Our local church’s Germany adventure got its start in May of 1993 over a dinner of brats and sauerkraut in a bierstube next to Cologne’s massive Gothic cathedral. The Revs. Markus and Suzanne Zimmermann sat across the table from Betsy, our daughter Katie and me, as we discussed our churches, separated by thousands of miles yet joined by common beliefs.
The Zimmermans, pastors together serving a Protestant church in Köln-Pesch, a Cologne suburb, had recently returned to their home in Germany following internships at two churches in the United States — Fisher Memorial United Holy Church in Durham, N.C., a primarily African American congregation, and our church, United Church of Chapel Hill, a United Church of Christ congregation, mostly white. Betsy, our eldest daughter Katie and I were on what we believed at the time was our one and only vacation trip to Europe, a travel adventure that included a five-day cruise on the Rhine. When we learned that our Rhine cruise would stop for several hours in Cologne, we immediately emailed our friends the Zimmermanns and made plans to meet for dinner.
Surely, we agreed over that dinner, there must be a way for our two congregations, one in Germany, the other in the United States, to get together to discuss our common beliefs and the ways we try to live our faiths in our separate cultures. We have much to learn from one another. Germans have a perfect word for it: gemeinschaft, which can be defined as a group characterized by a strong sense of common identity, close personal relationships, and an attachment to common concerns.
Two years later, a chamber choir, pastors and several members of United Church of Chapel Hill’s congregation traveled to Germany, lodged in the homes of parishioners in the Zimmeranns’ church, sang in services at Cologne and Bonn and a concert in Gerolstein, and spent lots of time meeting and talking with new friends. An exchange had begun. A few years later, the Köln-Pesch congregation welcomed a visiting tour by United Voices of Praise (UVoP), a multiracial gospel choir made up of members of Fisher Memorial and United Church. Once again, lives were forever changed on both sides of the Atlantic.
UVoP’s tours have continued every other year since, expanding to include concerts in England and Paris as well as Germany. These visits and the Germans’ enthusiasm for the infectious music of this choir spawned new gospel choirs in Cologne and Bad Kreuznach.
Since this experimental beginning, groups of all ages from German congregations and United Church have traveled across the pond multiple times for extended visits than have included faith-based retreats, joint worship, music and discussion, and of course, relaxed social time together.
The relationship between United Church and Protestant churches in Germany’s Rhineland predates our 1993 dinner conversation by many years, but our friendly chat over dinner in 1993 planted a seed that has led to a powerful, life-altering relationship that has grown through more than 20 years, affecting countless lives for the better.
Last Sunday, 27 of our friends from Cologne spent a long weekend in our homes and our church, and together we worshipped, prayed and sang yet again. Gemeinschaft. How nourishing. How wonderful.