About hospitality

Hospitality on the ecumenical pilgrimage

(Monika Gerdes - Lecture, held in Augsburg on 23.7.2011)

First of all I would like to introduce myself briefly. My name is Monika Gerdes and I am a hostel mother in the pilgrim hostel Crostwitz. This is located in the Upper Lusatia - that is, in the easternmost tip of Germany... Professionally, I am a radio editor at MDR. Why I am here today? A small episode is part of it. Last year in summer a group of pilgrims were resting in my "pilgrim oasis" in the garden, drinking coffee and such, there were 6 people from Augsburg, a funny group. One of them, a priest, introduced himself with "I have the same name as the Pope, but I am not related to him." So I addressed him constantly with "Benedikt" (we pilgrims are on first-name terms with each other) - and I didn't know why the others were grinning so furtively. Only when everyone had left did I read his signature in the guest book: Hubert Ratzinger. That's why this encounter has remained in my memory. Well, half a year later, a call came from him from Augsburg. Thank you very much for the invitation. And since I have already experienced the good ecumenical cooperation in Augsburg in the meantime, I am doubly happy about the topic.

1. The ecumenical pilgrimage

1.1. History of the ecumenical pilgrimage

The ecumenical pilgrimage is about 420 kilometres long, begins in the easternmost city of Germany, in Görlitz, leads among others via Bautzen, Leipzig, Merseburg, Erfurt and ends in Vacha on the Thuringian-Hessian border. It takes about 3 weeks on foot to walk it. There are about 100 hostels along the way for pilgrims. The ecumenical pilgrimage was created - that is, revived - in 2003 and took a year to prepare. Basically, it was the idea of one young woman who almost single-handedly realized the project. How did this come about? She wanted to study religious education. Before starting her studies she went on a backpacking tour through Germany. First she camped while doing so. Later she knocked on doors and asked for quarter. She experienced hospitality not thought to be possible and had quite existential experiences. Therefore she started to think about how she could make such experiences accessible to other people. And then she discovered the Way of St. James on a trip to Spain. And on old maps of Europe she discovered the Via Regia as part of the European pilgrimage network towards Santiago de Compostela. Already during her studies she put her idea into practice. The topic of her diploma thesis (2002) was: "Walking and religious education - on the religious education of pilgrimage in the present". The "Conception of an Ecumenical Pilgrimage" was already attached as an appendix. Immediately after her studies she completed a project year or "voluntary year", financed by the Robert Bosch Foundation. The Evangelical State Youth Parish Office of Saxony acted as the content provider. During her studies, however, she had already participated successfully in competitions and used the prize money she had won to help finance them. During the course of that year she had to:

  • explore the historical route
  • coordinate the practical route with cities and municipalities
  • find Pioneers/Volunteers on site for signposting the trail sections, who would also control them later
  • create a network of hostels - making contacts during her own hike
  • create a pilgrimage guide (= guide book) -> detailed maps -> information about hostels with addresses and telephone numbers -> photos -> info texts

The ecumenical pilgrimage was solemnly opened on 5.7.2003 in Königsbrück.
The young woman's name is Esther Zeiher, born Heise from Großenhain in the east. She is now a teacher of religion, has 2 small children, lives in Iphofen, and from there she continues to lead the (identically named) supporting association of the Way. She received the German Study Prize, the Erich Glowatzky Prize and the Federal Cross of Merit. 
The ecumenical pilgrimage has an appealing website and has been well reviewed in special magazines for pilgrims, in magazines like "Spiegel" and "Stern". Another factor contributing to the good reputation and increasing awareness was certainly word of mouth, the passing on of the experiences of pilgrims among themselves. At the moment about 3000 pilgrim guides are sent out annually. Which probably corresponds approximately to the number of those who set out on their way each year - mostly on foot, but also by bike. An important principle, indeed the heart, the soul of the "ecumenical pilgrimage" is the quality of the hostels, that is, of the human encounters. Just as this idea led to the development in the first place....Yes, actually hospitality is what distinguishes the ecumenical pilgrimage.

