Goodness and darkness in Neuendettelsau

As I said in my previous post, Rev Wilhelm Loehe trained women to be deaconesses, to serve people in need. His work was in Neuendettelsau, in the middle of the 19th century.

Diaconal service was born in the church. As time passed, expectation arose that the care of the sick, elderly, infirm, and disabled is the responsibility of the state.

But the services were already being provided by the churches. The state didn’t want to provide funding directly to churches for them to continue the services, for doing so might raise allegations of the state showing favouritism to some groups, e.g., Catholics, Protestants, Secularists.

The state and the churches arrived at a solution which continues to this day. Churches established the agencies which provided social services as independent non-profit agencies. Among Protestants, these agencies were known as diakoneo, and among Catholics, as caritas.

Today, Ms Liebel, a representative of the diakoneo in the state of Bavaria told us that it employs about 11,000 people and has an annual budget of 650 million Euros. The source of funds is per-client payments by the state or insurance providers and an active program of fund-raising.

She told about the phenomenal goodness and catholic spirit of Loehe, his associates and the deaconesses. She also spoke of conflicts and darkness.

She spoke to us in the beautiful 160-year old Church of St Lawrence (main image)

Like many Lutheran church buildings in Germany, its focal point is a crucifix. It also has, from long before the Nazi era, a menorah, placed close to the crucifix, as witness to Christianity’s Jewish roots. (It also displays prominently a Coventry Cross of Nails.)

Some events in the life of St. Lawrence are portrayed in two beautiful mosaics in the church. These depict conflict between church and state, and the insistence of the church that rulers mut put people first.

A sculpture depicts the darkness of the Nazi era. It depicts the particular, Neuendettelsau darkness that over a thousand disabled people were killed in Neuendettelsau. A register records their names.

The diakoneo is run as a private business, though many board members are officers of the Lutheran church. This allows for the appointment of professional managers, and for faster decision making, because approval of the general assembly of the church is not required.

The diakoneo also runs small businesses which are designed to provide work for the community, which includes the disabled.

We toured an enterprise in which workers make the wafers used in the Lords Supper, another which makes garments for Ministers of the church.

One of Loehe’s key ideas is “paramentics,” which means paying attention to the finer details of everything involved in worship. This results in wafers with embossed images, ministerial garments such as white robes complemented by visually attractive stoles.

We also toured an enterprise in which disabled workers assemble parts for large businesses. Businesses engage such workshops because by law, one in every twenty employees of any business must be someone who has been certified as disabled. And the law can be fulfilled by contracting work to enterprises which employ only disabled workers.

As a result of such laws, some tasks are not mechanized. They are instead performed “inefficiently,” at low speeds, with manual labour. This type of work would not exist if the laws which mandate content of disabled labour did not exist. Such laws exist because churches and others lobbied for them.

The diakoneo also runs other businesses in Neuendettelsau. These include a bakery, a butchery, and a store which sells products made in the workshops as well as used goods, including books.

The deaconesses intentionally lived their lives to serve others. They are honoured in a simple way, in a graveyard close to the mother house where they lived. We saw lines of simple, uniform grave markers for the deaconesses and a few “fresh” graves of “house mothers.”

In the afternoon, we visited Augustana seminary, which has an enrolment of just over a hundred students. Though it is a Lutheran seminary, its students include members of other streams of Christian faith, including Catholics and Orthodox. It is the only Christian seminary in Germany – the normal path for ordination passes through public universities.

It has a beautiful campus, to which we were introduced by one of its professors, Dr Muelke. He briefed us in the chapel, which is modelled on a tepee, the tents in which American Indians lived.

The inside of the chapel is lined with pinewood, which exudes a lovely smell. The focus is a crucifix built of parts recovered from an ammunition factory, which stood on the site and has been replaced by the seminary.

While in the seminary we enjoyed a brief but most-illuminating lecture by Professor Strecker titled “New Perspectives on St Paul.” He gave us an overview of how readings of Paul’s presentation of Jews and Gentiles has evolved over time.

The freshness of the New Perspective, begun by Krister Stendahl and E P Sanders and continued by James Dunn and others, is that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, and that the centre of Paul’s thought is not so much “justified by faith,” but “in Christ.”

Paul, himself being a Jew, wrote not to condemn Jews, but to tell them that in Christ, God opened a pathway for Gentiles also into His Kingdom – just as He promised in the twelfth chapter of Genesis.

For many of us, it was the first time we’d returned to lecture hall in a seminary and heard a lecture with such breadth and depth.

After Augustana, our host and tireless guide, Rev Thomas Paulsteiner, showed us the house in which Loehe lived and the Church of St Nikolai. We took the opportunity to sing praise to God.

Thomas told us much about the architecture and furnishings of the church. He pointed out to us that the portrayals of Christ in the stained glass which form the backdrop to the crucifix in the centre are visible only on the inside. From the outside, you can’t see what they depict.

The stained glass provides a powerful illustration of why those who seek to understand the energy and motives which drive Christians to do their works of service can only be understood from the inside.

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