Found in Translation
Vera Schnabel fell in love with Jesus in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she was seventeen, a shy but enthusiastic exchange student from Berlin who felt out of place in America. But she got to know Him back home, at Geimende auf dem Weg, The Church on the Way. Where exactly the church was on its way to, Vera could not say. Her English was perfect, her grasp of middle America colloquialisms complete, but she had no ear for wordplay in a language not her own.
Her eyes were giant, the color of chestnuts. She wore inexpensive blue jeans and off-brand sneakers and her honey-blonde hair trimmed neatly in a perfunctory bob. The American English of the modern “praise songs” her pastor projected on two screens-one either side of the church’s cross, as if Jesus himself held the lyrics aloft-appealed to her most of all for its clarity. German is precise, given to passionless conjugation and endless accretion of suffix and prefix. But English-its most precious words were those disdained by her parents in Berlin as simultaneously too small and too large, the revelation of spiritual one-size-fits-all. Antique “lieben” blushed becomingly as “love.” “Herr” dropped his formality and revealed himself as “the Lord.” A forgotten “Gott” shaved one consonant and rounded the other to become “God,” and then He gave Vera His Living Word: “Jesus.” Jesus; Jesus; Jesus. She loved His name. It sounded so simple, so American.
She met Him during her second year in Tulsa. She’d gone in response to the startling realization, in ninth grade, that Berlin was a place one could leave. When she told me this, she sang a verse of “I’ll Fly Away.” Vera loved flying, airports and airplanes: great, living machines designed to translate people from one place to another. From Berlin to Tulsa. From lost to found.
Her first year in Oklahoma felt like living in an airport. Translation. Which to Vera, back before she let Jesus into her heart, was the closest thing to Heaven imaginable. To be always on the verge of moving, of going, of leaving, of arriving. Of becoming.
When her American year was over, she signed on for another. Her host family-wealthy, white, suburban-decided they could no longer support her. So she moved in with her friend Ellen. Ellen was a scholarship student at the Christian academy in which the suburbanites had enrolled Vera. Ellen was black, very poor, and a Baptist. She lived in what Vera called “the black American slum,” but she had so many brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles that the addition of Vera at her family’s dinner table seemed to make no difference at all. When the family went to their storefront church, they brought Vera along and poked her up front to stand next to Ellen in the choir. Vera felt like a little white spot, blushing red, a stain. She could feel eyes on her; so she sang. Don’t look, she thought, listen. The songs lifted her up high, and up there in the sky she was an angel, just like her black brothers and sisters. She wasn’t an American, she wasn’t a German, she was nothing: She disappeared into the clouds and came out the other side a believer.
When she returned to Germany and told her parents what had happened to her in America, they were not pleased. Her mother had flirted with God as a girl and given up on winning His attention. She’d left the state Lutheran church at age 18, as soon as Vera’s grandparents had allowed. Neither she nor Vera’s father cared for Vera’s American Jesus, or the changes He had worked in their daughter. The quiet will that had led Vera to America on her own at age 15 had returned transformed into a disdain for what she’d left behind. Not that she disliked Berlin; she loved it, was glad to be home. She wanted more than anything else to see her native city, her native land, redeemed. She wanted to get on the other side of that verb, to help redeem. Erlosen.
So she looked for a choir. For angels with whom to sing. None nested in the quiet old Catholic cathedrals of Berlin, havens for “religion,” which was everything that knowing Jesus personally was not. Nor in the civic temples of Lutheranism, where thin-lipped pastors practiced a desiccated theology in return for a government stipend that came whether they preached it to two old ladies or two hundred (more often the former).
Upon her return, she’d transferred to an English-language school for expat kids, JFK High. There she met a boy who wore a t-shirt for the band P.O.D. P.O.D. was popular with kids who wore webbed bracelets that reminded them to ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” Vera wore one herself. WWJD? Speak truth to popularity, she decided. “You know, P.O.D. isn’t really a Christian band?” she told the boy. “No?” he said. Vera explained. About commodification (“they sell our Lord”) and consumerism (“we think we can buy Him”), her beautiful English words translated back into German. We are all Judas now, she told him. “Ok,” said the boy, a little freaked out by this intense German girl channeling Tulsa. “You win. But let me tell you something.” He told her about a church, one like no other in Berlin. The Church on the Way.
Vera had been a member of the church for two years when I met her. Membership, though, was as fluid for the church as geography: The Church on the Way was always on the move, seeking to expand in the material world to account for the room it needed in the spiritual realm. Twenty years old, it had ratcheted up to bigger and bigger buildings four times in the past two years, like a set of lungs that breathes in but never exhales.