1.2. The rules of the ecumenical pilgrimage

They are, as probably similar elsewhere on pilgrim paths in Germany: there is a pilgrim's identity card for the pilgrim, which he has stamped in every quarter. The hostels are located at a reasonable distance and form a relatively dense network. Parishes, associations, initiatives, private individuals or youth hostels provide quarter - more rarely guesthouses or family farms along the way. They are listed in the pilgrims guide. This is updated (almost) annually. There is a "supplementary list" for each edition on the Internet, where newer information - including changes in the route - is incorporated. Some private quarters can only be found in the supplementary list... The pilgrim stays only one night (except in case of illness), has his own sleeping bag with him, and gives thanks in each accommodation with a donation of recommended 5 Euro (unless, as in boarding houses, a fixed price is given in the pilgrim's guide). However, some guesthouses also offer pilgrims a discount, and some restaurants offer inexpensive "pilgrims' menus". The pilgrim's guide can be ordered via the Internet and is sent by a member of the association.
Hostel parents know each other and form a network with each other, so to speak - because once a year, always at the beginning of the season, i.e. at the beginning of March, we meet - there is a "hostel parents' meeting". This is organised by the club. Alternately in one of the hostels along the way, alternately in the three participating states Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt or Thuringia. There, experiences are exchanged, information is passed on, new ideas are sought, people discuss, sing and pray together and get to know other areas along the way. Guest books, photos, letters from pilgrims are brought along. Each time there is also a thematic lecture. And of course the small sponsoring association, the chairwoman Esther Zeiher is also part of it. 

1.3. Why ECUMENICAL Pilgrimage?

I have already been asked that. Well, ecumenism was an important concern of our time for the initiator! And it is also quite practical: First of all, both Protestant and Catholic parishes give shelter and form "communities on the way" with the pilgrims. Here are just two examples: In the Lutheran parish of Arnsdorf, a country cinema is also held in the pilgrims' barn in the summer, and on these evenings the pilgrims are of course always included. And in the Sorbian parish of Crostwitz many guests take part in the (daily) church services - although these are usually celebrated in Sorbian language. Secondly because evangelic and catholic pilgrims are on their way! But also - atheists, esoterics, people of other denominations, Buddhists and... seekers. Anyway, I have already experienced all this as a hostel mother. The only thing that I have not yet come across were - I think - Muslims. And the way - it makes possible, indeed it forces the encounter, the conversation about religious dimensions of existence.
BUT - I personally would like to take the term "ecumenism" even further. Also inspired by a discussion at a meeting of hostel parents... EVERYONE who walks this path is a pilgrim! And deserves recognition, respect, hospitality, support, listening... Just for having set out on the path, for whatever reason. Even if, for example, they were a tourist ... Because the way, the walking itself changes him ("No pilgrim comes home without one prejudice less, without being one insight richer..." a famous person once said in this or a similar way). The one who arrives is never the same as the one who started walking... Perhaps he wanted to do sport - and while walking he experienced something greater, processed a piece of his life, divined God.... Who wants to judge? An example that I experienced: A single pilgrim from Zittau said immediately after sitting down at the coffee table: "But I have nothing to do with church!" I remained calm, friendly and serene and I said that I didn't care - for me he was mainly a man and a pilgrim. When he had left, I noticed that he had taken one of the pocket Bibles that had been laid out for that! This is another reason why I do not want to limit ecumenism to two denominations. An open attitude of hostel parents makes many people think, pause and question. Tolerance is perceived with pleasure. This too is Christian testimonial: Simply through our BEING THERE and BEING SO. Without wanting to missionize with words. Because conversations about faith, values, basic attitudes in life often arise quite naturally and spontaneously at the common dinner table. In the meantime, I have adopted the principle: Do not force yourself onto somebody! But be honest when being asked. Then dare to say "I" - and also to admit gaps. I am often asked: Are you catholic or protestant? My first answer is then: I am a Christian. Because that's what unites us. 

