NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – I had the privilege of traveling with the Bethel College Concert Choir for three weeks through Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The trip was a whirlwind of different experiences – new cities, foods, concert venues, homestays, and learning opportunities.
After returning back to Kansas and getting a few nights of decent sleep, I saw some themes begin to emerge.
History became contextualized through relationships, geography, sights, smells and song.
Almost every city we visited defined its history in terms of “pre-” and “post-World War II” – the evidence of this in restored buildings, reconstructed districts and so many memorials.
On a grey, dreary day we walked through the Buchenwald concentration camp, pondering the worst humanity is capable of.
We drove through the drained fields of the Vistula Delta (northern Poland), once home to many Mennonites. We sang in historic churches in Gdansk (Danzig), Hamburg, Emden, and Groningen where Mennonite church has been present over 450 years.
Hanging out with Mennonite Brethren youth in Bielefeld, Germany, I learned about the two waves of immigration from the former Soviet states, in the 1970s and the 1990s. Mennonite history has taken on a new immediacy for me as have the many sweeping narratives of European history in general.
Previous book learning now has tangible hooks, memories of faces and conversations. We learned a lot but also realized how much more there is to learn, how ignorant we are.
I grew closer to God on this trip.
Sharing communion in Hamburg on “Global Anabaptist Fellowship Sunday.” Singing our lungs out to praise songs in Bielefeld with all their youth. Early-morning mass in Polish.
Taking a nap on a Cologne cathedral pew, awakening to vaulted ceilings and awe-inspiring beauty (and thoughts of all the poor people it took to build the thing).
Sitting alone outside a store in Weimar (famed cultural center), eating my bread and cheese, observing the beauty of humanity – bundled-up children bicycling home from school – yet knowing that 8 kilometers away is Buchenwald.
The contradictions in life. Seeing evidence of Christ’s resurrection amidst the destruction of decades and centuries of war. In singing, in hospitality, in food shared, in conversations, in smiles, in beauty.
I felt the loving embrace of community – inside and outside the choir.
As we traveled, we learned how to extend graciousness to one another in spite of growing body odor and obnoxiousness. I listened to choir members be achingly vulnerable with each other. I learned from the insights and leadership of each of my peers.
Each church we sang at and each home that hosted us was incredible. The hospitality and thankfulness for our presence was overwhelming.
I ate a tremendous quantity of fantastic food.
Countless döner kepabs, the perfect three-euro meal. Perogies late at night in Poland. Bread and cheese. Thai food in Hamburg. Hors d’oeuvres and wine at Emden Mennonite Church. Mashed potatoes, kale and sausage in Groningen. Indian food the last night in Frankfurt. Breakfasts in general. So many delicious potlucks and suppers and snacks provided by churches and homestays. Chocolate.
Music is an international language.
Nearly every church we sang in was packed and every congregation an appreciative and welcoming bunch. New people to sing for provided the energy to give an all-out effort every night.
The combination of beautiful, historic and acoustic spaces, a choir that cares for each other and loves to sing, and a welcoming audience led to wonderful concerts.
Lifelong friendships were forged and strengthened.
Late nights spent walking around gorgeous old European cities. Reconnecting with friends and family who live in Europe. Swimming in the Baltic Sea.
Bonding through awkward times in homestays. Hanging out in the hotel playing cards and telling stories. Getting lost in a new city. Laughing and crying with 45 wonderful people on a journey through Europe.