Where people of faith work
by Barbara Elliot
I had my first encounter with the activities of faith-based and community groups in Germany, in the summer of 1989. Hungary had just snipped the barbed wire on the border, opening up the first hole in the Iron Curtain dividing the Communist countries from the West. Three hundred thousand people had just poured through this hole into the West. They came from East Germany, Poland, and Kazakhstan, all looking to begin a new life. They came to West Germany, this torrent of humanity. There were too many for the Red Cross to take care of, too many for the government, simply too many people. It was clear not just that somebody should do something for them, but that I should.
Some of these people had been political prisoners. Some had just escaped before the Wall came down. Some had come through forests with their children on their shoulders. If they had one small suitcase, they were fortunate. They were put into shelters wherever there was space, some even on ships and in tents. They needed everything. They needed clothes; they needed food; they needed jobs; they needed doctors. A friend and I stepped out more or less in blind faith--and I do mean blind--to simply take care of those who were near us in the thirteen shelters around Cologne. We set out to get for them the things they needed.
We tutored their children and invited them into our homes. One East German family lived with us in our house for the next year. We got to know them very well. Some of our German neighbors joined us in this work once they heard what we were doing. Others were somewhat bemused. Maybe it was a typical German gesture, I don't know, but I found out that my German friends and neighbors were very willing to join us once we showed the initiative. It gave me a chance to serve people at the deepest grassroots level. The refugees showed me a lot about their lives, what they had feared, what had hurt them, and I think I understood much more about life under Communism than I could have had I not been that close to them.
After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, I went to Russia often. I had the opportunity to help build up some of the little platoons of civil society in that country. They were struggling to enter this new era of freedom. Among their many needs were medicine, textbooks, and contacts with people in the West. The Heritage Foundation, which had been my employer in Washington a few years before that, made me a sort of ambassador-at-large with a Russian portf