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Nov8WedLt-Cols Marsha-Jean and David Bowles reflect on 20 years of ministry in Germany. November 8, 2017 by Kristin Ostensen
When Lt-Colonels Marsha-Jean and David Bowles signed up for overseas service in Germany, they never expected they would spend the next two decades in ministry there, holding appointments as varied as corps officer, territorial youth secretary, sports ministries co-ordinator for Europe and chief secretary. In this interview with Kristin Ostensen, associate editor, the Bowles reflect on pastoring in post-communist East Germany, becoming the first male “territorial secretary for women’s ministries” and how Christian culture transcends all cultures.
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How is The Salvation Army perceived in Germany?
David: It’s not known that well. Before the Second World War, there were around 20 corps in Berlin; now there are two corps and a separate project in a city of three million people.
Marsha-Jean: Most Germans are pacifists, so to have a military-style church is a tricky thing. But the people who know the Army, respect what the Army’s doing. People were often surprised that a small number of people could accomplish so much, and it’s true. The corps and most social centres are smaller, but the ministry that those small groups accomplish is amazing.
What is the Army best known for?
Marsha-Jean: It’s known primarily as a helping organization—addressing homelessness, poverty, hunger, loneliness—rather than a church, although that’s changing.
David: With International Headquarters’ approval, the Army in Germany officially integrated a cross into the Red Shield in 2000, and that’s on all their marketing, uniforms, buildings and so on. It was done to show that they are a Christian organization—it’s a visual to help people quickly understand who they are.
Given Germany’s history, does The Salvation Army downplay its use of military symbols?
David: No, but we were sensitive about the uniform, how strong that looks to people. It’s hard to explain in North America when we’ve won the wars, but over there, it has a very negative connotation—not necessarily because they lost, but because they never want that to happen again. There’s so much education around what happened, how a society could get to that point. And here we are, walking around in a military-style uniform in a country that has all this baggage. So the Army came up with an optional business uniform—trousers or a skirt, and a light blue dress shirt with the shield and cross—that was an adjustment to the culture.
Marsha-Jean: There’s no hiding the uniform—they still do open airs on the street in full uniform—but other clothes have been introduced over the years that are appropriate to the ministry being done.
Your second appointment was in Leipzig, the first corps to open in East Germany after the fall of communism. What was that experience like?
David: We were in the northeast quarter of the city—a poor, densely populated area with communist-built apartments. It had been nine years since reunification. We asked some of our older corps members: Was it better then or is it better now? And the answer was generally 50-50. We had thought, with our understanding of communism, that obviously things would be better post-reunification,
but under communism everybody had work, everybody had a reason to get up in the morning. Now, the unemployment rate was climbing to 30 percent. It was a struggle, especially for older folks. If you didn’t have a job, or if you lost your job, it was almost impossible to find work.
Marsha-Jean: We had unique opportunities for ministry because people in Leipzig were looking for some sort of structure—places to hang out, to have community. We had Canada-themed events and all kinds of neighbours came because they wanted to get out and, with us, they could afford it.
David: We had a small thrift store in the corps building and feeding programs almost every day. We started cooking classes, and we had a government-sponsored youth café in the basement with three or four full-time employees, which is still going today.
David, in 2014, after Marsha-Jean was appointed chief secretary for the territory, you also took on a new role.
David: Yes, I became the territorial secretary for women’s ministries [laughs].
Marsha-Jean: It was the first time that had ever happened in The Salvation Army at the chief secretary level—that a married couple held those two positions “in reverse,” with the woman having the traditionally male role.
How did you respond when the opportunity was presented to you?
Marsha-Jean: Our feeling has always been that God lays out the opportunities and we follow his lead. For me, it was a challenge—not as a female, but the role itself, because I have great respect for what the role is. But for us as a couple, it wasn’t difficult.
David: When I took on the role, they changed the title to territorial secretary for adult and family ministries. They didn’t have anything other than women’s ministries at the time, so I was responsible for developing men’s and family ministries, while continuing my role as sports ministries co-ordinator for Europe.
What kind of response did you get from others?
Marsha-Jean: Most people were accepting—particularly younger people—but some people had real difficulty with it. It was just too strange to them—the husband shouldn’t be “under” the wife. But we didn’t look at it that way; we had a job to do and we did what was laid out before us.
David: There were a lot of jokes early on. “Where’s your skirt?” Those kinds of things. We talk about equality but we’re challenged—there’s no question about that. You just have to look around the world and see how few females in married couples are leading and the husband’s taken the second or the “default” appointment. I now have a much greater appreciation for the women who are in that situation and how they feel.
Looking back on your ministry in Germany, what were some of your most meaningful experiences?
Marsha-Jean: In Solingen, the corps had a soup kitchen every Saturday, and a coffee time on Wednesdays where people would come and we’d pray together, share conversation and have a snack. There was a group of homeless people who came consistently. One of them was a fellow named Detlef. One night, he had nowhere to go and we offered him a place to stay in our apartment. My mom was there visiting as well. We found out that it was his birthday, and so we bought him a gift and had a little party, our family and Detlef. And he sat at the table and wept because he had grown up in an orphanage and the only gift he remembered ever receiving was a bar of soap and a comb from some of his friends at the orphanage. He was so grateful and loving and kind to us. That memory has always stuck with me.
David: My time as territorial youth secretary was powerful for me, and developing the territory’s summer camp program was a highlight. Germany didn’t have camps at the time because the six-week summer vacations are staggered—some kids start in June, some in August, so it was difficult to find a time to do a camp for the whole territory. We had to find a week that would fit for most people. And when I think about our camping ministries, I remember Paula, who worked in the kitchen at camp. She wasn’t a believer, but she’d been coming to the corps sporadically. So both she and her brother came—he was a camper and she was on staff. Paula worked in the kitchen with a lovely Christian woman, who kept telling Paula her story and within days, Paula accepted Christ and so did her brother. To this day, she’s very strong in her faith—she became an adherent in Cologne.
What lessons did you learn in Germany that you can now apply to your ministry here in Canada?
David: I think we look at things with international eyes now because we’ve been exposed to so many different cultures—from Germany, you can drive through five countries in one day. Each country is different and the Army’s different, but it is still the Army everywhere you go. We all have the same 11 doctrines, we’re all going in the same direction—we just do it a little differently.
Marsha-Jean: I agree—if you want to understand One Army, One Mission, One Message, go to another country. I’ve also learned the importance of culture. When we are working with people, we need to consider who they are and how their culture has formed and informed them—whether their culture is Syrian or Canadian; socially and economically deprived or one of great wealth; hip-hop or country. At the same time, the most important thing is our faith—not the cultural differences that could divide us, but the Christian culture that unites us.
Lt-Colonel Marsha-Jean Bowles is secretary for program services, and Lt-Colonel David Bowles is corps officer, Georgina Community Church, Ont., and assistant integrated mission secretary.