What doesn’t change
Change is in the air.
Telephones I started using yesterday are antiques. Email is ancient. The Berlin Wall, which I visited as a 19-year-old, was toppled before today’s college students were born.
Some things, however, don’t change. One of my favorite scriptures is “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
On Oct. 4, the little Mennonite congregation at Deutschhof, Germany, threw a party. They gathered to dedicate a wing for children’s activities.
In the morning they had a joint service with a congregation of German immigrants from Russia who also use their building. After a common meal, they returned to the sanctuary to formally dedicate the new wing. Finally, they gathered once more for afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen, complete with a long table of sweet breads and cakes.
Except for the linguistic and cultural differences, the European celebration reminded me of church festivities on other continents. Worship, preaching, conversation and food abounded.
Their challenges also sounded familiar. “We have always had a plural, bivocational ministry,” said senior elder Guenter Schowalter. “But now some members of the congregation think we should employ a full-time pastor.”
“Young people leave the village for work in surrounding cities,” he continued, “and the current group of preaching elders is getting older.” His son Thomas is a fervent Christian yet now a big-city banker and unable to come back to the village every weekend.
“What distinguishes this Mennonite congregation from other evangelical churches in the region?” I asked Otto Schowalter, an elder now in his 80s.
He paused. “I think it’s our emphasis on putting our faith in shoe leather. We teach the importance of discipleship.”
His son Armin, an evangelist, lives in a nearby city. He, too, showed up for the celebration. When I first got acquainted with him 15 years ago, he was hitchhiking around, sharing his faith with those who offered him rides. Now he is known all over town for his open home, welcoming and serving the homeless, cultural misfits and foreigners.
It was an energizing Sunday, bringing back memories of when I first encountered these Mennonites. At a youth conference in northern Germany, a young woman, sister of the hitchhiking evangelist, walked up to me and introduced herself as Inge Schowalter.
“Oh, I’m glad to meet a European Schowalter,” I said. “I heard there were some here, and I’ve always hoped we might be distantly related.”
Inge smiled, “We are! We’re ninth cousins. My dad back in Deutschhof is interested in family history, and he sent me to meet you and tell you. . . . I can also tell you’re a Schowalter because you have a crooked nose!”
Whatever the truth of crooked noses, I could look around the Deutschhof congregation and see a roomful of distant Mennonite cousins. The family lines in Europe and the U.S. had been separated more than 260 years ago, without contact, until my generation.
Much more impressive than the genealogy, though, was the common faith, a testimony to the faithfulness of God to all generations (Psalm 100:5).
When a little group of 12 American Showalter visitors was invited to sing at the Deutschhof celebration and turned to “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” a little bit of heaven came down. Separated by an ocean for two and a half centuries, we are still one family of faith, with one living Lord, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Some things don’t change.
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
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