Visiting Swiss Parishes - Ecumenism and Culture

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February 27, 2018

As part of our program, we were sent to different Parishes throughout Switzerland. Some students went North towards Germany to Basil or Zurich, some stayed West by Geneva, Some ventured far East towards Lucerne. And some of us, myself included, were sent up into the mountain villages. My host family was not expecting me until 6:00 p.m., so with the all-day-train ticket, I spent Friday morning getting lost on the streets of Zurich. As I walked through the unfamiliar city, my eyes grew wide looking at the beauty of the place—the endless clocks, brick paths, and feminine fountains, sculptures, and cathedrals. As I walked, my thoughts and imagination wandered across the landscapes of possibilities for my future life. By the time I arrived at the train station platform, I had talked myself into and out of every possible life circumstance—would I be a priest? A mother? A professor? A chaplain? Or would I forever remain looking for a life I do not have? As unpleasant as this sounds, the unfamiliar streets of Zurich were kind, showing me that what is unfamiliar is not always mean or dangerous, but can instead be an awakening of sorts—a time to be present, curious, and to learn.

Needless to say, I began my journey to Lauterbrunnen in a spirit of reflection. The train ride was calm and peaceful. I read feminist theology and spoke with an elderly woman about her memories of Lauterbrunnen: “it is a place of magic” she said, “you can leave your cares there.” She felt like a kind of prophet to me, preparing me some adventure. By the time I arrived in Lauterbrunnen, it was so dark that I could only barely make out the outlines of the enormous mountains outside the train window—their outlines looked like giants in slumber. I arrived in Lauterbrunnen and took a “Train-Cart” up to a village called, Wengen. The Train Cart has an extra wheel for traction in the snow. The train cart pulled us up what felt like an invisible wall in the night. When I reached Wengen, I looked out my window and saw a woman walking up to the train, pulling a sled. She wore thick snow pants, a cap, a heavy jacket, and the warmth of sunshine in her smile. I immediately knew she would be my host and I was immediately thankful.

We walked together through the snow until we arrived at her farm, about 30 min from the train station. We entered through the stable—the cows and goats and cats greeted us warmly. I laughed through the whole stable, falling in love with the sound of the goats and the timidity of the calves. Dinner wasn’t ready yet, so I helped Christine’s husband, Werner feed the animals. And by help, I mean I watched as he fed the animals and continued to laugh as the animals ate and let me pet them. We had Raclette for dinner, and Christine and Werner told me about their previous homes on other sides of the Mountains.

Werner has farmed on mountains since he was a young boy. He showed me pictures of the different homes where he lived on the sides of different mountains. He loves his goats and spent summers in remote cabins, harvesting cheese. Throughout the weekend, Werner talked about the mountains as if talking about his friends; he spoke about the light on the mountains, the seasons of the mountains, or the clouds the surround the mountains like halos. I kept thinking of my own home, in the city. We must understand and see the world so differently as we interact with such different giants—his giants are mountains and my giants are buildings, corporations, and skyscrapers. We stayed up late talking together and at the end of the night, I helped Christine bake Sunday bread for the Advent Market that would take place the following morning. I think I will forever hold the memory of my first night in Wengen in my heart.

I woke up on Saturday to a window full of mountains. I cannot explain the sheer joy I felt as I opened my eyes, looked out the window, and saw layers and layers of mountains. I felt that something deep inside of me woke up, something from my childhood; maybe not something but someone, someone who is more familiar with wonder, imagination, and—as my train prophet said—magic. I walked with Christine to the Market and met Maggie, an Anglican woman originally from the UK. Where Christine and Wengen spoke thoughtfully and enjoyed the peace of silence in between conversations, Maggie spoke excitedly and she filled each new breath with new thoughts, words, and jokes. Maggie showed me the Anglican church, an idyllic alpine church—something of postcards. We took coffee with two of her friends who were also from the UK. They explained that Priests from the UK are called to the village of Wengen every winter during tourist season. Throughout the year, too few people come to Wengen, but the population about quadruples in size during ski season. The ladies and I sat and chatted for a couple hours about politics, the Wengen ski-season culture, and some Hollywood scandals. It was lovely. After coffee, I walked towards the swinging gondolas that would take me to the top of Mt. Mannlichen (The parish community sent me up as a gift!), and on my way, I noticed a bench that read, “you can leave your cares in Lauterbrunnen.” Again, I remembered my train-prophet and I think I did leave my cares—my anxieties about my future, my fears, my concerns—on that bench because I spent the afternoon high above the world in complete awe and thankfulness and trust.