2. Who goes on the ecumenical pilgrimage?

2.1. Different groups

People from east and west, estimated at fifty-fifty. The "Westerners" then often tell me that they are for the first time ever "in the East". They are very interested, ask many questions, also about the "East German past", they are very curious. They have experiences beyond black and white painting. Quote: "I never imagined the East to be so hospitable and open..."
Women and men walk the way. Estimated more women than men - why, I don't know. I have experienced that women more often walk in groups of two or three - men more often alone. The men usually walk more kilometres, are looking for physical limit experiences, want to prove "it", sometimes have physical reasons for the journey.
Experienced Spanish pilgrims who have already been to Santiago de Compostela (e.g. because they want to get to know this route, or because they are looking for more peace and quiet than there) - and there are "complete beginners". From the pilgrims to Spain I have already received much good advice for my own pilgrimage. For the beginners I have blister plasters and good advice ready, I have also already weighed their backpacks and found them too heavy, they left things there, which I sent back for them....

Pilgrims are coming from all over the world. Except from (all of) Germany there were people from: Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, France, Spain, many from the Netherlands, some from Denmark, one from Portugal, one from the USA, one from Norway and one from Hungary.
More than you might think, there are also children walking! Or are even pushed in a pram (or ridden in a bicycle trailer). 4 examples: 1) Our youngest pilgrim was 9 months old, his name was Elia, the Austrian mother pushed the pram and had her friend with her to help her. Of course, she was an experienced mountain hiker, had scouted out the route beforehand and partly changed it... I was amazed how relaxed she mastered the whole thing. Pilgrimages had always been her dream, according to the motto "When I have the time..." Well, she had the time just now with the baby break ... And she had been infected with the pilgrim fever by her grandmother, who had also walked once before and came back very enthusiastic. 2) A married couple from Leipzig with an 11-year-old son Moritz, the father a truck driver, the mother a nurse, the junior lively, and still had so much energy that he helped me pick currants and we played "Elfer raus" (Eleven out) all evening. 3) One group came in ten: three mothers and friends, with their all in all 7 children aged 6 - 14 years. The women had gone to school together here in Upper Lusatia, now they live scattered throughout Germany, and each year they look for a common experience, which at the moment (in annual stages) is pilgrimage. 4) A foster family from Aachen: a boy and a girl walked together with their foster mum as therapy during school time! They were Waldorf pupils, of course they were allowed/must catch up on school material, their theme of the pilgrimage was: healing difficult relationships.
All professional groups are walking! And the "you" among each other eliminates the differences in status - in pilgrimage all brothers and sisters are... For example, in Crostwitz there were: curative teachers, doctors, unskilled workers, students, pastors, architects, landscape gardeners, computer scientists, organists, city administration employees, professional musicians, pensioners, geriatric nurses, social workers, teachers, farmers, innkeepers... But I think that two thirds of all those who come to me are or were academics. Two examples: There was the young doctor from Berlin who had just finished his doctorate - and this was his first holiday after one and a half years. He had simply sensed the danger of burning out and wanted to take countermeasures. We had an intensive conversation about what health and illness actually are - why some people stay healthy despite stress and others get knocked out by every little thing - this also led into spiritual waters... Or there was the young pastor from Mainz, who ran with the "Jesus Prayer" or "Prayer of the Heart" during her sabbatical months, documented her experiences later and sent me the report a year later. 

2.2. Motives for pilgrimage

The question I ask my guests most often is: "Why are you on pilgrimage?" - But perhaps I should start with myself: In 2007 I wanted to explore my home country on foot with a good friend from the Netherlands and show it to her. From this, even in the first hours of the pilgrimage, I discovered that slowness and deceleration were valuable. In the meantime I continue to pilgrimage every year - and I do this mainly in order to better come to myself and to anchor myself more in the here and now, to live in the present. I try to take this with me into my everyday life again afterwards...

And now (disordered) motives of my hostel guests: 

  • already pilgrimaged in Spain, now exploring pilgrimage in the East
  • Cancer patients because they now have time and to deal with the disease
  • friends or father/son or mother/daughter -> to have time for each other on the road
  • for coping with (acute or latent) depression or burn-outs
  • seek occupational reorientation
  • generally reposition yourself in life in a completely new way
  • Search for meaning, spiritual search (often comes to light late in the conversation...)
  • doing something together as a group (students, life partners)
  • enjoy a gentle adventure holiday together as a family
  • get to know the East
  • overcome a partnership crisis
  • cope with the death of a loved one
  • because you've heard from others that pilgrimage is supposed to be great
  • regain strength for work and everyday life
  • for once, to be able to be alone with oneself
  • test physical performance limits, gain recognition for yourself

