee centrs and wastes months and years of his or her life there being bored to death. Some really manage to stay optimistic and motivated. INDHO a young community member from Somalia told us, he is still hungry to study and start his life in Europe with a better future after travelling for 7 years through many different European countries (Hungary, Germany, Denmark, UK, Ireland, Norway…he arrived when he was 18 and is now 25(. He had the opportunity to intern in an old peoples home and hopes to get more work experience there to eventually become a nurse in Germany. He likes Hamburg and he likes how German people can treat each other in a very honest way. He told us that in Somalia people often carry guns, get killed always have to fight for themselves that because the situation in Somalia is so much worse he has survived the miserable situation that he found himself in in so many European countries because it was still better than back in Somalia.


In Brot und Rosen in Hamburg, Indho and Aman can live as members of the communities family. They go to German classes and can leave the house and roam the city, meet friends and do things freely. They also get a pocket money to do that.


There are 8 more members of the community that are living there as residents for a bit longer.. They are often German (the common language in the community is German since they encourage everyone to learn the country’s language. Although sometimes they have to communicate in English or other languages when it gets difficult for other members ot understand everything), but we also met a young Catholic volunteer from the US, Mary. These 8 make a commitment when they move into the community. They are only allowed to work half time so that they can spend enough time in the community, where accommodation and food is provided. But they have to make sure they have enough capacity to join householding as well as weekly meetings with the community members to discuss appointments, cleaning routers, cooking schedules, and plannings for new Asylum seekers or refugees to come in or emergency cases that can be offered one or two of the guest rooms of the house.


In the cellar, we got showed the little prayer room where some of the members are having a prayer every morning. They assured us though that it was not obligatory to join these prayers but that the members of the community often have different religious backgrounds (Aman was for example Hindu). For instance, during Ramadan, they all broke the fasting together in the evenings. In this way, Ilona (one of the older German community members, a bit like a grandmother of the whole house), told us that it is a very dynamic and lively community where people live and together and can learn from each others cultures and religions. It is also a community of different generations as sometimes a whole family moves in with their children.


There was also a lot of vegetables in the cellar, that sometimes get donated by supermarkets or vegetable shops that know about the community and give products that they otherwise would have to throw away in the evenings. Cloth also gets donated by different churches, sometimes when new people have nothing to wear they can distribute those donations, too.


The living room looked very lovely and I especially noticed the daily newspapers on the table. I love to check the news in the morning, but sometimes as a student it can become a luxury to have a printed paper newspaper in the morning. Indho told me that he reads the newspaper when he has breakfast in the morning. That must be a great practice and explains why is German is already really good after being in Germany for only 5 months.


The community seems to be passionate to connect its religious and ecumenical understanding with its political character. That means that they want to be political informed and understand themselves as Christians that want to be political people. For example, there are many churches that go to visit refugees in centres or prisons to pray with them which, as Indho told us, can also be very nice to have people visiting you and praying with you and telling you interesting things because it can become really boring in those centres where you have to stay for weeks or months until officials have dealt with your documents. However, those Christians in Brot and Rosen even gave him more practical help with which he could LEAVE THE PRISON and live with them, explore Germany more freely and might even have the chance for a permanent residence in the future.


I hope that his pilgrimage can end in Germany for now.