Eventually (and I should say reluctantly), I came down off the mountaintop. I was scheduled to meet the team of pastors for dinner. I took a train-cart from the Village Wengen to the village of Lauterbrunnen, which sits at the bottom of multiple mountains, seemingly cradled by them all. I was greeted at the train station by Pastor Olivia, who works with Pastor Markus. Olivia and I met Markus at the parish pastor’s designated home, located next to the church. They both gave me a tour of the parish home and I could tell immediately that they work well together. I previously met Markus at a gathering at Bossey. He must be the embodiment of merriment because he fills the world around him with sweet joy. Olivia is present, compassionate, and thoughtful and has a profound strength about her. Their appreciation and trust in one another was tangible in the way the spoke to one another with respect and encouragement. It was a true blessing for me to witness their teamwork. During dinner, they shared about the many ways they support one another, and how this particular system of pastoring allows them to “share” the responsibility, both the practical responsibilities and the emotional weight of being pastors in the community.

As we ate, they shared about the different services, events, and traditions of their community. I learned how they facilitate children’s formation among the various villages. They also explained the difficulty of serving multiple villages, especially when the villages do not always seem to value coming together. When we began talking about church attendance, I was surprised to hear that for a majority of the year church attendance is low. This confused me. Why don’t people come? Church seems, at the very least, a nice excuse to get together, especially for communities who are far from the city and mostly separated from communal activities.

Where do the people go instead? Why do they not come to church? Do they find meaning, spirituality, or God in other ways? What was most interesting to me was how my new pastor-friends spoke about the matter—they did not seem worried or anxious. In my hometown, Seattle, this would never be the case. Low church attendance means danger and insecurity. But I did not experience this from Markus or Olivia. Both Olivia and Markus are serving the people who come to them, taking each encounter whole-heartedly. I admire this. I think this ministry is, in part, due to the Church Tax that exists in parts of Switzerland. Of course, Markus and Olivia must deal with financial limitations, but they are ensured some security from the tax, and I imagine this helps them to be pastorally present with the people of Lauterbrunnen.

The next morning when I arrived in the village of Murren for Olivia’s service, there were more people than Olivia expected! There were about 15 people at the morning service and 20 at the evening service. The morning service was held in another alpine parish, but this one was made of dark wood. It was a gift for me to witness a younger woman in a ministerial collar. This image is so rare and, especially as I am in my own process of discernment, it is an important image for me to see. At both the morning and evening services, I offered an opening prayer and led the intersessions (I transcribed the prayers I wrote for this reflection below!) I was happy to play a part in the services and hope that the prayers, in some small way, blessed this community that has offered me such blessing.

In between the services, Olivia and I walked from Murren to Gimmlewald and ran into some of her parishioners along the way. Olivia and I spoke for hours about our different pastoral ministries, about the complex role of “pastor” in the community, and about how we attempt to keep our spiritual lives and schedules balanced. As we walked, Pastor Olivia told me the story of a funeral service she led. For this service, it was important to the family and the community that a verse from Psalms 121, “My eyes look up to the hills. Where does my help come from?” was read. Olivia and I reflected together on how landscapes shape spiritualties and conceptions of God. When the people of Lauterbrunnen read this verse in Psalms, they do not need to look far to imagine where their help comes from. The hills are close. “Help” is close and seeable, “help” watches their homes and their family every day.

As we spoke I remembered the many conversations unfolding at Bossey and in the ecumenical world about context, culture, and ecumenism. In our Intercultural Biblical Studies course, we have been going through the Lord’s Prayer, dissecting the different words and the weight they hold in our various cultural contexts. Because language is cultural, our spiritualties our cultural, our faith is cultural, so when we speak to one another across systems of belief, we also speak to one another across worldviews. Only if we can have the empathic imagination to discover one another’s worlds (or come as close as we can) can we actually hear what the other is saying. There was silence between Oliva and I as I thought of these things.

A long walk, a bus ride, a gondola, and an afternoon break later and Olivia and I were in the village Stechelberg for evening service. The evening service was held in a room of an old schoolhouse. A long table was laid out with candles, Christmas decorations, and a hymn book at each place-setting. The day ended with an incredible amount of tea and cookies and tender conversation with some church ladies.

My Swiss Parish Visit ended the following morning, but before I left, Christine and I went on a snowy hike to a viewpoint of Interlaken. As we walked, Christine and I talked about the snow, about church-life in her village, about ecumenism, Seattle, motherhood, and friendships. Our conversation moved easily from one thing to the next, much like the path we walked along. I don’t think I can rightly explain my thankfulness for Christine. There was something about her—maybe it was her maternal friendship, her warmth of presence, her hospitality, or maybe everything together—that made me feel at home, at peace, at rest. Sometimes it seems like the very people we need most, we find, or find us. Or rather, and even better, we find each other—that somehow, the mutual love that exists between us and in the future, pulls us together before evening knowing itself to be alive. This weekend was an experience of love for me. A love of beauty, awakened by the mountains; A love of ministry, encouraged by pastors; a love of friendship, grown between strangers. I am so thankful.