Christian Herwartz, The road to community

Theological experiences and reflections

The 32nd General Congregation declarations on the combined negotiation of faith and justice opened the way for the founding of our community. In the fall of 1975, after having finished my studies in Germany, I was sent to a Jesuit community of blue-collar worker-priests in France. I worked for various firms, as a driver, on pressed metals, and, after specific training, as a lathe operator. Later, Michael Waltz, another German brother, followed in my footsteps. He worked in a leather warehouse. Three years later, it was with him that I founded our small community in West Berlin, and both of us found work in the electricity business.

A double integration

As blue-collar workers we wished to be integrated with the culture of our work environment, and at the same time, we wanted to support people with serious material needs. For this reason we moved to the Kreuzberg district in West Berlin, a neighborhood where many residents from Turkey and many unemployed people live. Other residents of the neighbourhood include senior citizens marginalized in society because they were old and others owing to unlucky life circumstances. The neighbourhood is also home to artists and left-wing political activists from grassroots movements.

Our community grew. The first year we were joined by a Hungarian Jesuit who was a member of our community for many years before moving to Columbia to live with street children in that country. Later, more people from our own neighbourhood came to stay with us. When our community was in its third year, our order sent us a Swiss Jesuit, Franz Keller, who at the age of 55 was still able to find a job in an electrical company. He is now 83; for many years he and I were the only Jesuits in the community. Michael Waltzer died of brain cancer in 1987. At one time, when we had opened the doors of the community to the outside world, there were five of us Jesuits in the community. Over the following 30 years, approximately 400 people from 61 countries lived with us in a pretty reduced space. Coming from very different conditions, they would knock on our door, and each time, we laid out a new mattress so that all could find room to sleep in our midst. They were homeless for a variety of reasons: some were sick; others were refugees, some were adventurers, some unemployed, a few were former convicts, or folks just out of hospital. Thus the community gradually became like a pilgrim’s refuge, in which some people stayed for over 10 years, until such time as they knew what further step to take in life. Others left earlier. Our rented apartment turned into a place providing hospitality in an international context. We were living close to the wall that divided the city into east and west. The contacts with people from the other side of this divide were very important to us.

The inner wealth in us all

In 1987, I was invited to an international Jesuit conference in France dealing with an issue called „Living with Muslims“. A few things were clear in my mind there: not only do I live with people who deeply miss something ( native country, health, language skills, a job, personal relationships), but, far more important, I live with people who carry an inner wealth within themselves. I can live with people who speak different languages, follow different religions and have different perspectives on life. In the community, just like at the workplace, the welfare service aspect we provide has lost centre stage to the discovery of dignity in each and every one of our guests. To sum up, my life at work and in the neighborhood has been a road leading to an experience of incarnation. I have felt great joy in that and many changes have been possible.

The world community

International contacts are an important aspect of the community, as are links with other Jesuits across the whole world. This is made clear by the 34th General Congregation texts which frequently both confirm where we stand and what our search consists of, and at the same time encourage us to move to further developments. It explains why the orientation towards inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, the statement on the condition of women, and the special attention to be paid to Africans living amongst us. Living, as we do, with racism in our country, these orientations are a great gift.

Political prayers

Fourteen years ago, in conjunction with the group „Religious people against exclusion“, we started holding prayers in front of the prison where people with no criminal charge were being held, arrested solely because they were bound to be expelled to other countries. As Berliners we have suffered the experiences of separation and walls. We are outraged at this denial of freedom. That is why we regularly stand in front of the prison wall, which is a symbol to us of the wall that surrounds Europe or other countries like the United States. During the prayer we overcome borders and our lives can expand.

Six years ago, together with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, lay non-believers and occasionally people of other faiths, we started an inter-religious prayer for peace for which we meet once a month in a large square in the city centre.

Exercises on the street

Personal prayers at work and the community prayer in front of the prison wall have set the stage for seeing the Ignatian exercises in a new light. Surprisingly, in 2000 we were asked to provide „exercises on the street“. This request changed our lives. The experiences we lived through during the first series of exercises were showcased in the 2002 yearly report of the Society of Jesus under the heading „The search for places to encounter God“. Other series of exercises occurred in other cities, and our experiences seemed to us to be similar to the ones Ignatius had in Manresa. During these exercises that take place in the middle of a city, not isolated in a silent house, we focus on a single prayer: we tell the story of Moses who takes a herd of sheep in his care to graze among the bushes and discovers a bramble that burns without wasting away. Drawn by curiosity, Moses comes closer and understands that the bramble bush is on hallowed ground and that he must therefore take off his sandals. The fire of love that burns without wasting away makes Moses discover for the first time his people’s despair, something that he may have felt inside but to which he never really gave a second thought. The voice from the bush calls Moses by his name and asks him to free the people from slavery (Ex 3).

