Chapter 19: The Majesty of Switzerland and the Rhine

The Majesty of Switzerland and the Rhine

Spiritual Landmarks Visited

Boarding in Prague for the city of Zurich , Switzerland , turned into something of an adventure. There was a long line as usual. Suddenly the line was cut off right in front of my brother, Jake, and his wife, Elizabeth. The airport employees said, "The cabin is full."

After a few minutes, an attendant walked up and asked,

"Would you mind sitting in the first class section?"

Their answer was quite enthusiastic; it happened to be Jacob and Elizabeth 's wedding anniversary. Believe me, we thought we would never hear the last of their reports of the exquisite service and the luscious food they enjoyed so much. While the rest of us in the tourist section made do with some cold snacks, they feasted on a hot meal. So, it was a great experience for them and a very special anniversary.

From Prague we flew to Zurich , Switzerland , where we toured the city with particular interest in the historic sites. There was the church where the reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, the man whom the early Anabaptists called Meister Ulrich, was the leader. We saw the parental home of Conrad Grebel, one of the original Anabaptists and a disciple of Zwingli who later parted ways with him. We saw the prison where Grebel and some of the other early Anabaptists had suffered, where he contracted a disease and died after two years. The river Limmat, and in particular, the place where Felix Mantz was drowned for refusing to bring his two children to be baptized, left a somber impression of the cost required of our forefathers for their faith.

Splendor of the Alps

A 7 a.m. train ride through the Alps to Interlaken and the Jungfrau was exciting. The Swiss countryside is beautiful and fascinating. The Jungfrau Joch has several glaciers and tunnels, as well as an ice palace. We actually had lunch in a restaurant that was hewn out of a glacier. There were also many displays of things carved out of ice, like ice cars, and other objects.

In the afternoon there arose ominous clouds. They looked threatening, and we were told that a snowstorm was approaching very quickly, so we hurried back to the train. We got there on time, and the train left for Zurich . The scenery defies description—steep cliffs; beautiful, rolling green mountains; murmuring brooks turning into cascades of white water in deep ravines. The train passed quiet, sleepy villages, and farmers working in their field.

Zurich Revisited

We arrived in the bustling, busy city of Zurich at dusk, a bit tired, but none the worse for the wear and feeling that we had spent a wonderful day. After a hearty dinner and a bit of relaxation, we had a restful night under down quilts. Of course, they were too warm for that time of year. We rolled them up and put them in the corner. We slept soundly and rose the next morning, July 15th, for another day of avid touring, but not before an energizing breakfast.

At 8:30 we climbed on a streetcar to visit the opera house; then we joined a tour on a lovely coach through Switzerland , the Black Forest , and places of interest along the way. At the Black Forest Shop, Sarah Penner and I tried to phone a nephew of hers who was in the American Army at Heidelberg . Finally we got through, and back in time to catch a bit of lunch and get to the bus again for a brief excursion into France . The whole area is blessed with natural beauty.

We arrived back in Zurich just before evening. Some were quite tired, but some of us had enough energy left to go and visit the Anabaptist places again. Jake, Sarah, Galen, and I walked around and visited some of them on foot so we could stop as long as we wanted. We found our way with the help of the guidebook that I used on an earlier trip back in 1965.

A good dinner, a good night's rest, and the next morning we were ready to go for another full day.

Along the Magnificent Rhine

After a six o'clock breakfast, we carried our baggage to the station. The train departed exactly on time for Basil, Wiesbaden , the Rhinevolt, and then to Neuwied . The train wound through the Swiss, and then the German countryside, affording us a close view of the villages and the way people lived. Meandering along the Rhine , the train passed through villages that had been there for two thousand years. It was an exhilarating expedition. European travel differs markedly from stateside trips where everything is relatively new.

One vestige of the older culture was the prominence and size of the village rectory (what we call the parsonage) for the pastor of the State Church . They stood out easily as the finer homes in the village. Of course, the State Church is supported from taxes.

At a very small train station in Kaub, we disembarked and took a boat on the Rhine for the rest of the way to Neuwied , about sixty kilometers on the river. The conductor told us to get off just a little bit earlier than our itinerary called for. He said it wasn't very far to walk to the boat dock. But after we got off the train and it had pulled away, we stood there perplexed, unable to see any boat dock.

We started walking, though it was a bit difficult to maneuver our baggage. We eventually reached the station, all the while looking for the boat dock. The river was on the other side of the track, and we could not get there.

Our scout, Galen Penner, walked across the track to get closer to the river to see if he could see the boat dock, and a hysterical depot manager came running out, waving his hands, and shouting, "Get off the track, get off the track!"

In a brief minute or two after Galen moved off, we understood the man's urgency. An express train came thundering through. It could have been fatal for him if he had failed to clear the track. Finally, we walked along on the side of the track until we saw a tunnel that went underneath the track to the side of the river.

