Diakonische Basisgemeinschaft in Hamburg
Arbeit für Frieden und Gerechtigkeit
Gastfreundschaft für Flüchtlinge
Leben in Gemeinschaft
Bread & Roses

by Dietrich Gerstner / July 2003

In February of 1986 I arrived at the Greyhound Station in downtown Atlanta after a long ride from Washington, DC. Not yet 21 years of age I was travelling around the States visiting different communities and peace & justice groups. I had called in advance asking whether I could stay for a few days. Well, those few days turned out to be two years. The two most formative and inspiring years of my life so far! Life and work at the Open Door truly turned me around - a conversion experience.

When I returned to Germany in early 1988 I knew this was more than just some kind of interesting, exotic ad-venture in a faraway country but that this had to do with the way I should live my life here in Germany, that I had to do something with this experience.

A few years later I got connected to a group called "The Friends of the Catholic Worker". All of us were folks who had had some life changing experiences at Catholic Worker communities or similar places like Koinonia Partners, Jubilee Partners or The Open Door Community.

Ten years ago 12 of us knew we should get more serious about starting an intentional Christian, Catholic Worker community. In 1996 we finally managed to find a place big enough for our community and a life of hospitality in Hamburg, Germany - the "Bread & Roses" Catholic Worker was "born".

Now, after many years, it was wonderful to return to the Open Door for a visit with my wife Uta and our three little boys Joel, Daniel and Elias. For me this was a trip back to my (communal) roots. And as a family living in a community of service and resistance in "old Europe" it was so important to feel the connection to like-minded and -spirited sisters and brothers in the US. We so deeply need to connect on the level of grassroots resistance to the domination system of this Empire we are witnessing.


Bread & Roses in Hamburg

In our house of hospitality in Hamburg we as a community live together under one roof with refugees from many different countries. Without bureaucratic obstacles and regardless of legal status, refugees are welcomed into our house and find a home here for some time. As a community we have a vision of another life-style: serving the poor and marginalized; working towards justice, peace and the integrity of creation; and living in intentional community. These are the three main "pillars" of our life and work.


The Community

At the moment our community consists of only three core members and two volunteers from Germany and the USA. In addition we have four children age one to seven. We rent a former parish center and two adjoining apartments from the Protestant Church, and it is in this 26-room home that we live together as a community and give hospitality to homeless refugees. As a community we share time, money and work duties. Our Christian faith is our basis, and once a year we re-new our commitment to common life, work and prayer. Each day is started with a short prayer in our small chapel in the basement of our house. Our household is complemented by volunteers who live with us for a year or two, as well as by people who visit for several days or weeks.

We share income and try to live a simple life. Much of our common household as a community of hospitality depends on donations, e.g. food, furniture, clothing and money. Over the years some community members always had income-producing jobs "outside" but only as part-time work. Dietrich, for example, works as a trainer for conflict resolution and mediator, and Ute (Ute Andresen was a volunteer at the Open Door in 1993, too!!!) is a part-time minister at our local church. From this income we pay for things such as our share of rent, health in-surance, public transportation and pocket money. Decision making is done through consensus, with regular decisions being discussed at our weekly ministries meetings: We talk about projects and work around the house, give a structure to the upcoming week, answer letters and e-mails etc. In addition, we meet for a whole day about once a month to discuss bigger issues like: How do we organize vigils? How can we talk about our guests in public for fundraising reasons? Do we want to invite new members into the community, and how in the world will we get any? Are we happy?! Even bigger issues are tackled twice a year during our community weekends.



