On the road for life

by Rose Rauther last modified 19 May 2016 06:08 PM

11 May 2016

"Unterwegs für das Leben," on the road for life, was the name chosen for an initiative started by the women's work section of the Evangelical Church in Baden in the eighties. Christian women went walking together along the Rhine from Karlsruhe to Basel, going from place to place in order to collect signatures in opposition to the upgrading of armaments and to hand these over to the disarmament conference in Geneva. The walk was combined with evening peace prayer vigils held in local churches.

In the following year I took part in the walk to Bonn for discussions with Christian members of parliament from the various political parties and attended an impressive peace service together with them in a nearby church.

My last big walk was a year later around Lake Constance, where for many of the stretches we were accompanied by women from Austria and Switzerland, finally meeting up with women from Alsace. Also important were well-prepared conversations held with major companies en route –e.g. BASF in Ludwigshafen and Dornier in Friedrichshafen – concerning their responsibility in relation to the armaments industry.

For myself, these walks were of great significance, quiet and yet down-to-earth journeys, reflecting on a Christian contribution to peace. They converged in a rally of peace groups, setting off from different directions to gather in the chapel at "the Solitude" near Stuttgart for a final evening of prayer together with Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter and Philip Potter. Ever since my youth during the Third Reich I had longed for an experience such as this.

* * *

My grandmother was English. She lived with us in Stuttgart until she died two days before Christmas 1933. After a severe illness she had gradually lost her sight and when I was born she was already blind. But we loved each other and sitting on her lap she taught me English verses and songs which I have never forgotten. With my mother she usually spoke English. So my mother’s language of prayer was English, too.

My mother was already widowed when the war began and one day I noticed that when she prayed she was always quietly weeping. I asked her whether war was always such a terrible thing (this was in the days following the "victory" over Poland, when many Germans were celebrating) and she answered: "My child, I cannot pray in English for a German victory! After all, the people over there are praying to the same God!" It was then that at the age of just 15 years old, I made the decision to live for "peace", from the conviction that only Christians were really able to help towards making peace!

Today, I know that unfortunately it is not quite so obvious! And the last years of the war, from 1942-45, taught me how horrendously war destroys homes and families.

"To 'live out reconciliation'"

Soon after the end of the war a new door opened up for me which unexpectedly led me onto my later "ecumenical path": By the leader of the girl's work section of the Evangelical Church in Württemberg I was asked whether my mother and I might offer an invitation to a young German Jew. She was a Christian who had grown up in Stuttgart, spent the war years in England and had then returned voluntarily to Stuttgart in 1946 in order to "live out reconciliation". Both her parents had perished in the concentration camps, and their house was in ruins. Her former friends were nowhere to be found. Naturally, we welcomed her in our home.

For both of us it was wonderful to hear about England, since there was still no postal connection. We had not yet heard that my grandmother’s sister and her husband had drowned in the Channel in September 1939 when they wanted to return to Barbados where they had lived. The ship must have hit a German mine and sunk so fast, so that they couldn’t be saved any more.

In the course of our conversation, our visitor mentioned that in the summer of 1947 she was planning to travel to England with a group of German high school students from the British Zone, in order to take part in camps organized by the SCM (Student Christian Movement).

She offered to take me with her to share in the "Camps for Schoolgirls", if I could obtain a passport from the American authorities. I filled in the forms, got the necessary signatures, had a photograph taken and handed it all over. June 1947 approached – but no passport came, no information at all. I gave up hope.

Yet quite unexpectedly, a Lutheran pastor arrived from Philadelphia with a huge crate, along with personal greetings from distant relatives. Even before the end of the war, the Lutheran congregation in Philadelphia had begun to collect clothing for the Germans. There were many more such huge boxes which he was to transfer to the Diakonisches Werk (Protestant Social Service) in Stuttgart.

I decided to tell him about my problem concerning my trip to England and he promised to help. I had to send another form, new signatures and a different photo to his address in Berlin. I would hear from him again. I did so and waited.

The day of departure was approaching and I had already given up, when a telegram came from Berlin: "Get ready for your departure from Hannover on...... at 10.00 am. The passport is on its way! Meet at the Railway Mission." I had just one night and day to pack my case and get hold of a ticket for the overnight train from Stuttgart to Hannover! At 5 o'clock in the morning I was at the desk of the main railway station in Stuttgart. I was lucky and got a ticket, though without  a seat reservation. The adventure was beginning.

Next morning in Hannover: the city was in ruins The plane from Berlin had not yet arrived. The hours passed. The train for Hook van Holland was waiting for us. We were still waiting for a student group from the British zone in Berlin  -  and for my passport! Everybody was excited when at last someone shouted.”They are coming!” and a hand was waving with my passport!

