The other day I mentioned a rock that had sat on a shelf in all of my homes for over 30 years. I picked up that stone during a visit to Dachau, one of the German Nazi concentration camps. Since telling you about my rock, that trip to Germany has been on my mind. Today, I want to share a lesson I learned there.
I was presenting an academic paper at a conference in Munich and a colleague and I used our free time to see sites in the area. One afternoon, we toured Dachau.
Dachau was established in 1933 and liberated in 1945. During those 12 years, there were 32,000 deaths recorded at Dachau with thousands of others that were known but not recorded. No one was exempt from torture and murder; those imprisoned included scientists, religious leaders, politicians, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Danes, members of the royal family, resistance fighters, Communists, Germans, Poles, Austrians, criminals and others. In operation longer than any other concentration camp, Dachau was a model for other camps and was especially known for its brutality and inhumane activities. Famous for the saying across its camp entrance (“Work Shall Set You Free”), Dachau hosted horrific medical experimentation and individual and mass murders.
It isn’t enough to say that one “tours” Dachau. It is a horrible place. The sorrow that I felt that day was more than I had expected. I experienced little comfort in reading the religious monuments and I was sickened as I saw how “pristine” it all was. The sidewalks were made of light-colored stones and not a single rock had strayed off the established path. The walls of the buildings had been white washed. It was all too clean, too organized, too perfect.
I left Dachau shaken. But, the drive back to Munich let the memories of the “too perfect” place fade just a little. And, after a good night of sleep, they faded a little more.
My colleague and I completed another day of the conference and then decided to walk a bit and to enjoy dinner at one of the local restaurants. As we walked and talked, we passed an old church. The sign in front of the church invited tourists to come in and to learn about their faith and the building. We went it and had a wonderful time with one of the church’s guides. I remember one hall with pictures showing the damage suffered during the Allied air strikes of WWII and how the various rebuilding projects had brought about the building in which we were standing.
As we finished the tour, a worship service was beginning to start. My friend knew both Latin and German (the languages of the service) and asked if we might stay. I was happy to enjoy a quiet evening of reflection and agreed immediately. As the congregation gathered, I realized that we were younger than nearly everyone else there and I hoped that we didn’t stand out too much. As the service started, I settled back. My colleague, understanding the language, was engaged fully in the singing and responsive readings.
The service was about half over when I realized that my attention was wandering. Not understanding what was being said, my focus shifted from the platform to the congregants. As I looked around their ages struck me. These Christians had to have been in their 20’s or 30’s or 40’s when Dachau was operating. As the speaker approached the pulpit and the room became totally quiet, I knew that some were sitting in these same seats as torture and murder took place not far from their city, from their church.
I began to sob without making a noise. I can only call it belly sobbing. My head went down involuntarily. I could not stop weeping. The deepest part of my soul ached. My grieving lasted until well after the service was finished. My colleague tried to comfort me and I rejected his attention. This was sadder than nearly anything I had ever experienced.
It was much later, when my mouth could form words that I was able to ask “What is going on outside of my church while I sit and worship God?” How could those people have sat in that beautiful church and not known that brothers in sisters were being brutalized only a few miles away? And, more importantly, what was I ignoring in my world?
I picked up a rock at Dachau to remind myself of the famous call, “Never again.” But, it all changed at that church service. When I looked at that particular rock, I saw my own shame at not making a difference in my world, of being too comfortable in my church.
It’s a rhetorical question, but it needs to be asked: We are leaders, what do we choose to ignore?
I know that I am leaving you with a tough assignment. But, I need to pray.