It was the best of places and the worst of places…

This week, we had a group of American high school French class students from two Christian schools in Illinois (Peoria Christian School and Calvary Baptist Academy) visit Alsace as part of a 2-week missions trip to France. I was blessed to be their logistical contact in the area and help coordinate their activities here. One of their principal contacts was with Collège-Daniel where they did chapel services, some “deep cleaning” in the Chateau and went on a field trip with the students in 8th and 9th grade.

The field trip day, Thursday, dawned gray and rainy. Due to recent heavy snows in the our area it was pretty “gross” (slushy, etc.) everywhere. We had a caravan of 8 vehicles (I think). I’m ready to charter a bus next time! ;c) Anyway, we distributed the Americans amongst the French students and vice versa. We were very pleased at how much they all interacted and dared to try and speak the other’s language. For me it was concrete French/American-Euro/American reconciliation seeds being planted.

Our target for this field trip was two historical sites in Alsace. One was the Oberlin Museum and the other was the Struthof Concentration Camp. I had been in the area of the Oberlin Museum before but not the Concentration Camp. I was surprised to find out therefore, as I looked on the map in preparation for the outing, that the two are only 10 kilometers away from each other…and that’s by extremely circuitous roads in the middle of the Vosges mountains. As the crow flies Google Earth claims that it’s only 5 kilometers between the two!

But…they couldn’t be father apart from each other in what they commemorate…

At the Oberlin Museum, the life and work of Johann Friedrich (Jean Frédéric or John Frederic) Oberlin is celebrated…and what a life it was. If you’re an American, you may have heard of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Other than that, however, perhaps not…I hadn’t before I came here. Oberlin was a pioneer (in my opinion) of how to manifest the Kingdom of God on the earth…literally living the proclamation that Jesus is Lord of ALL. I quote portions of his life history found at this page on Oberlin College’s website…a good read (my emphases):

Oberlin entered the university at the age of 15. … he chose a wide variety of courses in the liberal arts, giving special attention to ancient languages and cultures and the natural sciences. He also attended lectures in medicine and studied human anatomy in the dissecting laboratory. He took the Ph.D. at the age of 23.

He took a position as tutor in the home of Strasbourg’s leading physician and surgeon. This gave him an opportunity to develop some ideas he had conceived about the education of children, to increase his knowledge of medicine by reading in the doctor’s library, and to acquire some rudimentary skills in surgery by observation and some practice.

After two years he rematriculated, this time in theology. He finished the course and was ordained at the age of 27.

Oberlin had been reared in the tradition of 18th century German Lutheran Pietism, with a strong. infusion of the discipline of the Moravian Brethren. On his 20th birthday he had written out a long and solemn “act of consecration” in which he dedicated to God “all that I am and all that I have: the faculties of my mind, the members of my body, my portion and my time.” It became his habit to renew this pledge by endorsing it again at the beginning of each decade. His last endorsement he made at the age of 80.

Oberlin believed that this act of consecration required of him renunciation of all worldly comforts and total dedication to the working out of God’s will. As a student he had accordingly practiced a severe austerity of life, and he now hoped for a vocation that would demand of him the discipline of asceticism, of renunciation, of mortification of the flesh through deprivation and hardship.

He recognized his opportunity when it came in the form of a call to serve the community called the Ban de la Roche. It was a large and far flung parish high in the Vosges mountains. It comprised five villages: Waldersbach, Belmont, Bellefosse, Fouday and Solbach. It was physically nearly inaccessible. Its climate was inclement and its soil infertile. It was culturally isolated because its language had deteriorated to a barbarous patois that was incomprehensible even to its neighbors. Its people were suspect and despised as residents of a Protestant island within a Roman Catholic sea. It had been devastated in the Thirty Years War and plundered for centuries by greedy feudal lords under the medieval system of vassalage that persisted in that remote corner of Europe until some years after the French Revolution. For these reasons, its poverty was immeasurable. It was a forgotten enclave that seemed to have been passed by in the march of history. Among Oberlin’s fellow theologs it was spoken of as a place of exile, an Alsatian Siberia.

To that unpromising scene Oberlin joyfully went forth. His soul was imbued with Pietistic yearnings for a heavenly perfection on earth. His will was steeled by rigorous self-discipline and a profound religious faith. The goal that he had set for himself was to make of the unlettered folk of the Ban de la Roche a “Gottesvolk,” a people of God.

And that, literally is what he did. His influence in this extremely difficult context was nothing short of amazing. He went as a pastor but his life was hardly limited to any supposed “ecclesiastical boundaries”. He “discipled” a whole region in the mountains. His influence is a model of multiplication, discipleship, perseverance, faith, etc. His theology didn’t chop life into tiny morsels to be carefully placed in a secular or sacred box. God permeated everything and thus everything was transformed…not just certain components of life. As N.T. Wright (among others) likes to say, Oberlin practiced an “inaugurated eschatology.” He lived “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” in a very real way. A visit to this very fine museum is definitely worth if “if you’re ever in the neighborhood!”.

…Sorry that this is so long!!

Entering the camp gatesTo deeply contrast with that was our 2nd visit of the day…the Natzweiler (Struthof) WWII Concentration Camp. As I mentioned, the weather was pretty horrible. That made just walking on slushy and icy sidewalks in the rain an interesting adventure in itself.

Struthof is already located in the Vosges mountains, but it is on a barren top of one of the rises. The nasty weather blew in our faces. The Americans had suffered the delayed-delivery of much of their luggage and most were ill-equipped for this sort of weather.

Imagine when we heard that prisoners were made to stand outside in just this sort of weather with nothing but prison “pajamas” for clothes and some even lacking shoes. I really can’t even imagine it. Of course the list of atrocities goes on and on…

The facility (museum) is well-done and I will go back in better weather when more of the actual camp will be accessible to visit, and when I can spend more time.

I don’t really want to go into detail of what happened there 60-some years ago as it’s already well-documented many places. I’m a full believer that we need to remember these things and understand their impact even today as a measure to stand against that evil and any potential to release those horrors on another generation. I do believe, however, that the stories like that of Oberlin’s are under-told. Since Struthof presents clearly a picture of manifesting Hell-on-earth and the life of Oberlin a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven-on-earth, I’m content to leave that as the longer part of this entry.

As I mentioned before, I find it intriguing that these two sites are so physically close to one another. On the other hand, there may be an increase of just this sort of juxtaposition in the years to come on earth as the “wheat and tares” both begin to ripen before the Lord puts in the sickle at the end of the age.

Jesus, please help us walk in Oberlin’s shoes…even while some are deprived of theirs…and of walking at all on this earth.

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Posted in Culture, Ministry, Reflection.