Since 2015, Senfkorn Stadtteilmission –“the mustard seed neighborhood mission” – has been experimenting with new ways of building community amid the monotonous apartment blocks of Gotha, in Germany’s former East Zone. Its aim? To spread faith, hope, and love among the Kirchenfernen – those who are “far from the church.” Senfkorn was started in 2015 by Lutheran pastor Michael Weinmann and his wife Christiane; in 2021 they were joined by Frank and Ute Paul, longtime intercultural workers in Argentina and members of OJC, an intentional community south of Frankfurt. Plough’s Chris Zimmerman spoke with Michael and Ute.
Plough: How do you do mission in Germany, a country that’s been Christian for centuries?
Ute Paul: Only about 1 percent of the ten thousand residents in our neighborhood attend church. For most, religious services and faith are out of sight, out of mind – completely meaningless. So the challenge is great. But we are not running a mission program! We simply want to be present as Jesus-people and to trust that he is already here.
Michael Weinmann: “Mission” is a threadbare word; it implies that certain people have something to bring to others, who lack it. This has never been our approach. We see ourselves as participating in the much broader mission of God who, in Jesus, entered our world in order to love and reconcile it. That requires living among the people as part of an open, post-denominational community focused on the horizon – on the coming kingdom of God. Our name comes from a story Jesus told about a mustard seed, about this tiny little possibility of new life. It is easily overlooked; it is apparently meaningless. But once it takes root among the cracks in the concrete, it grows and grows, eventually providing shade and shelter for even the strangest birds!
Ute Paul: It is important for people to see their own ideas and suggestions being implemented. Our aim is to collaborate; to work toward viable, lovable daily interactions with those already living and working here; to nurture self-efficacy and confidence. It’s their neighborhood!
What’s the neighborhood like?
Ute Paul: The apartment blocks here were built in the 1980s, and there are still “original” residents, mostly elderly. Many moved away after the so-called “peaceful revolution” [of 1989] though. They were replaced by newer residents looking for affordable housing: low-income employees, welfare recipients, single mothers. There’s been a steady influx of migrants too: from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and most recently, Ukraine. Time and again, fear and prejudices lead to conflicts between these groups. Communication is a big problem.
What is a typical day?
Michael Weinmann: We make house visits, and when people stop us on the street, we try to listen to their concerns. Christiane, who is an art teacher, holds free painting sessions for children in a storefront. We use it for prayer and worship too, and for educational films, German classes, and roundtables. I also teach religion at a local school, and I regularly tell Bible stories to pupils from a nearby secular kindergarten.
Ute Paul: Our primary concern is building relationships with others, so we are always out and about on foot. We try to be attentive to “random” encounters: God can send someone your way at any time. Beyond that, we invite people to our store – to paint, hang out, or drink coffee. We also hold noon prayers, and a Bible discovery group – and, twice a month, a worship service. There’s lively singing, storytelling, and opportunities for listening to one another. No two days are the same. We try to let the Spirit be our guide.
Tell me about the different people you interact with.
Ute Paul: It’s a diverse crowd. So are the stories that come to light as we get to know them. Many have a deep desire to share. There are serious family dramas. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with it all – my patience has its limits. We seem to move between two poles: the mistaken wish that people would change (which undercuts love and acceptance) and our faith in the “mustard seed” idea – our hope that they might experience God’s salvation in every area of their lives (which reminds us to wait for his working).
It’s painful to be confronted with the despair, addictions, anger, powerlessness, and grief that define life for so many, whether single mothers, lonely senior citizens, traumatized teens, or simply the overworked – people of all ages. Maybe we are here so that we cannot run away from the pain, but have to hold it out, in hope, to God.
There are beautiful things, like the breakfast we host on Wednesdays. Everyone brought something to the first one, and we opened the door so that whoever wanted to come in off the square would feel welcome. There was chatter and laughter. It was so human, so simple. But the joy! A woman told me, “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.” And then she thanked God.
Michael, you used to have a beautiful rectory in a nice neighborhood. What led you to move?
Michael Weinmann: I couldn’t preach to others about Jesus and how he went out among the people while staying in my own comfort zone. Of course it’s challenging. There are complex problems. A friend said, “You’re moving to the Golan Heights!” – meaning a war zone. But we have to be careful not to stigmatize others with such characterizations. Then again, we are not trying to build up a congregation or parish in the traditional sense.
Many recent migrants to Germany are Muslim. How do they respond to you?
Michael Weinmann: Very positively. In fact, it’s often Muslims who are most eager to talk with us about faith. On the other hand, there are folks whose attitudes might be summed up with “Refugees not welcome!” Sometimes we find one of our windows broken.
Ute Paul: We want to live here as bridge-builders, which means cultivating friendship with people who open their doors to us. There is always so much we don’t know. But at root, every human being wants to be met with respect. That sometimes means listening to their anxieties and not dismissing them. Fear dissipates when real encounters happen; we’ve seen that again and again.
My first day here, I met a young Syrian woman in the hallway; before long we were drinking coffee together. Her husband was skeptical. What did this German woman want with them? In the meantime, it’s developed into a precious friendship; I’m studying Arabic with her and learning about the Muslims’ deep reverence for God. I brought her roses during Ramadan. And she listens so attentively when I tell her stories about Jesus.
On the other hand, it’s worrying how quickly fears of “foreign infiltration” can be politicized and instrumentalized. As Michael indicated, not everyone likes the fact that we welcome migrants.
What about the Christian aspect of your message? Are people even interested in religion?
Michael Weinmann: It’s not about imposing abstract ideas on people. That’s not why we’re here. It’s about a shared life. Of course, in a secular world, you have to keep asking yourself, “What do I really have to say?” And: “How do I say it?”
Ute Paul: Our experience is that everyone longs for community. This is the door! – no matter what age, no matter the situation. That’s why, from the very beginning, we have been looking for a different way – one that takes that longing into account. A brand new way of being a church, of living our faith in everyday life, of nurturing trust through real relationships. That’s what breaks down the walls that people put up to keep out God and the church, for whatever reason.
Young people, too, begin to ask deeper questions when their perspectives are taken seriously. The challenge is to find an understandable language for the message entrusted to us – the message of reconciliation, community, and joy.
Of course, the greatest impact is when people experience these things for themselves. An elderly lady we know was grieving the recent death of her mother when she ran into one of the teens who drops by our store, a young man who doesn’t have it so easy himself. When she told him what she was going through, he spontaneously hugged her and comforted her. She was moved, but in the end, the encounter meant as much to the young man himself as to her – he was so amazed by the power of one small gesture. Because we invite people to share stories at our weekly meetings, this one spread. With each telling, it was as if the light grew stronger.
Translated from the German by Chris Zimmerman.