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Aug10TueSalvation Army officers build community in the Germany, Lithuania and Poland Territory. August 10, 2021 by Giselle Randall
Canadian Salvation Army officers Lt-Colonels David and Marsha Bowles serve as corps officers at Berlin-Southwest Corps in the Germany, Lithuania and Poland Tty. Features editor Giselle Randall spoke with them about returning to Germany after several years in Canada, and finding creative ways to meet community needs.
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Tell us about your journey to international service with The Salvation Army.
Lt-Colonel David Bowles: After we were commissioned in 1990, we spent seven years as corps officers in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa. Session-mates of ours were serving in Russia, which may have sparked an interest when we next read the international service opportunities list. One opportunity was to open a corps in Germany and we made some inquiries. Although we missed that appointment, eventually we were sent to Germany to serve as corps officers in Solingen. We couldn’t speak a word of German when we arrived.
Lt-Colonel Marsha Bowles: Learning the language and understanding the cultural differences—how to greet people, the school system, shopping hours—were some of the big, necessary adjustments we faced. We had some funny moments.
DB: In the early years, we would write our sermons in English, have others translate them into German and then preach the words phonetically. One Sunday, I pronounced an “S” rather than an “SZ”—eszett in German, written as ß—so instead of speaking on the promises of God, I was preaching about the radiators of God and I was wondering why the congregation was laughing.
MB: I made the same mistake in a sermon—I thought I was saying that Jesus is the victor, the conqueror, but instead, I said he is the goat! But if you think about it, in the Old Testament they would take a goat and set it free in the wilderness (see Leviticus 16:21- 22), so technically, theologically, it worked!
How would you describe The Salvation Army in Germany?
MB: Small. Diverse.
DB: We have 38 corps, 62 active officers and 741 soldiers, in a country of 83 million.
MB: The spiritual landscape is similar to Canada, especially in Berlin, which is a melting pot of people from varying homelands, cultures and religious backgrounds. The two state churches are still very strong—52 percent of people are registered with either the Lutheran Church or the Catholic Church. The Salvation Army is an independent or free church and doesn’t receive any government funding. Germany is a rich country, but we are not a rich Salvation Army.
DB: Although Germans are generous when it comes to natural disasters or emergencies, there isn’t a culture of donating to institutions, partly because they pay high taxes and therefore feel certain things should be taken care of by the government.
MB: For a smaller denomination, this Salvation Army accomplishes a lot of good for the community with what we have—it’s very much, what can we do, what does our community need?
There’s one corps located in a red-light district, and they run a program for the children of sex workers, to give them some fun and community. Here in Berlin, where we live now, there’s an arts ministry with an open-mic night on Friday evenings, led by a soldier. He’s a ballet dancer and is also starting some dance lessons for children. Another ministry in Berlin that has been going on for 30 years is a café where people can come and always get a warm meal and receive spiritual care. So every place is a little bit different, depending on the needs of the community and the creativity of the leaders.
Tell us about your appointments.
DB: We were corps officers in Solingen and in Leipzig from 1997 to 2005, after which I was appointed as territorial youth secretary—a post I held until 2014.
MB: After we were transferred to territorial headquarters, I had various appointments, including field secretary, training principal, secretary for spiritual life development and chief secretary. DB: When Marsha was chief secretary, I became territorial secretary for adult and family ministries (usually known as women’s ministries) in September 2014. Then, after more than 19 years in Germany, we were transferred back to Canada in January 2017.
MB: We weren’t expecting it, so initially it came as a great shock. But we could see God’s hand in it, because it meant we were able to spend time with our parents, who are getting older, our siblings and other family, and to get reacquainted with old friends. I was appointed as the program secretary.
DB: After several months serving as assistant chief secretary for special events and assistant integrated mission secretary, I stepped in to cover a short-term opening at Georgina Community Church in Jackson’s Point, Ont. In July 2018, we were transferred to Etobicoke Temple in Toronto as corps officers. A corps appointment has always been our first love.
MB: We’d been at Etobicoke for about a year and a half when we were asked if we would accept a corps appointment in Germany. It was our hope to eventually return, but it was a difficult decision. We loved the people at Etobicoke Temple, and we enjoyed serving alongside them. But the Germany, Lithuania and Poland Territory is really struggling—there aren’t enough officers to keep corps open.
DB: Even since we returned last summer, corps have sadly been closed.
MB: Our hearts said—wouldn’t it be perfect if we could take Etobicoke Temple with us to Germany? Of course, that’s not possible. It’s easy to choose between a good thing and a bad thing, but sometimes God gives us a choice between two good things. So although there were tears, we said yes to the request. We had peace about it. It just felt right to be in Germany at this time.
What are some of the most pressing social issues in Germany, and how has the pandemic affected your ministry?
MB: Integration of newcomers is a big concern.
DB: Germany has taken in more than a million refugees since 2015. Loneliness seems to be an increasing issue.
MB: In Europe, it’s easy to move people from country to country, so human trafficking is a big issue. Other things are similar to Canada—homelessness and unemployment.
DB: Our corps in Berlin, Berlin-Southwest, has a food truck that goes out three times a week. We serve coffee, soup and bread to people who need a hot meal. We also distribute fresh vegetables or other donations. Usually, we would set up tables and benches and have a third person who sits and talks with people, but we can’t do that right now because of the pandemic.
MB: When we arrived last July, the pandemic was already underway. We understand that our congregation was really trying to connect with families in the community through the Army’s daycare centre.
DB: We’ve had lots of conversations with the corps leadership about creative ways we could meet the needs of our neighbours. Berlin-Southwest Corps really wants to be a congregation that is deep in the Word first.
MB: There’s lots of potential here, but everything is on pause. Although a few seniors still attend meetings in person as we’re allowed, everything else has moved online. We have Bible studies, a women’s group, a men’s group and a drop-in coffee time just for people to chat and connect. We can see how God is blessing that—we’ve had seven new people come and be part of our ministry.
What has God been teaching you recently?
DB: Patience. One of the reasons we’re corps officers is that we love being with people, and we can’t do that right now. It’s frustrating. Also, not worrying about what we can’t do.
MB: I think what I’m learning is that God is not limited by us having or meeting in a building. Just this past week, a young woman from Colombia sent me a message on WhatsApp asking if she could join our women’s group, because she’d seen it on our website. When we asked her how she connected with us, she said a pastor, not anyone connected to the Army, told her that when she came to Europe, she should look for The Salvation Army. For me, it was as if God was saying, I don’t need a building. I am God. That has been impactful for me.
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