Here too are examples of "my" guests: a top manager of a large company can no longer stand the stress of his job and is not prepared to let family life suffer any longer. He decides to quit and does not know what he will do next in his career. He takes the pilgrimage time as time out, for conversion, for reflection. Quote: "I don't know yet what will come out of it. - Up to now I have only been an everyday Christian. I think I only know that now - something must change..."
 Two religious persons from the Netherlands. A Steyler missionary sister is preparing for the 25th anniversary of taking her vows on a pilgrimage. Her friend and brother (another one, a Marian community) accompanies her - and both of them are moved by the question of how they can better convey the Christian message to those who are far from the Church, but still cry out for help.

2.3. "Pilgrim's Tales"

Two more "pilgrim stories" which I experienced:
Imagine a sweaty man with a reddened, pimple-strewn face, his eyes a little unsteady, his hair unkempt, bent - the whole figure is most reminiscent of a "drunkard". A single pilgrim, who comes exactly on the day of my birthday party with the grown children (whom I don't see so often anymore). After the "briefing" I express myself a bit vaguely in the sense that he can then eat alone in the hostel kitchen - a home-made soup is already prepared. But while he is showering, my husband contradicts me energetically: No pilgrim is left alone! He too is invited to the celebration! Or would I have imagined it differently? I swallow, a little ashamed... Afterwards it turned out that the reddening of his face was due to eczema, the man is a worker in a disinfection department of a clinic, he is polite, reserved, and extremely grateful for the invitation to such a feast. He does not interfere in any of our family conversations. Afterwards, when the children unexpectedly have to go home relatively early, an interesting conversation develops and we learn that he is an enthusiastic cyclist and was a single father for two small children, whom he raised with great effort. You can feel that he is very careful in his job and that he thinks a lot about life, too. - - Posthistory: One year later - my husband has died in the meantime - he comes again to share my grief, as a bicycle pilgrim. We have a lot to tell each other. That pilgrim made me feel ashamed. And taught me: EVERY pilgrim is brother or sister - even the not so great one. But above all, one should beware of judging by first impressions. Jesus' words are the same for everyone: "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me." In the guest, I welcome Christ to my house. Theoretically known - but in practice - difficult to do... (There too, the "you" among pilgrims takes on a new dimension.)
Or: There were these three women from the Ruhrpott in May 2011. Two sisters about my age (I am 51 now) - plus the daughter of one of them. One of the sisters is a farmer - family helper, the other one: teacher. All three of them love to sing. I bring my guitar, which one of them can play. They have a songbook from the previous Church Conference with them, because they are enthusiastic Church Conference visitors, they try not to miss a single one, they even have scarves in all colours! And we sing modern hymns all evening together - then pilgrim songs, for example those from the large laminated "devotional sheet" of the ecumenical pilgrimage, which is available in every hostel. - - Posthistory: For the Protestant Church Congress 2011 in Dresden we meet again, experience the meeting evening together on the opening day.

3. The hospitality on the ecumenical pilgrimage

3.1. Why do I give lodging

I have already mentioned it: hospitality is a constitutive element of the ecumenical pilgrimage. And hospitality gives whoever agreed to it in the founding phase or who has joined in the meantime. They are all listed either in the pilgrim's guide or in the supplementary list on the Internet. And because it is so important, those giving lodging are practically also checked for quality - this results from passing on the word if something is amiss somewhere... If necessary, entries will be deleted, this has already happened. But every year new entries are added as well.