"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware". Hebr 13,2 We share our house with refugees who have lost their place to stay, regardless of the reason. We started out in-viting any homeless person but are now limiting our space to refugees. There are usually up to eight people liv-ing with us. Over the years we have had women and men, boys and girls from all over the world staying at our home, though mainly from countries in Africa and the Near East Region. Some have stayed for just one night, others have stayed with us for years. One example is Muhamad from Ruanda, who came to Hamburg as a stowaway on a ship. When he went to the immigration office and said he was seeking asylum, he was sent to Mecklenburg in eastern Germany, the region of the former GDR. There he had to stay in a former Soviet military camp on the outskirts of a small village where the German inhabitants didn't like having foreigners (especially with dark skin) around. He was told by another refugee that it was very dangerous to leave the building and that he should not go outside on his own, not even to make a phone call from the only public telephone in the middle of the village. He could not learn Ger-man because there were no classes offered, and the people of the village were openly racist. Muhamad got scared and decided to return to Hamburg where he hoped to find other people from his country. This was a great risk as he was technically not allowed to leave the county he was assigned to. When he decided to do so, he did this with the risk of having no food or shelter, as well as the daily risk of being controlled by the police and be sent back to Mecklenburg.

Another example is Meral from Iran. She is in her late twenties and has a wealthy family background. A few years ago she applied for political asylum in Germany. In Iran the property of her family had been taken away by the state, her father had been sentenced to death for being part of the democratic opposition. Obviously a return to Iran could have been lethal for Meral. Despite that her plea for asylum was turned down and she was threat-ened with deportation. She went underground and came to us as an "illegalized" alien. But: nobody is illegal! (Elie Wiesel) Thus we took Meral in as a new member of our household, a great addition as she could cook so well and was interested in basically everything. In the course of the following months she managed to apply for asylum a second time and finally could move out - with the grant of full asylum by the foreign office.

Hospitality to us means offering room and food, a shelter, a family. We are no lawyers and don't either try to be social workers for our guests. Rather we just live together as companions. Everybody shares household duties and takes turns doing the cooking.


Political work, clarification of thought and resistance

"Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system." Dorothy Day In the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement our life and work of hospitality cannot be separated from our vision of creating a "new society in the shell of the old" (Peter Maurin). In our free quarterly newsletter we write about our life in the house of hospitality and publish ideas about an alternative lifestyle. We are part of different local networks in support of refugees and take part in (as well as organize) campaigns, vigils and demonstrations for basic human rights and a better life of refugees in our country.

On Good Friday we regularly organize a political "Stations of the Cross" demonstration through the inner city. Meanwhile over a 100 people join us in this march against injustice and exclusion of refugees and foreigners in our society.. We are part of a nationwide campaign against atomic energy. At the same time, we started receiving mainly al-ternative energy (sun, wind, gas), something made possible for the first time ever by a new German law.

And we still have our regular round table discussions on issues like "How do we live a life of resistance to the powers?", "The situation of refugees in Hamburg", "The campaign ‚No Person Is Illegal'" or on "Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his bride Maria von Wedemeyer".


Seven Years

This is our 7th year of the Brot & Rosen house of hospitality in Hamburg! One noticeable development over the past years has been the declining fluctuation of refugees living with us. Other than voluntarily returning to their countries, the alternatives to living in our house are decreasing, meaning that some people stay with us for years ... Almost all the doors to a legal stay in Germany and Europe have been closed (except for valued IT-specialists who get "green cards" easily) - Fortress Europe is filling the holes in ist walls against the needy neighbors! At this point we don't really know what to do and what to think about this - except that we are all able to enjoy the growing feeling of closeness and friendship with our household members.

After Chris and Johannes left the community in March we are down to an all time low number of three commu-nity members, but luckily Birke has become a novice and another woman is looking into the option of joining the community (ed.: in March 2004 Birke joined the community as a core-member). And maybe BVS (Brethren Volunteer Service) will send another great volunteer this fall. Ever thought of joining us as a volunteer for some time? Hamburg is a wonderful city, if you don't mind rain. And we don't expect much of you: Just an openness to intercultural and interreligious living, some basic knowledge of German and interest in living in community. See you.


(This article was first published in: Hospitality, vol. 22, no.7, July 2003, p. 4-5 Hospitality is the newspaper of: The Open Door Community, Atlanta, GA 30306-4212, USA, www.opendoorcommunity.org)


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