Sometimes a small thing has the potential to change a life - like when a German woman checks to find out if an American girl has somewhere to go for second Christmas.
"I don't know what that is," I told Helen as she translated for me many years ago.
"Gundi will pick you up at five," was the important message I left choir practice with that ordinary day, and my life has never been the same.
Hans and Gundi live next door to the first house I lived in when I moved to Germany. They've subsequently adopted me, and despite the fact they do not speak a word of English, they love me like their own child. I really am part of their family, and I get to see their daughter and her husband and kids each year when I come over for second Christmas and have the traditional meat fondue meal with them. I consider this event my annual marker of my German language progress; a few years ago I felt comfortable saying I have passable German when I had a decent conversation with Dietmar about American politics only needing a couple terms supplemented.
This year, the family had a lively conversation with me about the local German population's strong desire to have more connection with the expats who come through Kandern. I was trained on the stereotype that Germans are gruff and abrasive and cold, but my experience has been quite the opposite. The German friends I've made since moving here are some of the most patient, kind, and welcoming people I've ever known. Sure there are grumpy Germans, but there are also grumpy Americans (I only ever met one grumpy Kiwi in nine months, so I do think there's something to note there). I love the gift I have of celebrating this traditional German holiday with my German family and learning about their culture and gathering more vocabulary. We played a version of Scategories that the family let me supplement in English to fully participate in - yet another way they are inclusive and thoughtful.
All of them were talking about how they would love to find ways to engage with English speakers more often in their daily lives, but they struggle to see any inroads in the largely closed off BFA community. To be honest, the irony of a bunch of missionaries being known for isolating themselves from the locals was a bit painful to hear, but my German family lit up when I said, "Ich habe Hoffnung." I have hope.
Yvonne told me about how sad she used to be when the BFA students walked by her house and wouldn't even greet her years ago but how she is excited now to exchange a smile and a "Halo!" with students on their way to school. There's small steps of progress. Let's try something, we all agreed. Let's invite foreigners to second Christmas. Let's learn about new cultures and languages. I have the privilege of being the one invited into a family home in my current situation, but there's mutual blessing as this family asks me about my life in America, my work at BFA, and my passions and interests. My German family loves me as much as I love them.
If you're reading this in a culture that has foreigners (for the record, that's all of you), can I encourage you to think of a way to invite the foreigner into your home? Maybe you don't literally have them over for a meal like second Christmas, but make some effort to get to know someone who is different than you. If you're the visitor in a culture like I am, I encourage you to go meet your neighbors and offer something from your culture with a request to learn about theirs. I had my parents send Rocky Mountain Chocolate to share last night, but I've also previously made American chocolate chip cookies for my local choir friends. They were as excited to receive something new as I was to be included in their culture. There's a whole lot that I haven't figured out yet about living in Germany, but my friends here are incredibly understanding when I fall short and offer loads more grace when they see I'm making an effort.
As we enter into a new year, I'm looking for new ways to build bridges between myself and the natives of my host culture. Just because I didn't get it all right the first time doesn't mean that I can't learn. Ich lerne Deutsch. Langsam. I'm slow with languages just like I'm slow with learning some other things, but I haven't given up. Thank goodness my host culture hasn't given up on me.
While I hope that this reflection might encourage others to acts of kindness, I want to be clear it's written as a call out to me. I've received so much goodness and generosity from others, and I want to find ways to be responsible with what I have, to pay it forward. Tonight, I'm starting something new where I make dinner for friends who bring honest conversation about how to love Jesus better with their combined German, Swiss, Canadian, and Kenyan cultural experiences. They might get a free meal out of it, but knowing these people, we all end up closer to Jesus by the end of the night.