Why do I personally give hostel? That is quite simple: Because I have walked the ecumenical pilgrimage myself, and because my house is located directly on the way, which I only really realized then (2007). An apartment in the house was vacant and was being renovated - I saw that a hostel would be good at this place. In the meantime I was enthusiastic about pilgrimages myself, and together with my husband, I felt like having guests - and so we asked the association. The reaction, the quality control came very quickly! Only two weeks later, the first pilgrims were at our doorstep! They were members of the association who happened to be in the area on a pilgrimage anyway and were asked to come and see what was going on. Well - luckily we also had other guest beds - we spent a wonderful evening together, the friendship still exists today, I have since then been able to give lodging to their daughter. The private renovation (without any subsidies) was finished very quickly by my husband since the agreement of the association with verve and new objectives. The opening of the pilgrims' hostel Crostwitz was in summer 2008, with dedication and blessing by the parish priest, with a small celebration for the neighbours whom we asked for help - with an open day, coffee and cake for the parish the following day. It was very important for us to involve the whole village from the beginning. The consistently positive reactions and the further history of the house show how important this is... 
And what do I "get out of it" now? This was/is also a learning process: I am not only a giver - but also a taker: Every guest enriches me, because he brings his life story, his life experiences with him. Sometimes even his help: like the service technician who made my dishwasher work better again... So I get to know interesting people. It is not me who has to go out into the world - the world comes to me! One year after the opening of the hostel (in summer 2009) my husband died very suddenly and unexpectedly, unbelievable for all of us... There I experienced the helping hand of the hostel network, and also of the neighbours. I decided to continue to run the hostel on my own (my husband was mainly the hostel's father before) - but that would be impossible without the help of the neighbours, who are now in charge of the "key management" and let pilgrims in during the day while I am still at work... After I became a widow, my intention in this particular case shifted... Now the pilgrims are my family, so to speak. Because I live othewise alone in the house. I am now allowed to share meals with others more often and I also discovered that cooking can be fun - quite often we prepare dinner together. For me, I now always invite people to join me for supper (and if possible also for breakfast) - it is a very familial atmosphere. I also get a lot of thanks! Which motivates me very much... On the one hand, there are the personal entries in the guestbook - on the other hand, some send cards or photos after arrival - some of them even visit again half a year later, bearing a small present, and stay for a Sunday afternoon coffee. Last year I had a total of 163 pilgrims - in 2011 there will probably be almost as many again. 
New ideas were born, which are gratefully accepted: Such as an "oasis of pilgrimage" for those who will not stay overnight with me and move on, but who gladly take a break here. That is why I now have a covered terrace in my garden, where coffee/tea/cake/fruit are available for self-service on a table. With a (small) donation box to cover the expenses and a small guestbook. There are many more "oasis pilgrims" than overnight pilgrims by now... Some of them I get to know personally, because if I happen to be there, I will also join them. 
 Or the "meeting place pilgrim oasis" in winter. When there are no more pilgrims - in December, January, February - there are small cultural events for the village and the surrounding area at the pilgrims' hostel on the weekends. I organise this purely privately, so the hostel remains "open" and "lively" even in winter. An important theme here is of course personal pilgrim reports - or film pilgrim documentaries - so that the local people are again integrated and able to learn about pilgrimages. On the other hand there are small readings, musical evenings and always an exhibition opening.

