Berlin City Mission was founded in 1887, as the city mission movement (started in Glasgow in 1826) spread throughout the UK to the USA and then to Europe. The movement’s vision is, and always has been, to combine evangelistic outreach with a caring ministry. Today, Berlin City Mission comprises 20 church congregations and over 40 social work projects across the city. It also owns a number of hotels, both in Berlin and throughout Germany, which help finance its ministries.
Even someone with a minimal knowledge of German history will realise that an organisation founded at the end of the 19th Century has been through some difficult times.
On top of the challenge of surviving under the Nazi regime, bombing raids on Berlin during the Second World War destroyed the city mission’s operations building, archives, and their only church building.
When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Berlin City Mission, like the rest of Berlin, was cruelly split in two. Yet it worked incredibly hard to maintain connections. People travelled back and forth from West to East Germany, smuggling Bibles, songbooks and even building materials. Those from the West were also keen to give financial support to their brothers and sisters now struggling in the East.
When the wall finally came down 28 years later, the different mindsets of those who had been living on either side became very evident. As a result of living under such an authoritarian regime, former East Berliners had an understandable paranoia and distrust of others. As evangelism had been forbidden, these congregations had not been able to preach in public or invite friends to church. Although the opportunity for evangelism had been restored, the people were not ready. Trust also had to be rebuilt and priority was given to discussion, prayer and holding joint church services.
Today, Berlin is a bustling multicultural city of 3.5 million people. One of Berlin City Mission’s main ministries is with homeless people. During the cold winter months, close to 50,000 people are believed to use various shelters in the city. Alongside providing for physical needs, Berlin City Mission focuses on addressing the underlying causes of homelessness – often related to relationship breakdown, unemployment, debt, or substance abuse. Work in drug rehabilitation, debt counselling and helping people to get back into the workplace, gradually moves people from total dependence on project workers to independent living.
Their extensive range of ministries also includes homes for senior citizens and for those with physical or mental disabilities, a train station ministry (helping people who are stranded or have had their wallet lost or stolen), youth projects amongst the Turkish immigrant community, German language classes, and asylum seeker projects. There are even church services on the river cruises around the city (offering half price tickets to those who attend!) and a church service held twice a year in Berlin Central Station, through which 300,000 passengers pass each day.
Berlin City Mission is very much part of the Protestant Church but the direction of the organisation is governed by a missionary council consisting of the Director and three church pastors. They assess the areas of greatest physical and spiritual need within the city and try to allocate the resources in order to respond best to these needs. Staff and volunteers are encouraged to become members of local Protestant churches to foster a sense of partnership. Similarly, many of Berlin City Mission’s own social work ministries share buildings with church congregations, encouraging the churches to see the ministry as part of their own identity and support the programme with prayer, finance and voluntary work.
Although the size and breadth of the organisation can sometimes slow down the decision making process, there are significant benefits. Alongside wide-ranging experience, a solid infrastructure and knowledge of planning, is the value of reputation. The organisation’s legacy and standing within the city brings a trust and respect, opening doors that would otherwise be closed.
No less important is the powerful witness of Christians working together. Berlin is a microcosm of the problems of the coming together of east and west. Although the Berlin Wall came down over 20 years ago, within much of Germany there remains an invisible barrier between those of the former East and West. The impact of Christians putting aside historical and cultural differences in order to serve God together should not be underestimated.
This article is based on an interview with Sabina Jaeckel-Engler, Editor-in-Chief of Web Presence for Berlin City Mission.