Archive | April, 2017

Dachau and my friend John O’Melia

After visiting European cathedrals, castles, gardens, and museums, I finally visited my first concentration camp on a cloudy and cold Friday afternoon in April.

The Dachau concentration camp was on my list of places to see mostly because of a person who has had a major impact on my life and how I understand my work. John O’Melia was a 19 year old soldier with the U.S. 7th Army when he walked through the gate (pictured above) on April 29, 1945, nearly 72 years ago.

I first met John when he was already in his 70s, having retired from a long and distinguished career with the YMCA. John was on the search committee that brought me to the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I served as pastor for 13 years, the longest stretch of my nearly 40 years of ministry.

John and his wife, Marty, came along on my first tour to Israel, and one day in Jerusalem, when the group stopped at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, John became noticeably ill. He took no more than two steps inside the front door when it became clear to me that he would not be able to continue. And so, as the tour host, I walked with him back to the bus, and it was on the bus, while the rest of the group toured the museum, that I first heard John’s story about the Dachau concentration camp. In the years to come I would hear a great deal more about it.

As the Army unit John was with made its way across France and then Germany, John took a camera from a fallen German soldier and later used it to document his first hours inside the concentration camp. What the soldiers saw was horrific.

In the last days of the war in Europe, the Dachau camp ran out of coal, and the work of the crematorium came to an end, meaning that corpses piled up outside like firewood. One photo from the day shows corpses stacked nearly as high as the building itself.

More than 40,000 human beings died at the camp. At the beginning the camp at Dachau was used mainly for political prisoners, those who were opposed to the new Nazi regime. Later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were also interred at the camp. Only toward the end of the war were Jews introduced as prisoners. As historians document these things, Dachau was not technically an extermination camp.

John told me that when the camp was secure he went off by himself and read the small New Testament that his mother had tucked into his belongings before he left for Europe. He asked God to use his life so that nothing like this would ever happen again.

John’s work after the war took him first to Cleveland where, in the 1950s, among other things, the YMCA organized a first-of-its-kind interracial summer camp, bringing black and white children together. During my years in Wheaton, after his retirement, John was elected to the YMCA Hall of Fame for his work, and though he was modest about it, I sensed that the recognition meant a great deal to him.

In my new book about the multicultural church, I tell the story about how John coaxed and prodded me to reach out to the African American pastors in Wheaton and DuPage County – and how my church took some small, tentative steps toward becoming a more open, more racially diverse congregation.

At the first Martin Luther King Jr. service I ever attended, on a Monday night in Wheaton (at the Second Baptist Church), John and I were the only two white people present. That number was to grow over the years, but only because John insisted that it was the right thing to do.

I am more grateful than I can say to have known John, his wife Marty, and the rest of his family who were members of the Presbyterian church in Wheaton.

In my work today I am still putting into practice what I first learned from him.

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“Translation services” on Easter


Image result for how to become a multicultural church

Last night a church member called to ask if we would be offering “translation services” to Arabic or Kurdish speaking people on Easter morning. She is tutoring refugee women in her village, and a half dozen or more are apparently interested in coming to Zürich for worship.

She asked the question so casually, like wondering if perhaps we would be receiving an offering on Easter this year. (yes)

But translation services?

I serve a startlingly multicultural church. On any given Sunday more than two dozen nationalities will be in attendance. Most people are English speaking, which is how we advertise ourselves to the Zürich area, but a few members are still very much in the learning stages of the language (as I am, unfortunately, with German).

Misunderstandings due to language are frequent, though mostly minor, and sometimes humorous. Still, getting along is hard work. It is in any church, of course, but it is even more so in a multicultural church. Leading (or even being a member of) a multicultural church is not for the person whose ego is easily bruised.

I should mention that we are decidedly low tech in our worship, at least on Sunday mornings. Morning worship is held in an old Swiss church, practically ancient by U.S. standards. The church has no screens or projection equipment. We consider it a good Sunday when my wireless microphone works.

Translation services (with headsets and translators offering simultaneous translation of worship) have not been discussed, as far as I know, but in the research for my new book I discovered that multicultural churches around the world often provide a list of “available languages” in their advertising. Do you prefer Mandarin? Or Pashtu? No problem.

My church is not there yet, but I recognize that the day is coming, sooner rather than later. My church may seem like an exception, and in some ways it is, but our experience is about to become the norm, even in countries like the U.S. where worshipping congregations are still stubbornly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.

I found all of this very exciting and quickly found a young woman from Lebanon who is fluent in Arabic (and in 2-3 other languages) and who agreed to translate for the refugee women on Easter morning. And then, still excited, I phoned a friend in the U.S. to tell the story.

His comment was discouraging: “Will they be wearing burqas?”

I had not thought to ask what these young women would be wearing, and to be honest I don’t care. My worry now, and with me there is always a worry, is how to present the message in a way that will communicate the good news of Easter.

It’s hard enough to get it right without all of the cultural diversity.

(Note: A reliable source, who prefers that I not use her name, but who is really well informed about these things, has leaked to me that my book is headed to the printer and will be available shortly. I’m excited about that too.)

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