A Letter from Ryan and Alethia White, serving in the Iranian Presbyterian Church in Berlin
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Spring has been a little late in coming to Berlin this year, but at the writing of this letter, the trees have blossomed, flowers have bloomed, and there is hope the current pleasant weather will stay and continue to warm.
In the astrological calendar, Spring begins on the Equinox, around the 21st of March every year. This is also the date that many cultural groups celebrate Norouz, or what is commonly called “The Persian New Year.” Though the celebration is not exclusive to Persian culture, the meaning and traditions are often traced to the early Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Themes of light conquering darkness and hope for the upcoming year are associated with symbols of new life and desires for health and well-being.
The COVID pandemic began here two years ago, just before our annual Norouz celebrations, and these were some of the first events that were canceled in our community. Though COVID cases continue in significant numbers here in Berlin, the situation has also changed where safety measures and vaccinations have helped allow a return to many activities. And so, this year, we had a small gathering in the church garden for one of the celebrations that take place on the last Tuesday night before Norouz, Chaharshanbe Suri.
Charharshanbe Suri has been one of our favorite festivals to celebrate together as it uses the symbol of fire to represent preparing for the new year. People will jump over a series of small fires, reciting a phrase, asking the bad things of the previous year be burned away and that the light and strength of the flames be taken into the new year.
Easter occurred a few weeks after Norouz this year. The churches in Berlin gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the hope that we were emerging from the worst of the pandemic. In a recent network gathering of local churches, we heard of the joyous celebrations, and various ways congregations navigated increased attendance in the current context.
And yet, despite the Easter celebrations of resurrection and new life, other churches are wrestling with decreased involvement and asking what life looks like for local congregations post-COVID. Many people still have great fears of what could happen, and others are mourning the loss of loved ones or a change in health, making it problematic to return to large gatherings.
The war in Ukraine has also challenged ideas of peace and security in Europe and reminded us all that there are many situations where Good Friday and the crucifixion of Jesus accurately represent our current reality. As PC(USA) partners respond to the needs of those who have left their homes, we hear stories of tremendous hospitality shown to strangers. The love of God is being expressed through acts of compassion and solidarity. Although immediate needs are being addressed, questions remain about longer-term needs. How long those who have fled Ukraine will need refuge is still unclear.
We also need to be aware that migrants and asylum seekers from other countries have also had to flee their homes but have received a very different response than the refugees from Ukraine. Many migrants and asylum seekers have been in a waiting process for years, fleeing tragedy but not yet seeing hope on the horizon. It is a time of waiting and questioning during a time that is more like Holy Saturday, without the assurance of Easter hope and new life to come.
One man in our church asked for prayers recently for himself and his family, who he has not seen in over four years. Like many others in our congregation, he is waiting for a court hearing to decide his case and his future. He has been faithfully involved in our community and found strength and peace in the gospel message, but life remains challenging for him and his wife, who remains in Iran with their two young children.
In this post-Easter time, we all are asking what life will look like in the future. What practices and lessons have we learned and adopted from the past two years that we want to take forward? And what parts of life before the pandemic do we want to return, or should return? As we all seek to embrace a new way of living, what might we need to leave behind, and what changes need to be made?
Over the years that we have been serving with the Iranian Presbyterian Church in Berlin, I have wrestled with the question of what are we inviting and calling people towards as followers of Christ? What difference does our faith and the community that forms our faith make in our daily life?
During the three months before Easter, I participated in a learning lab that looked at The Ninefold Path of Jesus, led by the author and his wife, Mark and Lisa Scandrette. Our congregation recently hosted them for a workshop. They asked us to articulate some of the worries and challenges we faced and invited us to embrace different ways of living rooted in the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
We are hoping to begin a group soon in the church where we will explore these ideas more and practice with one another spiritual disciplines that can help form our lives and connect us to God as the source of life. I hope this may be one way we can continue exploring what it looks like to live as a community of faith that is experiencing the realities of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
On behalf of the community here in Berlin, we thank you for the prayers and support you offer. These foundations sustain our ministry and connect us with one another. May you also join us as we seek to live into the reality that Jesus taught and showed to those who followed him as the way of life.
Ryan and Alethia
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