A sign informed us: "300 meters to the boat dock," so we were in good shape. When we dealt with the dock manager, we had to pay a little extra because we were taking the boat earlier than the time that was stamped on our ticket. We did not mind the cost, but the ticket master there could not take dollars; he had to have German marks, and we didn't have any. While I was finding out about the schedule and the cost and all that, Jake quietly found a businessman who was glad to give us marks for dollars.

With that problem solved, we waited for the next boat to come. This was, for some of us, a once in a lifetime experience: to travel down the Rhine River contemplating the history and tradition of many centuries. The Rhine is a large river, with many barges and boats going back and forth. It branches into a complex navigation system running through much of Europe .

We soon sailed past the Lorelei, a place rich in myth and poetry. Legend has it that the rock is haunted. The summit stands 132 meters (about 433 feet) above the water, and the precipice drops off almost perpendicular to the surface. Its base is said to have a seven-fold echo. According to the legend, a siren comes from the rock to lure sailors to their deaths, and has enticed many an ancient ship's captain into crashing against the massive rock cliffs.

As we approached the Lorelei, with the whole ship loaded with vacationers, all at once the shipload of people broke out singing "The Lorelei" in German and in French. We, too, were caught up in the jubilant mood.

As I said, the boat went along the river past many villages, historic castles, and vineyards planted on steep mountainsides. I am always fascinated by things more than a couple of hundred years old. We went past the city of Koblenz , which dates back to 836 A.D.

We could mention many others as well, but this glimpse gives some idea of the intriguing array of towns and hamlets. Just before evening we came to Neuwied , a District City founded in 1648 as a Free City after the Thirty Years' War, a religious war following the Reformation. Here the wife of Pastor Niesen and the congregation of the Mennonite church welcomed us with flowers and invited us to their evening church service.

Not far from the boat dock stood a 200-year-old Mennonite church. The Prince of Wied, whose royal palace was across the street, donated the land on which it stands today.

Refreshment with the Family of God

I just had time to slip into a suit. I had been forewarned that I probably was going to be asked to bring a message, and, sure enough, I was. I had prepared one from John, Chapter 14:l-6. The pastor had made it clear that this was a worship service and relating anything of our tour would have to come after the service. "Gottes Dienst" worship and daily experiences were not to be mixed.

The setting appeared to be a bit strange, I had been in the Neuwied Mennonite Brethren Church in 1965, and I knew this was not the same place and not the same pastor; everything was different. We found out that this was a group of people who were not all Mennonite Brethren, but composed of different Mennonite affiliations. Many were recent immigrants from Russia . They were not meeting with the Mennonite Brethren Church ; they had a separate congregation. They felt that they did not fit in with the German people or their customs. The adjustment seemed too great for them to make. Even though the language was the same, their ways of doing things were too different.

The pastor of the Mennonite Brethren church knew that we were coming from Russia on this tour and arranged for us to meet with this group, because they would be interested in hearing what we had to say. Well, it was a lovely service. The message was well received, as were we. Afterward, we had a brief discussion, reporting what we had done, where we came from, where we had been, followed by questions and answers. Then the gathering was dismissed.

After that, some of the people asked us to their homes for the night. This part of the itinerary had already been arranged beforehand. Jake and Elizabeth, and I, stayed with Gerhart and Elizabeth Fast. This young couple with two children had left Russia only eight months before. They were in language study. The German government was taking very good care of them by providing a monthly stipend. Their apartment was well furnished. They told us the banks were willing to loan them money, and so they thought they should start living like people right from the beginning. They were paying 7.5% interest on the money they borrowed from the bank, but the government picked up 6% of the 7.5%, so it was good for them to do this. The Audi sedan outside demonstrated that they were living quite well.

The Exquisite Rhineland

Because of his school schedule, they had to leave early. Therefore, the secretary of the pastor, Ms. Sowatzky, came and took us to the station to catch the train for Amsterdam . Our route took us through Germany and the now famous city of Bonn, where the capital was moved after the Second World War; however, we did not get to stop in Bonn, but went on to Koeln.

This ancient city of the Rhineland , with a population of 730,000, has a 2000-year history. It is where one of the Germanic tribes had its headquarters, and later the Romans took it over. There are many places of interests, many museums and other attractions. We had just a two-hour stop in Koeln. We put our baggage in lockers at the train depot and did a bit of sightseeing in town.

Perhaps the most inspiring feature of the city is the cathedral of Koeln ( Cologne ), one of the richest and greatest in Europe . It was begun in 1248 and completed in 1880. It is the largest pure Gothic building north of the Alps . The towers reach 157 meters into the sky. It is enormous. I had to back up nearly a block to get the length of the steeple in my camera's viewer for a photograph. After seeing the church and a few other places, we took a quick lunch at McDonald's and it was time to go back to the train and continue our journey to Amsterdam .

