Bonhoeffer's Mission Year

Sometimes a book comes to you at the exact right moment in your life, when you can immerse yourself in - and even by transformed by - its words. Such has been the case in my current reading of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian and social activist, left his home in Germany to visit the United States in 1930, he almost certainly did not see it as a "mission" encounter. Too young to be ordained as a Lutheran minister, he traveled to New York to study theology and to site-see. True to his adventurous and inquisitive spirit, he traveled much of the Eastern and Southern US with friends he had made in New York, even taking a road trip to Mexico, camping out in farmland along the way.

We tend to think of "mission" as the opportunity to do, but Bonhoeffer's year in the United States stands as a powerful example of simply opening one's heart and eyes. While in the United States, Bonhoeffer witnessed firsthand the rampant segregation and dehumanization of Black Americans at the time. It shook him greatly, and though he made many friends in America, he spent much of his time with one, in particular: Frank Fisher, a Black seminarian involved in a Harlem church. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school classes at the Harlem church, and found himself extremely inspired by the profound spirituality, zeal, and social involvement of Black churches throughout the country. (Not to mention the music: he listened to and shared recordings of Black spirituals throughout his life.) Though already a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer for the first time began to see the value of attending church services, prayer, and lived expression of the Gospel call to love and justice.

In fact, he wrote to one of his brothers that he feared that he was spending too much of his focus in the United States on what was then termed the "Negro problem," since he there was "no comparable situation in Germany." The irony, as the author points out, is that while Bonhoeffer was away from his homeland, the Nazi Party was rising to power. Students of history know also that the Jewish people in Europe had a long history of being discriminated against and oppressed, but Bonhoeffer had lived a relatively sheltered life in this regard.

Nonetheless, his experience in the US transformed him. Beyond his experience of segregation, he also formed a strong friendship with a French student also studying in the US. At the time, of course, Germany and France were still bitter enemies following the terrible First World War. Bonhoeffer's new friend argued constantly with Bonhoeffer about the centrality of the Beatitudes to Christian life. It was not until viewing the film of "All Quiet on the Western Front", which exposed the horrible nature of the war, that Bonhoeffer became converted to his friend's message. As the two sat in their seats and watched the battles take place, they were, according to Metaxas, brought to tears. At the same time, American children in the audience cheered each French death.

Bonhoeffer did not go to the United States to "do" mission work. Instead, he opened himself up to the world, became intimately involved in a local church community, and found his heart moved profoundly to justice, the dignity of each human being, and the central notion that Christ must be alive in our hearts, with all its implications. He returned to his home country and began to preach this message, and how it countered the rampant nationalism and antisemitism that had swept the Nazi's into power.

Bonhoeffer's journey to America was a journey of self-conversion. It was a journey in which he began as a student of Scripture, and became a follower of Christ. What he learned about himself on that journey prepared him to face the challenges of his own nation, his own church - challenges that would have been unimaginable when he left. For me, Bonhoeffer's experience represents not only a movement of the Holy Spirit, but the ultimate mission call to be alive in Christ. Bonhoeffer did not go to be transformed, but he allowed God to touch his heart.