The first weekend of Advent (and Thanksgiving weekend back home), the 35 of us spread out all over the country to experience a weekend in the life of a parish pastor in Switzerland. I’ve been missing my job at Pulaski Heights a lot these past few weeks, so stepping back into my pastor shoes couldn’t have come at a better time!
I was sent to a parish in the canton of Graübunden, on the other side of Switzerland. Geneva is in Western Switzerland, and the village of Cazis is on the far eastern side. It was funny to listen to the train announcements as I made the 6-hour trek across the country, as they went from French and English, to German and French, to just German. I’ve been learning French to be able to communicate with people in the community around Bossey, but “please” and “thank you” are about all I know in German!
My host for the weekend was a wonderful woman named Mengia who is an active church member and the president of the Parish Council. I was a little worried before I arrived because they told me she didn’t speak any English, but we ended up being able to communicate just fine!
After I had settled in, Mengia took me on a tour of some of the prominent churches in Cazis. Switzerland has a fascinating religious history when it comes to church and community life. As the Reformation started to spread across the country, each village voted on whether they would be an “old faith” (Catholic) community or a “new faith” community. Whatever the village decided, that was the church they built and that was what denomination you were… It is only relatively recently in Swiss history that Protestant churches were built in Catholic villages and vice versa. Cazis was a Roman Catholic village, so most of the churches we visited were Catholic, including the chapel of a Dominican convent in the center of the town.
Afterwards, I met the pastor, Jörg, and he took me to visit a home for refugees at the outskirts of Cazis. Another interesting Swiss mechanism is their system for placing refugees as they arrive in the country – a percentage are sent to each canton based on that canton’s percentage of the Swiss population. So since Graübunden makes up 3% of the Swiss population, they receive 3% of the refugees. Jörg goes and visits the house regularly, so the families living there feel very comfortable around him and welcomed us warmly. As we walked through the hallways, some of them even invited me into their rooms so that I could see their living conditions. It was heartbreaking to see, and even more heartbreaking to hear their stories. Up to six people, who might be total strangers and unable to communicate with one another, live in one very small room. They live with daily fear and questions – Will they be able to learn skills and find jobs? Who will teach them the language? And there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay in Switzerland once their paperwork is processed. They live each day worried that they will build a new life here in Switzerland, only to be sent back to their country after 2-3 years. It’s devastating, but they carry so much hope with them.
I then went with Jörg to a dinner meeting he had with a group of women who had helped
plan a recent church camp. Ironically, they had made the reservation weeks ago at an American restaurant, not knowing that the Bossey student they would be hosting that weekend was an American! I was touched by how warmly I was welcomed by the group. Jörg was very helpful to be my translator at dinner (and at many other occasions throughout the weekend). Someone would tell a joke in German, they would all laugh, then Jörg would translate for me and I would awkwardly laugh, late to the punch line… One of the things that was encouraging to me is that many of the women are passionate about training their children, along with other youth in the church, preparing them to take over some of their responsibilities as leaders in the church. What a way to invest in them and encourage the young people to see the church as their own!
We began our Saturday morning at the church for a bazar hosted by a group called “der
Bündnerinnen,” or “the women of Graübunden.” It seemed kind of like the Swiss version of the Junior League… Jörg explained that they perform charitable activities in the community throughout the year. As a thank you for their partnership in service, the church lets them use their building for their Advent Bazar each year. We strolled through the market and also enjoyed a lunch of barley soup, a traditional meal for this time of year. This was also my first chance to see the church building in the daylight. It is a fascinating piece of architecture, built in 2002, and the exact opposite of what you would think of what you imagine a Reform church in Switzerland. In honor of Cazis’ history as a place where the community would gather “at the place of large stones,” the church is designed to look like three large stones (although they kind of look like eggs). Jörg explained all the details of theology and ecclesiology that went into the design of the building. Each stone has a window, and the windows are placed with one looking up to heaven, one looking straight into the town, and one looking out to the mountains. The idea was that the views remind people of the Trinity. The space is also designed so that there is no front or back of the church, everything is movable. He said they wanted to create a space in which you didn’t feel there was a hierarchy, so there are also no steps up to the altar. And the different sections can each be closed off, so the space is flexible and can be used for a variety of purposes. It was beautiful to see how much thought was put into the space and the atmosphere it created for people who come to worship.
Jörg and I then spent the day at a Christmas market at a town way up in the mountains
called Ilanz, a town which played a key role in the Reformation in Graübunden. Many people in the village still speak Romansh, which was cool to hear for the first time! We were there representing an ecumenical organization of which the parish is a part called The Goat Project, an effort to work with the refugees in the community. The organization bought 28 goats, hired and trained a couple of the refugees to be shepherds, and then the products from the goats are sold to raise money for the project. Although I wasn’t of much help since I don’t speak German, it was great to spend the afternoon in mission helping people learn about a worthwhile ecumenical project! It was also fun to meet Ashik, one of the shepherds who is a refugee from Sri Lanka, and hear his story. I also saw an alphorn and heard it played for the first time. And I thought a bassoon was big!!
Sunday I attended and helped lead worship at the church in Cazis, offering a prayer in English and helping Jörg serve Eucharist. I was honored that he asked me to assist him in the sacrament, which they only receive a few times a year. There were maybe 20 people in attendance, which Jörg said is typical in many churches across Switzerland. He also noted that there is only one other paid staff person besides him – the organist! You could tell that music plays an important role for their worship life, which I resonated with as a Methodist. We concluded our weekend by driving through the region and visiting the other churches of Jörg’s parish. The amount of travelling he has to do is staggering! Our last stop was to a church high in the mountains with a beautiful view of Piz Beverin, one of the tallest mountains in Graübunden. The view of the alps was beautiful!
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend! I was shown such great hospitality, learned a lot by
observing a typical weekend in the life of a Reform parish pastor in Switzerland, and enjoyed being a tourist in a different part of Switzerland. What a great opportunity!