A real English train on an extra line took us to our ship and for breakfast we got the first cup of tea and  buns in our lives!

The night on the boat was calm - and questions rose in my heart.  How would they receive us? We would still see their ruins caused by our bombs! And we would also meet German prisoners, with this word printed in large letters on the back of their uniform. Would we still be “the enemy” for the English? Our boys and girls were warned never to speak German in the underground! That was strange for them but important, as one could see in some British faces.

When in the afternoon we came to Beaconsfield, which was very close to my grandmother's birthplace, I had tears in my eyes. Someone asked me "Why are you crying?" and when I answered "It's like coming home", she burst out: "But you are German!" That affected me deeply.

A week later, I arrived at my camp and I was treated the same as all the others in the leadership team. A 20-minute session of morning prayer, which I had to lead in English, was my first exercise in "ecumenical thinking", as the girls belonged to 5 different denominations!

This was a new experience for me and when after my return to Germany I heard about the Ecumenical Review, I immediately ordered it from Geneva.

"I understood ecumenism quite differently"

It soon became clear that I would not be allowed to continue my studies as a girl, and so I registered with a Bible College, so that I could teach as a catechist and subsequently I spent two years in a Stuttgart parish.

In 1952 my brother agreed to take care of our mother, in order to make it possible for me to attend two language courses in London and to take my exams there.

On my journey north I had a stopover in Hanover and participated as a guest in the Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, where I had signed up for "Mission and Ecumenism". There was a hotly contested debate between the Lutherans from the Hermannsburg Mission and the new Bishop of South India, who was arguing for uniting with the Anglican and Methodist Churches there.

I could not understand the denominational obstinacy of the Germans. I understood ecumenism quite differently. Shortly afterwards, however, I observed something very similar in England.

During the first weeks there, I was able to live with my mother's cousin and I earned some pocket money in a new, very evangelical student hostel with a lot of foreign residents. There I got to know all the nuances of English class-attitudes and also a certain pious hypocrisy. But it was also a very interesting time, experiencing all the difficulties of cultural and religious co-existence within an international framework.

On the other hand it was a very interesting time experiencing all the difficulties of cultural and religious co-existence within an international framework.

One day I found a lovely English family willing to host me in order  to live nearer to my college, and in spring 1953 I passed my exams and returned to Germany. Looking back, this was the next and most important step on my “ecumenical path”!

My hosts sent me home with a message for the chief secretary of the Diakonische Werk in Stuttgart. After a few days I went there to deliver these greetings and left having found a new job! The Lutheran World Service was about to open an office there to make cooperation in international Christian projects easier, and they were looking for a secretary! Dr. Richard Solberg and his family arrived a few weeks later and we became friends for life! The WCC in Geneva entered my life and whenever I was there in later years I remembered the beginning.

"My faith became 'political' from a new perspective"

Through the years that followed 1953 I stayed in close contact with my old friends from the student congregation which had been my refuge in the  “Third Reich” and the war while all “non-Nazi”-organizations were forbidden. After the war we “re-organized” ourselves again at all West German universities to support the new student generation who were slowly returning from the war and captivity. Realizing how important these activities were we decided to call our group “Evangelische Akademikerschaft”( EA).

One day I was asked to represent the women of our organization in the monthly sessions of the “Protestant Women’s Work”. This marked the beginning of a new stage of my life.

In the first meeting which I attended the debate was dealing with a new law on pregnancy and abortion counseling  together with the complete restructuring of the Diaconal Service. Familiar structures  had to be changed into a new social system. And soon another group of our society began to change our lives: it was the students’ revolt in 1968, that put its stamp on the following decade. As our organization was responsible for the management and order of four student hostels, our team had a hard time with endless discussions.

At that time my Christian faith became "political" from a new perspective. The feminist theology made a great impression on me, not only in the forums of German Kirchentag events, but also when applied at the grass roots and in everyday life.

"On the road for life" was for me the ideal combination of active engagement and inner reflection. It helps to be able to accept differences and to build bridges, as far as possible. The Women's World Day of Prayer has for a long time been a good example of this. It opens a wider view for the whole ecumenical movement, of which we are all only a part.

I wish the World Council of Churches increased support through its member churches, having good staff members with a wide variety of gifts, in order to reach also the grass roots of the churches and to offer encouragement to young people to seek new paths and new expressions of faith, which could, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, offer a path to peace for a world full of violence and fear.

Translated from German by the WCC language service, with adjustments by the author. Download the original text in German (pdf).

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The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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