It wasn’t on the itinerary, and the diversion would wreck the already-packed schedule.
It was 2002. The three of us were, perhaps, the most unusual short-term mission team ever sent by our church — a communications team comprised of a videographer, an equipment guy, and a writer. The church regularly dispatched short-term mission teams, but not one specifically focused on reporting and communications.
Our destination was three former communist countries in Eastern Europe — Hungary, Czechia, and a quick overnight trip to Dresden in what had been East Germany. The assignment: interview missionaries for the denomination’s Central Europe Mission, recording their stories and experiences for websites, magazines and newsletters, and videos to be shown in churches.
We would be there six days. Including travel time, we were looking at 16- to 18-hour days, with no time to recover from jet lag.
When we’d landed in our starting city of Budapest and gotten our jet-lagged selves through customs, we met our host in baggage claim. He greeted us with a friendly “How was your flight? And oh, by the way, they also want you to go to Erfurt.” Still on Central Daylight Time, the questions didn’t register at first; we thought he was joking.
But he wasn’t. On the way to his home in Budapest, he explained. A high school in Erfurt, Germany, had experienced a shooting, not unlike what happened at Columbine High School in Colorado. Sixteen people had died. The gunman, a former student, had killed himself in a locked classroom. The mission board was asking us to consider shortening our scheduled day in Dresden to meet with a young pastor who was ministering to stricken families and friends. They didn’t explain exactly why; all we were told was that he was on his own ministering to people and might need some help.
The three of us talked with our host and among ourselves. The planned itinerary was packed; it already optimistically assumed that we would sail through Hungarian, Slovakian, Czech, and German border controls. We were set to spend a morning with a pastor in Dresden and the afternoon with a missionary couple in a Dresden suburb. The change would crunch the Dresden day into the morning, eliminate a leisurely lunch (at “an authentic German restaurant”), require a two- to three-hour journey by car, and a very late return that night to Dresden.
If we’d been casting votes, it would have been one in favor, one against, and one neutral. We slept on it. In the morning, we remembered our church organizer’s words from weeks before: “Plan, but you should also be ready for God to make changes.”
We added Erfurt (“crammed it in” is a better term).
We drove to Czechia, spent the night in Prague, and then drove through the Sudeten Mountains to Dresden. We’d had no problems with border control anywhere. The next morning, we filmed the pastor and the two missionaries and then traveled the autobahn southwest to Erfurt. It’s an old German city and the state capital of Thuringia, best known for the seminary where Martin Luther studied and became a monk.
The pastor himself met us just off the highway. As planned, I joined him in his car and the team followed in our car. I would start the interview in the car and continue it once we reached the church.
As soon as I was belted in my seat, we looked at each other. And a very strange thing happened: both of us simultaneously began to laugh, and for no discernible reason. The pastor didn’t start to drive until we calmed down, and the team must have wondered what was going on.
“Tell me what’s been happening,” I said. “And tell me what you’ve been doing.”
It was a 20-minute ride to the church in central Erfurt, and he talked all the way. The story came pouring out of him. It wasn’t only what the media had reported.
The shooting had happened on a Friday; the sixteen dead included staff, teachers, a police officer, and two students who were apparently killed by bullets meant for teachers. Many others were wounded. The pastor had been to the school, the hospitals, and the homes of families who’d lost loved ones. He’d been squeezing in two to three hours of sleep a night. Unsure as to what his reception might be, he’d been welcomed over and over. And he did what no one else was willing to do — he’d visited and prayed with the family of the student gunman.
He was physically exhausted and something of an emotional wreck. He hadn’t seen his family in three days.
By the time we’d reached the church, I knew our purpose there wasn’t to tell the story of what had happened. Instead, we were somehow to minister to this pastor. Three jet-lagged and schedule-stressed Americans had to find a way to help this young German minister.
His associates took us on a tour of the church. We thought it mildly ironic that it had once been a Communist Party social hall during the days of East Germany and the Iron Curtain. Repainted and remodeled, it had lots of blond wood and contemporary furnishings. It had become one of the largest congregations in the city, with upwards of 90 people worshipping on Sundays.
We set up the filming in the church auditorium. Rather than have him stand, we decided to do a seated interview. The equipment guy helped set up the filming and then left with one of the church workers to walk the neighborhood. I talked with the pastor about what questions I’d be asking for the video, and he nodded his understanding. The videographer began filming.
We were no more than five minutes into the interview when I asked him how he himself was doing. He stared at me for a moment, saying nothing. And then something unexpected happened.
The three of us, at the same time, began to weep. We wept for the tragedy that had unfolded. We wept for the people who’d been killed. We wept for the gunman. We wept for this town that had experienced these deaths. We wept for this world, where such things seem to happen all too frequently.
And we wept for this pastor, this young man in his first pastoral assignment, who’d been sacrificing himself to comfort and minister to the bereaved.
We prayed. We laid hands on the pastor, and we prayed for him, his church, and his city. When we finished, I looked around the worship area. And I knew that a specific verse of Scripture had manifested itself, right in that place, that former communist social hall. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20, ESV).
Somehow, we were able to complete the interview. We then drove to the high school, where hundreds of people were sitting quietly in the grass outside. We were recognized as Americans, the only ones there, and we were greeted with the words “You’re Americans. You know what this is like.”
We did know. We also knew what it meant for God to be among us, surrounded by horrors that happen and all the grief that follows.
We knew God was in that place.
The featured image, “Windows at Dusk,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Glynn Young wrote his first story when he was 10 – a really bad mystery having something to do with a door behind a grandfather clock and a secret cave. At 14, he discovered Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, but he secretly wanted to write James Bond stories. At 21, he became a Christian, and the verse he was given, Philippians 1:6, became the theme of his life.
He received a B.A. in Journalism from LSU and a Masters in Liberal Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. He spent his professional career in corporate public relations, and mostly executive speechwriting. Since 2011, he’s published five novels in the Dancing Priest series and the nonfiction book Poetry at Work. Since 2009, he’s been an editor for Tweetspeak Poetry, writing a weekly column. He and his wife Janet live in suburban St. Louis.
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