Vera had been assigned to me as a translator by Pastor Fabian, or Fab, a goateed young man with a shaved head who ran the church’s youth program. The night I met Vera was the occasion of an in-gathering of the tribe, youth delegations from eight evangelical churches around Berlin, about 400 kids and twenty-somethings, the boys and men in baggy jeans halfway off their asses, the girls and women in tight jeans that seemed purposely to not quite cover theirs. I’d been pointed to the church by the local Billy Graham operation, told there’d be a translator, and since this wasn’t exactly true, foisted off on Vera despite the fact that the night I visited was not only a Special Day of Prayer but also her 21st birthday. She didn’t seem to mind. “We have energy!” she exclaimed, hopping up and down. “This is the place!”
I confessed that I wasn’t a believer, not her kind anyway, and that I was there as an observer. I’m a religious voyeur, I told her. She laughed-a grown-up, self-aware chuckle-and guided me over to a group of her friends.
We sat in hard chairs covered in brown fabric. The carpet was grey, the ceiling low and constructed of row upon row of cement egg cartons intended to prevent sound from drifting out of the building. It stood at the end of a dark block of Babelsberger Strasse, in a section of town that, architecturally speaking, resembled the ceiling of the church: box after dimly-lit box on streets illuminated by pale strips of florescence on poles. Next door was a computer mega store, and the following block was a dark vacant lot. Since there were no windows, Pastor Fab had purchased eight-foot-long glossy photo murals of the city, generic scenes of a Berlin barely recognizable as any different from a dozen other cities similarly graced with the long exposed streaking red and yellow lights of cars, constellations of twinkling office windows, a dark blue river, a bright blue sky. There were no pictures of Jesus, just a blank cross, six feet high, white, illuminated-an afterimage that burned in its worshippers’ minds when they closed their eyes.
A “worship group” led us, and projected screens of lyrics guided us. The band consisted of a broad-hipped girl in low slung jeans, her voice sweet like drinking a Shirley Temple through a straw; a boy with dark hair in his eyes and brown fuzz on his chin, a studded metal belt not really suspending his jeans; a tall spike of a drummer banging at his set behind a plexiglass screen; a hunchbacked keyboarder; and a bass player, tallest and most Teutonic, dressed in faded black jeans tucked into heavy black boots, a black jacket over a black turtleneck beneath a black scarf wrapped round and round his neck. His jaw could have broken ice for the Titanic. The fuzz-chinned boy sang. He was best on the German songs, the tunes on which he could spiral down the neck of his guitar and yelp like a coyote: Oy! Oy! Oy!. God-ska.
“He is saying,” Vera whispered into my ear, “that we welcome Jesus our Lord into our hearts and that we hope that he will help us love another.”
“Thanks,” I whispered.
We sat in the last two seats of our row. Vera, not a tall woman, tucked herself neatly beneath my ear when she translated. “Now he is asking Jesus to come down and be here with us tonight, because we love Him, and we know He is King, that He reigns in His power”-she stopped, frustrated by her misleading homonym-“that with his power he reigns over our hearts and it is only through Him that we can love Him and one another.”
The music faded to a trickle of acoustic guitar and murmuring. Berlin youth swayed. One hand in the air, or two hands waving, or both hands palm up at their waists as if to catch falling water. “Rain down on me,” they sighed, the last line of an English-language praise song. A teenager in a plaid shirt bounced out of his seat and onto the stage.
“He is saying,” Vera whispered, her lips almost close enough to brush my ear, “that we must concentrate on ourselves now, that before we can love our city we must look into our own hearts. Now he says we must break into small groups to pray to let Jesus into our hearts, to examine our hearts, before we can move onto the city.”
Three girls down the row of chairs smiled at us. “Here,” Vera said, gesturing to a chair next to the closest girl, Krista, maybe 17, with brown curly hair and olive skin. The other two were bright blonde, Anne and Gina, one straight-haired and delicate featured, the other’s hair crimped, her features thick and leonine, her lips full and her red and white jersey skin tight. She folded herself onto the floor and Vera knelt next to my knees so that we could form a circle, and we all leaned in, shoulder against shoulder, eyes closed and fluttering open as Gina began to pray in German, a flow of words rounded into whispering continuity.
Anne picked up where Gina left off, and then it was Vera’s turn. I thought it might come around to me, but it didn’t work that way. It worked the holy spirit way, which brought us back to Gina, to Anne, to Gina, and so on, each sing-songing a stream of syllables, automatic prayer. Not speaking in tongues-it was all in German-but spirit speaking.
We broke up and sang more, then regrouped and prayed more. Sang, prayed, sang. There was some clapping and a lot of swaying and much whispering, and from the boys around us curious and poorly masked antagonistic stares. Despite all the pressed-together thighs and hands holding knees, it was a determinedly unerotic scene, the love filial or something other, sexuality willfully suspended. But all craved intimacy, and several seemed to be mistaking Vera’s whispering for it; wondered what the songs inspired her to tell me; envied the spirit working between us.
