This past week I was in Berlin for a work conference aimed at equipping young(er) leaders across Europe to pursue healthy Christian leadership. For some reason, Berlin has never really been on my list of “places to visit.” With so much going on leading up to this trip, I hardly even had time to brush up on its history and figure out what I might want to see during down time. Well actually, in my ignorance, I didn’t think there would be all that much to see … and I wasn’t really counting on any down time. When Sunday rolled around I was ready to hit the ground running for five hours of exploring before heading back to the airport.
Climbing the steps out of the belly of the city into the heat of summer, I was surprised to see so few people near the Brandenburg Gate. It was large and impressive but not more spectacular than structures I’ve seen in Paris and Rome. As we passed through to the other side, my co-explorer for the day explained some of the significance of it during WWII. The significance of it isn’t tied to what it looks like but how it was used and what it meant to the people who lived on either side of it. As we walked further through the waves and blocks in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I looked up to see the colour and the shapes in modern buildings surrounding the square. There was a story in each of these – in the hands of the people who designed them. You could nearly feel the heartbeat of the architects as they tried to convey a message to everyone who can see the sky above and feel the earth below. Words were only introduced when we entered the Topography of Terror, explaining how the city under our feet took shape in the last 100 years. Exposed and free of charge, it felt like a public announcement of repentance for past sin and a warning to never return.
A good few tram stops north of there, we joined the bohemian crowds filtering into Mauerpark for Sunday afternoon festivities. Passing by musicians and artists we made our way into the large flea market where we jostled our way in search of lunch. Currywurst in hand, we sat listening to a couple of different bands performing under the shade of the trees. A hill ascended in front of us and at the top stood a piece of “the wall” – a colourful backdrop for the lighthearted summer Sunday celebrations of the city. In front of it swings lifted people up and down from sturdy, tall wooden frames. Swings: flying, freedom, play, peace. Families gathered to release a hiss of colour onto the wall, creating something beautiful.
12 feet high – the wall was part of a death strip from 1961-1989, an area designated to make sure no one crossed from East to West alive. If I had been born near there, I would have grown up with death in my backyard until I was seven, not swings. At the end of that portion of wall, I stopped where a fence replaced the concrete. A security guard in a high viz vest on the football stadium side looked at me strangely through the fence as I just stared at the abrupt end. It was less than a foot thick. I was struck in that moment by how little it takes to create such a huge divide between people. The obstacles themselves are easy to overcome but it is our militant effort to ensure that no one overcomes them without our permission that makes them dangerous.
Leading people towards hope is deconstructing obstacles and helping people move from oppression to freedom, regardless of if they are one of us or not. It is public repentance of how much harm has been done under the false illusion of good. It is recreating something beautiful and useful in the place of damage. It is rebellion against symbols of death by setting up swings in front of them. Can you hear the carefree laughter? That is hope.
Thank you, Berlin, for what you have taught me.