Container-size church means hope in Berlin
by Kathleen LaCamera
BERLIN (UMNS) - White City is a place where a legacy of conflict dating back to the 1930s still intrudes into every day life.
This area of Oranienburg, a suburb of Berlin, still has as many as 2,000 unexploded bombs - dropped during World War II - buried beneath its surface. Nicknamed "White City" because of its sprawl of uniform white block apartment buildings, the area was also home to Soviet soldiers during the Cold War when Oranienburg was part of what was then East Germany.
When communist rule ended, Russian soldiers left White City in ruins, taking as much as they could with them, even plumbing pipes and window frames. It is here that the Rev. Heinrich Meinhardt, a United Methodist pastor, and his congregation have created a church that literally fits into a large container.
"A group of my church members had been meeting in this area as a house group for three years," explained Meinhardt, who also pastors the United Methodist Lindenkirche in another Berlin neighborhood about 12 miles away. "When they started to discuss whether they should build a church, I said, 'The only reason to start a new church is if we also have a social project as our focus.'"
There is no shortage of social problems to address in White City. Alcohol and drug abuse are pervasive among youth and adults. Children and young people have no communal spaces in which to play or meet. Groups with both extreme right- and left-wing political agendas are active here. A history of Nazi and then Soviet rule has contributed to a situation where less than 10 percent of the community has any relationship to a church.
So when Oranienburg's mayor, Hans Joachim Laesicke, suggested the new church do something to help children and young people, Meinhardt and his house group seized upon the challenge.
That was six years ago. Today, a bright yellow structure housing the Evangelisch-methodistiche Kirche im Container (which translates "Church in the Container") provides holiday and after-school arts and crafts activities, sports, dance classes, worship, Bible study and community outreach.
Children wander in after school looking for help with "Hausaufgaben" or homework. Teenagers meet their friends for a chat and a piece of cake. Mothers bring their small children to play on the adjacent outdoor playground, built with funds donated by United Methodists in the denomination's North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, the United Methodist Women of Marietta, Ga., and a children's Sunday school class in Utopia, Texas.
Meinhardt came up with the idea of using a container. "There were no buildings for rent in the area, and a container was all we could afford at the time," he recounted.
The physical space inside the container includes one central meeting/activity area, a closet-size office, a storage area and a bathroom. While admitting the space is cozy, Meinhardt pointed out that the container project's support from the United States and Canada, as well as Germany, makes the United Methodist Church in the Container a real "global piece of our church."
His colleague, Hanna Franzke, is the full-time director for the Church in the Container's youth project. Over the past six years, the church's youth and children work has received support from several United Methodist agencies, including the boards of Church and Society, Discipleship and Global Ministries.
Franzke has lived in Oranienburg all her life. She worked with pre-school and then orphaned children before joining the container project. When she was named the youth project director, a local paper ran the headline, "Sie ist so cool" - "She is so cool."
"I worry about the youth here because they are very hopeless and helpless. It's important that they see there is more to life than drinking and consuming," Franzke said. "What is important is to get in contact with youth and kids and to start to work with families."
Heiko Hohenhaus of the Märkische Allegemain newspaper noted that many societal changes have occurred in eastern Germany. "These changes have made people very insecure," he added.
Hohenhaus has been reporting on the Church in the Container since he first heard about it four years ago. The church works in partnership with local groups and receives some financial support from local government. The mayor sees the work here as an effective way of addressing problems that stretch across several generations.
"One of the big problems is the parents' generation. We have parents who don't see any future for themselves and see their children as a problem for their life," Laesicke told United Methodist News Service. "Many people with low income and social problems moved into this area. There are gangs here. We need an alternative for young people. ... We can see that the Church in the Container is much accepted."
"Most of my friends are here. It's a place to meet," said teenager Bianca Klingenberg. She and her sister Anika, particularly enjoy taking part in the Silver Dancers disco group that regularly practices at the Church in the Container.
"Some people are very distant from the church and have a prejudice about believing in God, but they come here and see it can be different," she explained.
Twenty-year-old Matthias Amling has been volunteering at the Church in the Container for the past year. He reported that he has done everything from playing hours of volleyball with local children to having deep conversations about theology and national politics with young people. What he has enjoyed most is feeling like he can make a positive difference.
"My favorite thing is helping with homework. It's a great feeling when I can help someone," Amling said.
"For some, it's awkward to be in a church building," Franzke explained. "They ask about what I believe. They ask deep questions about death and life and life after death. They ask about being Methodist. They haven't heard of it before."
The Church in the Container has endured difficult times. When it opened, some in the community said they didn't want another church. The area already had two Baptist churches, one Lutheran church and a Catholic church.
In 2001 and again in 2005, parts of the playground were vandalized, and graffiti including the words, "Kill the filthy Christians" was spray-painted on the container. No culprits were ever identified, but the incidents led many in the larger White City community to voice support for the church and outrage over the damage done to it.
"In the beginning, the community thought the Church in the Container was a sect and worried their kids were being seduced," said Uwe Wedel, president of the local civic club. "Now they have accepted it and see the yellow container as a signature presence in the community."
The congregation wants to build a bigger, all-purpose space close by the current site that will host a larger range of programs and worship events. The congregation has already raised more than $56,000 to buy the land but will need to find more to realize its dream.
Wedel hopes the new building will encourage more people to take part in activities there. He also hopes the well-known signature bright yellow container will in some way be a part of whatever comes next.
*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.
Date posted: Oct 19, 2005