Walls. They provide protection, define boundaries, separate rooms, and split nations. Metaphorically they have been known to represent a period of difficulty in sports, learning, or life in general. They are also representative of emotional barriers, blockades erected to keep others out or to protect what is inside. While there are many great examples of architecturally magnificent walls (think China for example), there are many more examples of walls with far less ubiquitous appeal. An historical and modern example come to mind. The modern of course being President Trump’s campaign centerpiece, a great wall of his own to separate the United States from its southern neighbor. The historical wall fittingly given our current area of service is the Berlin Wall. A divide created to ostensibly force an ideological separation. In any case, most walls are associated with some degree of isolation and attempt to protect “what is mine” from those who want it.
A quick search of the Internet yields a surprising number of quotes related to the benefits of walls, however. Will Smith, in a metaphor for how to create success or build a career said:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
The Chinese national anthem, alluding to its masterfully built territorial boundary also exalts the greatness of a wall with the lyrics: “Arise! People who don’t want to be slaves! With our very flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall.” I am sure Successories, the online and retail shop specializing in photos and posters designed to maximize office motivation has an entire section devoted to the pros and cons of walls.
One of my favorite wall references however is not the now famous Ronald Reagan exhortation to Mikhael Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall” but instead a cinematic allusion found in the film Facing the Giants. The film centers on a football coach who, to put it mildly, is having a run of bad luck. I won’t spoil the film other than to make reference to its use of the Biblical story of Nehemiah in which the King of Israel asks him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah is a master craftsman but surprisingly his real skills are evoked when Jerusalem’s neighbors, who had been the perpetrators of the destruction of the old walls, learn of his plans to rebuild. They gather their forces in preparation to put a halt to the rebuild operations. Nehemiah rallies not troops, but brick layers telling them to lay bricks with one hand and hold spears with the other. No doubt tough work, but in the end Nehemiah builds his stone wall all while fending off some ne’er do wells. I like the story (and the movie is a family favorite as well) because it spends less time discussing why they need the wall, how they fought to build it, or how many of the enemy died. Instead, it is a story of a man who learns of the destruction of a great wall that protected a holy city. He feels a calling to offer his services to the king to rebuild these walls, even at his own peril, and succeeds. This is a story of how building a wall is sometimes just as important as tearing one down.
Now by this point the question is likely coming to your mind, as it is mine. What is the point of this wall discussion? Glad we asked. When we struck out on our service year we planned our first stop to be in Germany. This was not by our design but rather was a good fit for our hosts. We knew only that our first service opportunity with the community would be to assist with the church’s Vacation Bible School program. More on that event another time but suffice to say it was amazing. Beyond this three days of work we honestly had no idea how we could be of service to a first world country in middle Germany. On the first Sunday after we arrived I learned somewhat second hand what the next project would be. Following our first Sunday service we had the opportunity to fellowship with the congregation. While it was difficult what with very few of them able to speak conversational English and our almost complete lack of any serviceable German I was able to determine during one conversation that I was “the guy” who was going to build the wall. Internally I chuckled a bit having just recently arrived from the US, a fresh dose of daily news about the “left” and the “right” takes on our President’s wall plans. Politics aside it goes without question that this is a divisive issue, most walls are just that after all. In any case I found it a bit amusing that an American was being asked to build a wall in Germany.
That evening the pastor of the church, a very kind, patient, and amusing man, invited us to his home across the way from the church to join he and his immeasurably lovely wife for dinner. We gladly accepted and were surprised to meet their youngest son, home from studies on holiday, along with his girlfriend. They were gracious enough to serve as the evening’s interpreters. The evening began with standard casual conversation, introductions, questions about where we come from, why we were there, and where we planned to go next. We asked about the church, how many members, a little background about the town, and what we should see on weekend excursions. Eventually, however, I broke down. Having spent the better part of 23 years working more or less full time I was disinclined to being idle. For the last 6 days we had done nothing but eat, rest, and sightsee. I was planning a year of service, not vacation. My mind was racing to find out what good could be accomplished here in this town which would look no more out of place in the United States than my own hometown. The pastor chuckled and simply said, “next week”. This phrase has become somewhat of an inside joke for us as I have come to know it to mean that what is to come will come, be patient. My first brick – patience.
