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Glimpses of New Life

A letter from Ryan and Alethia White serving in Germany

March 2016

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Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This traditional Easter greeting reminds us of the truth of resurrection. Jesus was raised to new life, and so we too with Christ are raised to new life. Not new life deferred for after death, but new life now, in the present.

In this letter we want to share with you a couple of glimpses of new life we have seen in the ministry with Iranians in Berlin.

March 20 marked the first day of Spring, but more important in our context, this was the Iranian New Year festival, Norooz. The week before we also celebrated the important festival, Chaharshanbe Suri, where people reflect on the past year and prepare to enter the new year with hopeful expectation. This is marked by the tradition of jumping over a series of fires, where the fire symbolizes burning away the bad of the previous year. We reflected on these two festivals with the community and the way the Holy Spirit also brings transformation in our lives as we seek to follow Jesus.

The people expressed great thankfulness that the church would host festivities for these cultural celebrations. For many who have recently left Iran this was a moment when they were able to connect and share with one another an important cultural festival. One man told us this was the first time he celebrated Norooz without his family. And many others have spoken to us of the family they left behind in Iran. These gatherings gave them the opportunity to celebrate their culture while living in a cultural environment very different than their own.

In December we celebrated with the Iranian Presbyterian Church the faithful and tireless work of our colleagues Rev. Sadegh Sepehri and Aziz Sadaghiani. It was their vision and efforts that led to establishing the ministry in Berlin to Iranian migrants. We are thankful for their work and presence here in Berlin and for the many things they taught us over the past two years in working with Iranians. With their retirement both Aziz and Sadegh, along with the Iranian Presbyterian Church community, enter into a new phase of life. Please continue to keep all in your prayers—for Aziz and Sadegh’s adjustment to this new phase and for the church’s transition and continuation without their steadfast presence.

Since the height of the “refugee crisis” last fall we have continually seen new faces entering the church. Most of these people have been in Berlin for fewer than six months and initially arrived with hopes of starting a “new life.” Ryan resumed the baptism and new members class in February and encountered many people who shared both an interest in starting anew in Germany and an interest in learning more about Jesus.

At the culmination of the class Ryan asked the participants to write their response to the question, “Why do you want to follow Jesus? How have you seen Jesus in your life?” Many of the responses were similar to this one from Jahan:

“I used to be such an angry person and nothing could help me to be calm in my life. Then one day a friend introduced Jesus to me. He said that if you believe Jesus deeply and trust him you will feel real calmness. He brought me to a house church. The first time in the church I had a very strange feeling. I felt a great heaviness lift from me. Because of the restrictions in Iran, I could not go to the church regularly, so I had to go to my friend’s house and talk about Jesus. And step-by-step I believed Jesus because I wanted to have a calm and peaceful life without stress and anger. And now because of Jesus I am much more calm and have the ability to control my anger. I learned how I can help other people and be kind and try to love and offer kindness without any obligation or limitation. And I believe this is the best sign of the presence of Jesus in my life.”

This celebration of new life was commemorated with baptisms on Easter Sunday. The recipients were reminded of the symbolism of dying with Christ and being raised to new life in Christ. Life in Jesus for the present. Life that is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was a joy to see the faces of those who received baptism following the service. There were groups of friends taking pictures together with lit candles they received at the baptism. For many this is a sign of new life. Please keep these followers of Jesus in your prayers as they continue to walk with Jesus. Especially pray for them as many may receive questions and comments from family or from others in the camps about why they chose to be baptized.

The issue of baptism for those seeking asylum in Germany is a challenging issue with which the church in Germany is wrestling. There is the fear that many are using baptism only to strengthen their asylum case and once their case is resolved they will leave the church. We live and work in the midst of this tension, finding that our calling to teach and embody God’s love expressed through Jesus is even more poignant because we are never certain how long we may see people. It is always difficult to discern the authenticity of someone’s motives, but this does not deter us from sharing God’s love and praying that they have a transformative encounter with God.

On a personal note, life for our family has been very full since returning to Berlin in December; the transition in leadership within the church, German language learning, and keeping up with two active and growing girls have kept our hands full. Please pray for strength and energy for us as well as discernment to know what is most important for our focus.

We just finished a brief visit with General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada and his wife, Peggy, who came with a group visiting the refugee and migration situation in Europe. It was a reminder to us of the concern expressed by so many in the U.S. for the situation of migrating people in Europe and of our continued connection with congregations in the U.S.

We thank those of you who have joined in supporting the ministry to Iranian migrants with your financial gifts and countless prayers. We are in continued need of seeking more people and congregations to help support this work and ask you to prayerfully consider if this may be an opportunity for partnering in care for migrants in Europe.

Grace and peace to you this Easter season. May we live into the reality of new life together through Jesus.
Ryan, Alethia, Ariella, and Laila

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