By Sue Zahorbenski
Death and taxes. Two things we can’t avoid, no matter what, no matter where.
In Germany, the churches and their many agencies and institutions are mostly supported by the government through taxes. About 8 to 9 percent of income tax supports the churches, although this may translate to only 2 percent of a taxpayer’s income. (Example: $50,000 income, taxed at 20 percent, equals $10,000; church tax comes to $800-$900.) This allows unique and comprehensive caring for many people, as we witnessed during the World Diakonia Assembly in Berlin in July 2013.
For example, an old city church had dwindled to only 20 people in the congregation, so they went on a European search for a new model. A Swiss pastor and his wife were recruited to import their community model, including several families, to create the “Stadtkloster Segen” (City Cloister Blessing) in Berlin. After two years, they now offer Bible study and prayer, worship, breakfasts, counseling, spiritual mentoring, and more, for all who come, including visitors in their guest accommodations.
On a larger scale, the Evangelisches Johannesstift, which hosted our conference, is a huge community that offers a variety of ministries. Located on 187 acres with over 60 buildings, the campus accommodates both those who need help and those who provide help, employing about 1,900 people. The handicap-accessible bus stops at the front gate, so it is not isolated even though it’s on the outskirts of Berlin in the Spandau Forest.
At the Berlin Wall, I was touched by the story told in the Reconciliation Chapel service about a young West Berlin man who accidentally fell while peering over the wall. He was shot and killed by the East Berlin police, who told no one about the death of this innocent man. It was not until the wall came down in 1989 that this and other deaths were revealed to the public. His friends and family didn’t know what happened to him for years!
Elizabeth, one of our tour guides, may be the best example of the vim and vigor of the German deaconesses. She met our group at the train station and led us all around the city. The youngest person in her community was introduced at age 72, so we guessed that Elizabeth is probably closer to eighty. There were no golf carts on the Johannesstift campus to shuttle people from one end to the other. In the U.S., our lack of exercise may shorten our lifespan—another sobering lesson from Germany.
I was grateful for the opportunity to travel to Berlin to represent the diaconal ministers and deacons of the United Methodist Church. As one of the few diaconal ministers still working in New Jersey, it was great to meet so many from other denominations who still go by the name “diaconal minister” (though they may pronounce it “dia-KON-al”). Having attended many United Methodist Women jurisdictional and assembly meetings, I thought I had a global view of the church. The UMC is global, but now I see even more broadly. Thank you!
Sue Zahorbenski is diaconal minister at the United Methodist Church at New Brunswick (N.J.). This is a contribution to a series of reflections on the World Federation of Diakonia Assembly held in July 2013 in Berlin.