Then Pastor Fab took the stage and announced that we were ready. The over-shoulder stares and glares of pale blue eyes in sharp-boned faces ceased as Fab gave the stage over to a tall blonde in a red cotton sweatshirt, who began-so translated Vera-to talk about the city. The city needed our love, and we needed to love the city. We must love everyone within it, and not just ourselves. We must love indiscriminately. We must love the city’s troubles.
It was time to concentrate on our sins; we could not fully love the city until we were pure. “She says she will say a prayer now,” whispered Vera. “She prays, ‘Jesus, forgive us our sins. We have sinned. We have tolerated that which is wrong.'”
“What is ‘wrong?’ ” I asked.
” ‘Tolerance,'” she said, resuming her translation. “‘We have worshipped tolerance, and forgotten the sins that must not be tolerated. We have tolerated the homosexual. We have tolerated the esoteric religion. We have tolerated the satanic music.'”
There was no hedge in her voice to suggest “you must understand,” or “I know what you think.” She charged into the litany, reciting the list of hers and Berlin’s sins with a pride bigger than repentance. She knew what this sounded like to American ears, knew that there was another, imprecise word Americans used for any German who did not bow down to Tolerance. Vera had lived in America, she knew the unpleasantly Teutonic-sounding phrase “politically correct,” knew that she was not, knew the word Americans used to describe people like her, Germans who did not cringe.
(Later, over Cokes, she would say it aloud and roll her eyes, and follow it up with “enough, already.” She sometimes thought that Berlin was obsessed with its own past, knew only that one word-“Nazi,” it costs nothing to say-and not the other, His name.)
” ‘We ask for Your forgiveness,’ ” Vera translated from the woman in red, ” ‘for we know You call on us to be true to purify your city, to restore your city, that this is the meaning of the love You have given us. And we are not capable of this love on our own, so we tolerate the work of Satan, when we do not need to, because you are here to give us the power of your love, and we pray that we may become testimonies of that power.'”
And testimonies ensued, teenagers in tears as they proclaimed the awesome power of God. There were Germans and Nigerian immigrants and a Turk converted from Islam, a “demonic lie,” volunteered Vera. And then came the woman in red again to share her “prayer language” with us – something less than the gift of tongues but more than the ordinary procession of words, a tumbling repetition of syllables too fast and impassioned for Vera to translate until the woman in red came to one phrase she began to yell. The crowd began to yell with her, and Vera shouted, too, hopping up and down. Then she stopped, grabbed my arm as if she had something terribly exciting to tell me: ” ‘Close the gate!’ ” she translated. ” ‘Close the gates to Berlin!'” She hopped. On stage the woman in red and the Turk both shouted. Close the gate! Close the gate to Berlin!
It meant something different than the old cry of “Foreigners out!” Foreigners in, Vera and the Turk might have just as easily said, so long as they bear the cross. The motive was the same: purification. Once it was of the “race”; now it was of the “faith.” It failed, then, in the end; it would fail now, too. But it had already claimed its victims, Vera and the Turk and all those who had come to believe that different places, different beliefs, different words can be reduced to one fundamental meaning.
We returned to our small group. Again Gina led. “I will tell you the subject of her prayer,” Vera whispered, “so you can pray for the same thing. She is starting by praying for her school. She goes to a Catholic school, and she prays that her teachers will learn about Jesus. She prays, too, because she has, ah, yoga? Yes, yoga, esoteric religion in her school.” Anne took over. “She prays for a major homosexual,” translated Vera. “She prays for forgiveness, for His forgiveness, for having tolerated this homosexual.”
Then the spirit took hold of Vera and she, too, prayed. None of the other girls could translate, so Vera grabbed hold of my eyes with hers and bowed her head and took us both down into the German precision and American spirit and Christian truth of her repentance.
Forgive us our sins, forgive us our yoga, forgive us the lies we tell ourselves, the things we say don’t mind, the degradation from which we turn away, the truths we don’t share…
Forgive us, I prayed, for that language we do share. The language that whittles God down to a sharp point with which to spread a gospel; the Gospel of Berlin or the Gospel of Tulsa or the Gospel of any city that knows the words -love, God, forgive-and uses the language swirling around them to hide their meanings. Forgive us our prayers, the way we touch ice and mistake the heat of our own flesh against the cold for the warmth of the spirit. Forgive Vera and forgive me-
I said this last aloud, quick, and the women stopped their prayers and stared, Gina and Anne struck dumb, silent Krista arching an eyebrow. They looked to Vera for translation.
Instead she said leaned close to me and murmured “Thank you,” and smiled and rested her fingertips on my knee.
“Thank you,” I replied, as if our words had any meaning.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).