It began in laughter and ended in weeping, but I think I met the Holy Spirit in a former Communist Party social hall in eastern Germany.
In April, 2002, I was part of a three-man communication team sent by our church for eight days to central Europe – Budapest in Hungary, Prague and Brno in the Czech Republic, and Dresden in Germany. We had a cameraman, a team leader/organizer/gaffer/go-fer, and me, the writer. Our purpose was to film and write stories for our denomination’s Central European mission. There had never been a short-term mission team like ours before, and both the church and denominational headquarters were nervous and not a little skeptical. But we went.
We trained for months. We plotted our schedule. We determined which missionaries to interview and film, and how the written and video stories could be used for both promoting the mission and for missionary reports to home churches and supporters. The church leader who organized our team kept reminding us of always being open to God changing our plans. We nodded and made more plans.
As we waited in the St. Louis airport for our flight to Chicago/Frankfurt, we saw a TV news report about a gunman killing 13 students and teachers in Erfurt, Germany. We were shocked like everyone else but didn’t consider how it might affect our trip.
When we landed in Budapest, the first words we heard were, “They want to send you to Erfurt.” There wasn’t a good explanation. As we were driven to our home base, we were told there had been a flurry of transatlantic emails and calls while we were en route and the denomination wanted us to go. But the decision was ours. Our packed schedule offered no time for a change. Our team leader shook his head. “This would wreck everything,” he said.
We sat is silence for a time, and then. Remembering the leader’s words in St. Louis, I said, “Maybe this is what it means when God changes your plans.”
The next day, we went to church and then left for Dresden, stopping long enough to sleep and film two interviews. Then we drove to Erfurt.
We had a contact name in Erfurt – the young pastor of a small church. He would meet us as we exited the autobahn and drive us to his church, and then to the school. But we really didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
He was waiting as planned. I rode with him to talk about the interview while the others followed in our vehicle. The pastor and I looked at one another – and started laughing for no discernible reason. The car filled with our laughter, and something else as well – the sense that we had known each other for a very long time.
He had spent the previous three days ministering to families – families who had lost spouses, children, friends. He had had a total of four hours of sleep. He was unshaven and had dark circles under his eyes. He was spent physically, spiritually and emotionally. Yet we were laughing.
The church building was a former social hall for the local Communist Party, transformed into a beautifully simple worship space. While our team leader went exploring, the cameraman and I sat with the pastor, and we began to talk as the camera rolled.
About five minutes into the conversation, I asked the pastor how he was personally dealing with all he had had to face over the previous three days. He lowered his head and said nothing. It was when I began to weep that I realized he was as well, as was the cameraman.
He was exhausted; we were still jetlagged. Perhaps that explains it. But we suddenly seemed surrounded simultaneously by both sadness and joy, anguish and relief, as if God was weeping with us as he held the three of us tightly together. Our hearts were simultaneously broken and healed.
Days later, I tried to explain to the head of the Central Mission in Budapest what had happened in Erfurt.
All I could tell him was that I knew I had come home.
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