A few days passed, more sightseeing, enjoying the town, grocery shopping daily, and making an impression on the townsfolk (it’s amazing how quickly you can become recognized when you can’t speak the native language). Sara and I were given snippets here and there of what would come to pass for Vacation Bible School and I was hopeful to hear more about the wall project. But, as Pastor Joannes extolled, I was patiently awaiting “next week”. Surprisingly though, amidst the run up to the very busy and time intensive VBS preparations I was told that Pastor Johannes and I would be taking a run to the neighboring town of Felgeleben. There I would see the site of the church and get my first look at the project. We would be meeting Achim, the owner of the construction company contracted to assist in the wall project. Achim is a true gentleman, kind, no doubt wise, and completely incapable of speaking English. It should be noted that in East Germany students were taught German and as their second language, Russian. As a result, older GDR citizens such as Achim would have very little access to English teaching. Beyond that though Achim clearly knows his craftsmanship and doesn’t need to speak English for anyone. He was easily able to convey what my work would entail speaking wholly in German but using visual cues. Johannes helped with translation and after a short 30 minute meeting it was clear that I was to help re-mortar a standing wall for the church building which had been built around 1890. The wall was complete with missing bricks (allowing a peep hole through to the other side), generous coverings of old ivy roots, and even some trees that were attempting to make a go of growing in the brick. The wall was in poor shape to say the very least. But I was excited for the work and given the generosity already shown to our family there was no way I would even think of passing up the opportunity. Brick two – willingness.
About a week later I was given the green light for the go ahead on the project. We arrived at 7am and met with Achim and one of his staff, Michael. Michael thankfully knew some English, which he learned in school but had not used since then, some 30+ years prior. I suspect his retention of the English language stemmed from his penchant for 80’s music which he kindly played on the portable stereo while we worked. Michael took his orders from Achim and then explained that our first job was to clear the wall of debris such as old vine roots, rotted out mortar, and the occasional aforementioned sapling. By 11am my IWatch proudly buzzed me that I had accomplished my move goal for the day. Based on the amount of sweat and soreness my body felt I had no doubt about that. Unfortunately for my hydration and achy muscles the day was far from over. Finally clearing the bricks of that which was ailing them, we power washed and then Michael gave me what was arguably the shortest but perhaps most effective tutorial on Fugen (the German term for mortar). Unfortunately, his English vocabulary was not the strongest for this type of discussion so what I learned I deciphered from the few words I could remember from German classes and an almost terrified focus on every movement he made. I realized in very short order that the plan was for him to show me the ropes, hand me the trowel, and then for me to complete the mortaring of the wall by myself. I was immediately grateful for my father-in-law who some 15 years prior had helped me with a home project to install a gas grill in our backyard. I was also acutely aware that it had been 15 years since I had done any masonry work and that the project we worked on had taken two days or so at most. I was in over my head, literally the wall is a good 7 feet high and my masonry knowledge was rivaled only in ignorance by my international travel experience. I set out to begin the project mindful of the directions which I pieced together from Michael and I realized that while I had just a few short weeks ago been a rather successful salesperson with a strong client base, a litany of responsibilities, and been considered a go-to guy for solving many problems, was now an abject novice. Brick three – humility.
