Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Way to the Coffee

by Jennifer Mihok
Crossposted at the MFSA Blog

After two and a half years on the staff of MFSA, I am in the midst of a move from DC to Boston, where I will begin seminary this fall. For the past few weeks I’ve spent a significant portion of my time sorting through boxes and files—at my house in DC, at the MFSA office, and now at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania. A few days ago I was going through stacks of cards and letters that I had collected while living in Germany, and I came across a folded piece of white paper with colorful letters in child’s handwriting: “Jennifer, Hier geht’s zum Kaffeetrinken” (this way to the coffee).

The story behind this simple invitation is an important one for me. While serving as a mission intern prior to coming to MFSA, I had lived on the sixth floor (no elevator) of a Soviet block style apartment building in Genthin, a former East German “city.” It must have seemed strange to the neighbors when a US-American showed up to spend a year and a half in this hole in the wall of a town, or, to use the German expression for such places, “where the dog’s buried.” Explaining that I was there with the church didn’t make it any easier, as only about 10% of Getnthin’s population had retained or reinitiated any religious affiliation—let alone Methodist—after forty years of socialist rule.

My first encounter with any neighbors in the “block” came a few weeks after I moved in. I had been parking my bike in the only cellar I had a key to, which apparently was not the bike cellar, but the stroller cellar. The first person to speak to me was a woman who gruffly accosted me about parking my bike where her grandchildren’s playthings were. Only half understanding the “Ossie” (eastern) accent I wasn’t yet used to, I went away feeling less than “Willkommen.”

A few weeks later, a storm passed through Genthin leaving beautiful rainbows in its path. I took as many pictures as I could from my apartment window and then rushed downstairs to get some from a better angle. The same woman who had scolded me was leaning out of her second story window in the building next door. She watched me for a while and then in the same gruff voice, called down, “schön, nicht wahr? (beautiful, isn’t it?)” She began chatting away, making comments about my digital camera, suggesting where I might get a better view, explaining that her daughter and grandchildren lived in my building and her mother up the street—all still in that same, curt intonation that my senses hadn’t quite adjusted to.

The next day, I printed some copies of the rainbow pictures and left them in her mailbox. When I ran into her sometime later, her demeanor seemed to have softened. She thanked me repeatedly and whole-heartedly for the pictures and invited me to afternoon coffee at her daughter’s apartment—on the second floor of my building. The whole family would be there; all I had to do was show up at three. Despite the more welcoming encounter, I found myself quite nervous on the day of, and over little things, too. What if I didn’t understand them well enough? What if I mispronounced something? Which second-floor apartment was it anyway? What if I rang the wrong bell?

But when I got down to the second floor, I saw this sheet of paper in Jessica’s (the granddaughter’s) handwriting: “Jennifer, Hier geht’s zum Kaffeetrinken.” A personal pathfinder, just for me, just when I needed it. I remember smiling and breathing a sigh of relief as I rang the bell.

That afternoon led to many more occasions of “Kaffeetrinken” over the next few years, including visits made on return trips to Genthin after I began work in DC. When I came across that paper this week, I thought of the many times that people at MFSA and RMN have left pathfinders for me, including personal invitations to attend events like Sing a New Song. We all have a general idea of where we’re going—to a justice-filled and inclusive United Methodist Church. But getting there isn’t easy. We might be put off at first by personalities we don’t quite understand, or confused by the legalism and politicking that often goes into setting church policies. And yes, sometimes it’s as small as worrying about getting the right room number for the Reconciling Sunday School class. (In my personal experience, rainbows come in handy.) I’m looking forward to Sing a New Song for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of its ability to help us find our way together to a new and brighter future for the church that we love.

I hope to see you there, and if you’re wondering where to find me—it will probably be by the coffee. I’ll be sure to make some colorful signs to the MFSA hospitality suite—just for you!

Grace and Peace,

Jen Mihok

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