NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Over this past January interterm, I had the opportunity to travel in Germany with six other Bethel College students, all of whom had taken at least a semester of German, led by Merle Schlabaugh, professor of German, who has both lived and traveled extensively in Germany. During those three weeks, we spent time in twelve German cities and Prague, with stays ranging from a few hours to five nights.
Our two days in Wuppertal (Bethel has had an exchange program with the university there for several decades), where we stayed with students from the university, was one of our most enjoyable times. We had a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones.
During our time in Munich, we visited the Dachau concentration camp. It was a cold, overcast, windy day. Our visit lasted from late morning well into the afternoon, so we did not eat lunch. It seems appropriate that we experienced cold and hunger – a slight form of physical discomfort – in this place of terrible suffering where people died of illness and starvation.
It is hard to know what to think after spending a few hours in a concentration camp. On one hand, much of what I saw in the museum and walking around did not surprise me, since the Holocaust was a topic well-covered during middle school. On the other hand, it is hard for me even to begin to comprehend that less than a century ago, in a modern, industrialized, civilized nation, millions of people were brutally tortured and murdered.
Another significant part of our trip was visiting historic churches. We saw so many, in fact, that the wonder of these magnificent structures began to wear off.
As I sat in these quiet, ornate buildings, so much older and more beautiful than most churches in the United States, I had to wonder about the life of the actual church, the people, who gathered in this place. It seemed, in some ways, that the church was dead, as if it spent all of its energy in maintaining its building instead of its congregation. There were even church buildings that felt like artifacts of a religion that had run its course, museums complete with gift shops and a suggested donation.
This is a harsh judgment, and I recognize that I saw only a glimpse into these churches. But I would challenge the North American church to consider this issue of the importance of a building versus the importance of the congregation and the work of God.
However, I also saw signs of hope and new life. For example, we visited the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, where peace prayer services played an integral role in the 1989 peace protests that caused the GDR party and the dictatorship to collapse. Other churches were working to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless in their own communities and around the world.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.
Miriam Regier, Newton, is a junior majoring in mathematics.
Other Bethel students participating in German Language and Culture in a German Environment:
Jeff Buller, junior, Inman
Dan Clinkscales, freshman, Hays
Erinne Coit, senior, Wichita
Sam Gaeddert, freshman, Hutchinson
Rosanna Hamman-Hartkop, sophomore, Lima, Ohio
Kasey McClendon, sophomore, Cunningham