The participants in the exercises let their own „bramble“ be shown to them, and with it their own hallowed ground on which they have to take off in the most realistic way possible the sandals representing a know-it-all attitude, the possibility of a quick escape and the need to rid themselves of feelings of low self-esteem. Such hallowed ground can be found in casual and modest places; people on the road; controversial social and historical topics; the pain in one’s own history… In many of these places God’s voice lets itself be heard. The participants and those who accompany them are often surprised by the places of contemplation they discover and by the inner and external dialogues they have. The word „road“ in the title emphasizes the focus on an open search for personal encounter. Ignatius‘ basic experience consists of looking for, and finding God in all places and encounters.

These encounters are the central drive to start an inner spiritual process, whether it be in a series lasting 10 days, or in just a few hours of exercises. It is the direct experience of Christ resurrected in our context and a direct experience of the Holy Spirit within us. This external and inner experience enables healing processes and decision-making. After such experiences, participants tell us their own biblical stories as authorized witnesses. They come from different conditions in life and various religious groups, or they may have no connection with the Church at all.

Some participants stay in our apartment. To others we offer a series of exercises in humble places. Information on this in various languages is available at www.strassenexerzitien.de

The community life rhythm

Today, an average of 16 people as of now, four of them Jesuits, sleep in our apartment. I do not know how many of them actually consider that their vital centre is with us, that „they live with us“. I am always surprised to see with whom I can live and how many people actually feel, in one way or the other, a part of the community.

Every Tuesday we offer the residents supper and give a talk on the week’s events. Each person speaks about what he considers the week’s most important events. After listening to each other for a couple of hours, we celebrate mass at the same table. Our daily biblical texts enable us to understand weekly events in new ways. Over and above this kind of „liturgy“– which lasts approximately four hours, including supper, exchange of views and the Eucharist– – we have, every Saturday, an equally long breakfast to which about 40 people usually come. Each participant speaks about the themes and issues we have previously discussed. The community lives to the rhythm of these two meals we share with all the residents we can host, just as we would on a road.

A spontaneous lifestyle

There is no stated plan for chores and cleaning, no plan for reception and consulting; there is however great faith in God’s guidance and the hope of perceiving his will in painful situations. We have anarchist-type experiences, based on the value of each individual. After the people of Israel roamed in the desert, the prophets refused to name a king (Judg 9). Jesus also opposed the power structures that daily exclude so many people. „Kings dominate over their peoples and the powerful let themselves be called donors and philanthropists. Let it not be like that among you!“ (Lk 22, 25ff.). We rediscover the freedom of hope, a common trait to all human beings. The conditions especially of the so-called people „without papers“, folks who live in our society, some 100,000 souls in Berlin and up to a million in Germany, urge us to embrace this kind of freedom. The total absence of security in their lives challenges us. The trust of these people is a light we have to discover over and over again. They are like God’s envoys to us from all over the world and we sometimes visit them. When that happens it is like a day of celebration in the very heart of the global migrations happening in our world today. To observe in one way or another, and not skip this day of celebration is a step on the road of life together with those who bring witness of their misery. The unifying strength of our community is rooted in the spontaneous link with these people and, through them, with the God-made man.

No professional support

From a political, inter-religious and ecumenical perspective, the community lives in a challenging context. We have not specialized in any area in which we can boast of a particular social competence. Professional help has to be sought elsewhere. We have very different kinds of people with whom we discover community and friendship. In this process we find different kinds of dependency and addiction. Not turning into a friendship-addict or a relationship-addict is another great challenge. We do not want the eyeshades of addiction to bar the sight of reality; we want to find our own answers, a „yes“ or a „no“; we want to know what we give up and what we believe in, like in the liturgy of baptism. We are all hooked to addictions: with many others we are addicted to capitalism and to making more money. There is also a clerical addiction in some religious communities -whatever their outlook on the world- and that is a legalistic obsessions which blocks the sight of reality. In the field of sexual morality, principles become more important than the merciful understanding of the people involved, leading some to fall into situations of anguish. We feel that we are invited to take a step forward on the road to union with God and the freedom he has given us as a gift. The joy that surges when the evil spirits are weakened and reconciliation occurs is immeasurable.

Summing up

To conclude, I should attempt to define our „insertion community“, which bears the name of our street: Naunynstrasse 60. I believe the community has become a pilgrim’s refuge, full to spilling point, but peaceful, a place in which we offer hospitality within a broader society that continually introduces new techniques of control and surveillance, in which traditional religious communities do not make much sense anymore. Our community is rooted in the encounter with people in a small setting and, in a universal context, in the reality of God who wants to surprise us in all and everything.