3.2. Networks of hospitality

I was talking about the annual "Hostel Parents Meeting". People now know each other in the immediate vicinity of the road. One also visits each other privately or helps each other. It is a network that carries. Just like the small network of pilgrims. Because some, with whom a special connection has been established, leave their address, friendships arise (especially with pilgrims living close by). - I pray for some of the pilgrims' concerns. For some of my concerns pilgrims promise prayer. I experience this network as a blessing. I am a member of this very special community.
Other hostel parents will certainly experience this differently. Hostels along the ecumenical pilgrimage route naturally have their own specific characteristics. In Arnsdorf, for example, right at the beginning of the ecumenical pilgrimage, I already mentioned the country cinema - there, the chairwoman of the association is the wife of the pastor, who also sometimes takes the time for a personal chat. In Arnsdorf the refrigerator is well filled with all kinds of things, and there is a list of prices (which are small) - because there is no possibility to shop in the village. The ambience of the barn and the three-sided farm is wonderful, there is also a large map where pilgrims plant flags for their respective places of origin. -- - In Weißenberg an elderly couple has a hostel in their detached house - there is a nice garden seating area - right next to the guest room is the bathroom for the pilgrims. And they continue to do so, although the woman was seriously ill with cancer. Both are Protestant and active members of their parish, the husband plays the organ. - - In Neubelgern, a tiny place where hare and fox say good night to each other, a pensioner gives shelter, who, like me, took over from him after the death of her husband - and "Waltraud" has become a living legend, so to speak, among pilgrims for her lively, cheerful, uncomplicated manner.... - - In Königsbrück the pilgrim spends the night in the former, now restored poorhouse - in the living museum, so to speak. There is neither electricity nor running water. An outhouse outside. In addition this saying: "He, who is used to have little, should spend the night there - he will feel at home. - And if you're used to a life of luxury, so will you - you'll see how little you need." The Königsbrücker hostel father has the principle to dedicate at least half an hour to each pilgrim (He is an independent carpenter with a large company). He then often happily explains the history of Upper Lusatia. For dinner he sometimes brings wine, and for breakfast milk and rolls. When it is cold, he heats the oven and brings warm water for washing in the bowl! - - In Leipzig, Dominican sisters give shelter, who oversee social projects there. - In Merseburg, pilgrims spend the night on the gallery of a Romanesque church and in Eisenach, in the mother house of the deaconesses, who invite the pilgrims to a short prayer after breakfast, introduce them to those present and give them a ceramic plaque with a psalm word as a gift. - - At the arrival point in Vacha, the pilgrim receives a specially designed pin as a sign of the completion of the ecumenical pilgrimage. - While walking on the ecumenical pilgrimage route, I myself experienced  really nice PENSION parents too, who made everything possible for pilgrims - up to the pick up by car for the last 2 kilometres, because it was already late and the legs had given up completely...

In general, on every pilgrimage, for every hostel, the following applies: "You are not at home where you have a residence, but where you are understood. (Christian Morgenstern). The pilgrim - the stranger - the outsider - the petitioner - finds a temporary home here. The one verse of our "Oberlausitzer Pilgerlied", which I have from Buchholz and which I would like to quote here (to be sung to the melody of "Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust"), fits quite exactly to this [just roughly translated from German]:

Home opens to the stranger, home opens to the stranger, home opens to the stranger.
If he comes on foot from place to place, one gives him bed and good word, to the stranger.

And being aware of this is enormously important for us hostel parents. Because at the beginning, each guest is an empty, blank sheet of paper for me. He has my respect and the chance of a new beginning - no matter what his life was like before. He also knows that he will (most likely) not come here again. That's why he often wants to talk about himself. Above all, he needs to be listened to with understanding. Not necessarily advice. I cannot solve his problems. But by vocaling a lot of things, they become clearer to him.
 Have I ever been disappointed? Never! In three years, so far. I mean, the danger of a bad experience is always there. But that is a risk which has to be taken. But the pilgrim has a purpose. And the way shapes them.

3.3 The pilgrim's blessing

I personally believe that pilgrimage is a blessing. That it opens up a new dimension of faith: that of being on the road. So faith is not a static thing, but a way, integrated into my life's path - it develops. And the people of God wander through time - like the Israelites once wandered through the desert. God is a God of the way. Jesus was also an ITINERANT preacher and as such was always on the way. Not least, Jesus Christ said: "I am the WAY, the truth and the life."

And so, for me, giving the PILGRIM'S BLESSING to those who pass on is an essential part of it. It is given almost everywhere on the ecumenical pilgrimage, in different forms. Sometimes to take away on leaflets. Sometimes in small booklets with other prayers or pilgrim songs. "My" pilgrim's blessing - attributed according to a source to St. Patrick from Ireland in the 6th century - I received from the hand and mouth of the friendly Upper Lusatian hostel mother Waltraud 2009 at my husband's grave. She spoke it for all mourners and later handed over the text to me. I would also like to say this wonderful blessing today for you pilgrims from Augsburg, who have mastered the star pilgrimage in the early hours of the morning - and with this I would like to wish you all the best for the future - on your future path:

The LORD be before you to show you the right path.
The LORD be beside you to embrace you, to protect you from danger.
The LORD be behind you to keep you from the treachery of evil.
The LORD be under you, to catch you when you fall.
The LORD be within you to comfort you when you are in sorrow.
The LORD be around you, to defend you when others fall upon you.
The LORD be above you to bless you.
So bless you the good GOD - today and tomorrow and always.