What do you think of Europeans? What stereotypes do you possess: anti-American, pessimistic, do not bathe regularly, fast cars, good wine, you fill in the blanks…? The reason I ask is that from April 22-29, I had the pleasure of traveling to Switzerland, Germany, and France for the first time. This trip was decidedly for vacation purposes (in my last column on March 15-16 I wrote about my missions trip to Jamaica in February, decidedly NOT a vacation). Now less you think I am overpaid, I had accrued enough air miles to obtain a free plane ticket and had friends to stay with in Zurich, and Kandern, Germany. I embarked upon this vacation to fulfill a promise to visit our family friends who are missionaries in Germany. Of course, it did not hurt that I love to travel, and am of German, Swiss, and French heritage, but I digress.
I must confess that this sojourn was a bit of an education for me. In particular, I was reminded of two truths. Truth #1: Stereotypes are dangerous. Each human being, each country is different and unique. You cannot lump all Europeans into one big group. Even though close in proximity, each country has its own ethos and culture. Just because Germany and France share a huge border, does not mean they share identical values. Indeed Europeans can be as diverse as Americans from New York, Houston, Chicago, or Los Angeles are. That was a little eye opening for me because these countries are relatively small and geographically compressed together. Why aren’t they more alike?
For example, the Swiss caught me off guard. They were an anomaly for me. Everything I encountered was clean, efficient, and precise. I did not find a piece of trash or paper on the ground anywhere. They had concrete indentations in the sidewalks to lead blind people right up to the trolley or train. But I was also surprised to see billboards indicating a strong, nationalistic movement. In recent years the far-right People’s Party has made significant gains within the government. Their platform is hostile to immigration (strongly anti-foreigner) and against joining the European Union. And the Swiss, the famously neutral Swiss—who are home to the 2nd largest United Nations office, the World Health Organization, and the International Red Cross—have recently spent over 9 billion Swiss Francs a year (20% of the national budget) on its Army! Again, it just goes to show that stereotypes are dangerous: each country is diverse and special in their own way.
Yet my trip reminded me of a second truth: human beings, at their core, are all the same. Of course I have known this to be biblically and theologically true for a long time. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in God’s image, tainted and affected by the bondage of sin (if you don’t believe that, turn on the nightly news), and finally, we long to connect to the divine. Human beings have a natural desire to worship and serve a higher being. They are designed and wired by their Creator to do so.
One of the highlights of my trip was attending a worship service at a Protestant German church named FEG Rebland (www.feg-rebland.de/) which stands for Free Evangelical Community Vineyard. Here exists a dynamic and vibrant community of faith in a country where it is estimated that less than 10% of people attend church. During the first half of the service, we worshipped in song: there was one song in English and the rest in German. Then tears came to my eyes as I recognized the melody of one song I have sung many times in English by the British songwriter Tim Hughes: “Here I am to worship, Here I am to bow down, Here I am to say that you’re my God, You’re altogether lovely, Altogether worthy, Altogether wonderful to me.” Here I was praising God with hundreds of Germans. They sang in German, I in English. But there were no walls between us, as we focused our collective attention and devotion onto the God who created us, died for us, and united us. It was a moment of clarity and power. We have a difference of language, longitude & latitude, and even lifestyle. But we are not so different after all!