Not There, But Here

By Patrick Gahan

“Not there but here,” Pastor Johannes Hamel would tell his charges. “Not there but here is your ministry.” I am discomfited even repeating his words. Born in 1911, Hamel joined the Nazi Stormtroopers with a sense of patriotic fervor at age 22 — the same age that I enlisted and for the same reasons. 

Eighteen months later, however, he resigned, when he came under the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church. In 1938, now 27, Hamel was ordained in that church. Utterly inflamed by his new life in Christ, he began helping Jews escape Germany, and he was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo and was sentenced to hard labor. 

His only escape was to rejoin the German Army in 1942, and he was wounded on the frozen tundra of northwestern Russia. He survived his wounds, only to be captured on the Italian front, where 150,000 of his comrades-in-arms perished. At the end of the war, Hamel chose to serve in East Berlin, where, in 1953, he and 70 members of his congregation were arrested by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and imprisoned in the notorious “Red Ox” Prison. 

An international outcry finally achieved their release. Once out of prison, Hamel, now a Christian celebrity, shockingly elected to stay within the oppressive confines of East Germany, where he actively pastored for 23 more years, and he was still there when he died in 2002 at age 90. 

Even I feel awkward preaching about a German soldier on the Sunday before Memorial Day, yet the more I read about Johannes Hamel, the more heroic he looms for me. In 1957, during the worst of the Soviet persecution in Eastern Europe, Hamel fiercely accused his fellow Christians of “inward immigration.” Although they were still physically in East Germany, they had already moved to the West in their hearts. 

Douglas V. Steere quotes Hamel in Dimensions of Prayer: “Serious Christians must be willing to live each day, not elsewhere, but precisely where they are. The Christian witness must be made not then but now and not there but here.”

Pastor Hamel’s words are entirely prophetic and urgent. We are claimed, saved, and formed by Christ — not for escape, but engagement. Jesus tells us as much. Before he leads the disciples from the candlelit supper table to pitch-black Gethsemane, where he will be taken from them, he says: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).

What do we still need to be taught? Of all that Jesus said, of what do we need to be reminded? “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16); “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Pray the Lord of harvest will send more laborers” (Matt. 9:37-38); “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11); “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will be given to you” (Matt. 6:33); “You fool, this very night your soul will be required of you, and all these things you’ve prepared, whose will they now be?” (Luke 12:20).

Catch the urgency in Jesus’ line from the parable — “this night your soul is required of you.” Actually, that is not bad news but very good. You and I, Holy Spirit-filled people, have received an urgent call from Christ right here. God has chosen you and me because the harvest is here, and the work of service is now. 

My friend Tom Gibbs, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, gave me the words I needed in this regard. Sharing an elegant and scrumptious lunch Ferne Burney had prepared for us, Tom leaned in over his rich desert and said, “When the person in the pew believes the church’s mission is his or her mission, the astounding happens.” 

To remind us, the mission statement of Christ Church is Drawing, Changing, and Sending People Through the Power of Christ. The words ring simply enough until we understand the eternal implications of it. If the mission of Christ Church becomes your mission and mine, then we will never tire of calling people into the embrace of Christ, forming them into the likeness of Christ, and expecting them to step out and share the love of Christ themselves. 

But beware, my friend Tom adds: “To do this will require you and me to give up something. Jesus can no longer be our drug, our boyfriend or girlfriend, our private shaman. We will no longer be able to approach the church as a consumer, only as a servant.”

That’s how Pastor Johannes Hamel could stay in ruthlessly Marxist East Germany. He could see beyond the mechanistic oppression to see that he was surrounded by a people beloved by Christ, who wanted and needed to be woven into Christ’s body. He looked around and saw his life’s work.

At the very same time as Pastor Hamel was navigating the challenges in East Germany, the people of Christ Church came together to make some substantive changes here. Coming out of World War II, yet now thrust into the fear of the Cold War’s atomic threat, our forebears decided, of all things, to change out the windows in this building. 

Unlike so many other churches, they resisted the abstract and decided instead to illustrate the story of Jesus as it marches through the pages of the Bible. The windows begin with the Annunciation, where Mary says yes to the angel, and they culminate with the Ascension, Jesus’ great yes to the Father. 

I am convinced that in that suffocating time of fear, our grandparents wanted us to be surrounded by the truth larger than bombs and threats and nations. Above all, they wanted to form us into one community that will say yes to Christ — right now and right here.

The Rev. Patrick Gahan is rector of Christ Episcopal Church, San Antonio.

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