Walls, it seems, even if already standing, do not always conform to the wills of those who build them. As it turns out they are somewhat temperamental. For example, walls, and the mortar which protects them, don’t particularly like hot weather and sunlight. It tends to dry out the mortar too quickly rendering it dry and flaky and less able to stand up to the abuses of mother nature. As a result, in very short order I was forced to alter what I thought was a game plan of how I could tackle this wall project efficiently and effectively. By nature I fancy myself a problem solver and figured I could have this wall redone in a matter of days. For a seasoned pro this may have well been possible. For me, not so fast my friend. Admittedly I can happily say I was able to quickly catch on to some of the tricks I saw Michael employ to work quickly but effectively but the ramp up was painstakingly slow. Thus I had to reluctantly take pride in very small victories. But my plans for completing the wall in a few days were thwarted. From meetings at school to extremely unusually warm weather, I had to rethink and re-plan. I would have been far more concerned with this outcome if not for the encouraging drop-ins from Johannes and Achim. Achim especially, despite our inability to understand the other’s language, was especially encouraging. As near as I could tell he was not scolding me for poor craftsmanship or hastening the collapse of the wall but was instead pointing out the areas I had done well and where I had missed the mark. A truly gifted manager, Achim motivated me to always improve, recognize what the good work was, and strive to achieve it again. I learned that in order to achieve this I needed to be able to adjust to weather, my own shortcomings, and to a great language divide. In other words, I needed a fourth brick – flexibility.
I was making progress. The wall was starting to look like a wall again. Not the prettiest sight due to my lack of skills but it would stand up for at least a few more years. I was getting into the groove, using the tools provided to me with more expertise and gaining a better understanding of how this was supposed to go. Sadly, I was becoming a bit arrogant. What better way to kill arrogance than with a sharp dose of reality. I was busily working away in the morning of the sixth day when I felt a sudden pain in my hand. Pain was not unusual at this point as the first five days had left my hands aching and cramped from tightly holding the mortaring tools as I attempted my best to make a perfect-ish wall. This pain was different. I removed my glove and realized that somehow a copious amount of mortar had worked its way into my glove and had now created what could only be described as the world’s most unexpected and equally unwelcome exfoliation treatment. My palm had shed what in my estimation was all of its skin though a medical expert would probably suggest a few layers. Nevertheless I had rendered my hand virtually useless and my self imposed work shift was less than half over. I stared at my hand, open wound stinging in the soft breeze, and then laughed. Just moments earlier I was certain I was becoming an expert brick layer and mortar technician and then within a blink I realized, rather painfully, how much I had to learn. I made a few adjustments, put the gloves back on, smiled and went back to work. It wasn’t the most pleasant day’s work but with each sting I was reminded to remain humble. Humility it seems can breed humor. Another brick in my wall.
I had put in about 65 hours worth of work on the wall when I came to find out what the project was about. I understood the wall was in poor condition. I understood that the church had told us they could use our help. What I had not known was that the Elders of the church were concerned about the cost of repairing this wall. As it turns out, despite the immensity and beauty of the churches in this town, there are very few Christians, or at least practicing Christians. I am not sure yet if this is a product of a generation of Soviet control or otherwise but Pastor Johannes estimated that only about 7% of the townspeople were Lutheran (the denomination of our hosts). As we all know, that number might represent those who identify but does not reflect the number who attend. As a result, the church is not in a financial position to simply reconstruct as it wants, and in some cases as it needs. So it was at this time that I learned that my work was a great help to the church as it represented a significant cost savings. Labor is expensive, but I work cheap. I was happy to learn then that my efforts were important. Not simply a nice touch to build a prettier façade on a church building but rather a needed and helpful contribution to the ongoing life of the church community. No doubt these people will still meet, still be believers, but it is affirming to know that they had a need which I could in a small way help to assuage. Moreover, I feel like my contribution now in some way “pays” for the generosity and welcome these people have extended to my family. Through their efforts and my own we have developed the final brick – appreciation.
I have thought a lot about the people of Schoenebeck as I have worked on this wall. I have thought a lot about how walls usually separate people. Good fences make good neighbors after all right? Well, perhaps good walls make good friends too. In a time in which the discussion of walls can incite vitriol and even violence, it is reassuring to my mind and heart that this wall has created understanding, peace, friendship, and opportunity for people of different backgrounds to find common understanding, if not common language.
In 1990, following the fall of the Berlin wall, two artists, one French and the other German-Iranian, painted a 7 meter mural on a portion of the wall still standing. It was attributed to an African saying.
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”