Friesland : Cradle of Menno

In Amsterdam we took two taxis to the Amsterdam Center Hotel and had a sumptuous dinner in the evening. All the other patrons had finished eating, but the restaurant served us anyway with excellent professionalism. We then had a good night's sleep. At nine o'clock in the morning the Trans Bus driver was at the door. He was also the tour guide. Off we went to survey the scenes of Friesland . By the way, Friesland is one of the places where our ancestors originated more than 400 years ago.

Our first stop was a cheese factory on a farm. We were told how the cheese was made. They take the heads of cheese right when they are fresh and set them up to dry—it takes from three to four months—but they need to be turned every day, and out of this comes the rich Swiss cheese. After buying a supply of cheese cutters as souvenirs, we started for a historic place, a Mennonite-owned pottery factory. On display were some fascinating, beautiful hand-painted porcelain wares. A candleholder, for instance, cost 300 gulden, or $150. No purchases were made.

At Pingjum, there was what was known as the " Hidden Church ," right in the residential area. We received directions and found it. This was where the Anabaptists used to meet. A knock on the door brought a little Dutch lady to open it. I asked her, "Is this where Menno Simons used to come?"

She replied in Dutch and I spoke in Low German, and we managed to understand each other to some extent. She told us, "No, Menno Simons had not been there, but his followers, the people that followed his teaching, had met there."

There was a little plaque on the door inside to explain that this was where the "Dupsgesinde" baptizers had gathered during the 16th century. Menno lived in 1496-1561. She asked us to come inside where there was a little chapel with straight-backed chairs. This was where they used to meet for prayer, for singing, and for preaching. Today it is maintained for tourists.

Outside of Witmarsum, the birthplace of Menno Simons, a small monument to Menno states that he broke with the Papstum (the pope) in 1536. There is in that village a small Mennonite church now, but we did not see the inside of it. In Witmarsum we also saw the church where Menno Simons served as pastor before he left the Catholic Church. From there we traveled through the countryside and admired the beauty of the valleys 600 feet below sea level. We saw networks of dikes encircling herds of black and white cows lying in lush green pastures, a beauty to behold.

In Vollendam, a former Mennonite fishing village, one sees women in traditional Friesian costumes. Tourists swarm to the town and the beach of the Suidersee, where fishermen bring in their catches to sell. Traffic directors in native regalia direct the busy flow of buses, automobiles, and human crowds. Much of this territory has been reclaimed from the sea, from the old Suidersee, with dikes. It was instructive to observe how they had been built, and how the sea pushed persistently against the land's bulwarks.

Traveling through this old countryside gave us a feeling of belonging, that this was where our roots were. When I was there in 1965, I talked to some people in the airport and they were catching on that I could understand a little bit of what they were saying.

One of them said, "We will have to be careful of what we say."

I said, "No, I'm just a Dutch boy come home after 400 years, and I don't understand all that much." But, this was a very tremendous day of experiences for us.

Last Day in Amsterdam

Back at the hotel by 4:30 —we had enough time for a canal tour of the city. We were told that apartments were so hard to get that when couples plan to get married, they put in a request for a houseboat nine or ten months before the wedding. If they were fortunate, they might get one. Then, after several years, they might get an apartment. Whether things have changed much by now or not, I don't know, but that was the situation then. People were living in houseboats all over the city and much travel was by boat.

Back at the hotel, another luscious dinner and a good night's rest prepared us for our final day. Wednesday morning we took a quick streetcar ride to the Heineken Brewery and the Rycks Museum . We didn't see much, since the next tour of the brewery started at eleven o'clock , too late for our schedule.

Thus, our trip ended, full of rich experiences in many places in several countries. We had connected with relatives and had gone back to our roots. We had seen how our own people and others were living.

The airport was crowded! I mean, absolutely full. We stood close to each other and tried to find out where we were to take our baggage. I scouted around to find the right line for everybody. Sarah and Galen Penner and Katherine Braun were going to Chicago and then home to Minneapolis . The rest of us were going to the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York , then through Kansas City , and on to California.

I found the right place; we pushed along, got in, and had a very nice flight home. Flying west, time almost stands still, and we got to New York and Kansas City and then back to Sacramento all on the same day.

Our Next Assignment

When we reached home Kathryn informed me that there was a call from the Sacramento Friends Church . They wanted to ask me about the possibility of serving them as an interim pastor while they looked for a permanent pastor. A few days later I met with representatives of the Church. We were not totally unacquainted; I was a good friend of their former pastor and it was he who recommended me. Upon some discussions, exchanging of views, and comparing doctrinal positions, we found that we did not agree exactly on all points, but agreed that this would not hinder in serving them temporarily. Where we differed was in the view of baptism and the Lord's Supper, but we agreed that we could work with this for the interim. I accepted the responsibility and served them for ten months, until they found a new pastor.

Inquiries were made to see if we wanted to take the pastorship permanently, but I did not want to take the responsibility, nor was it advisable in view of our differences. Our ten month service was a satisfying and fulfilling ministry.

Greenhaven Neighborhood: Our Home Church

I continued with my teaching and administrative assignment with Simpson College of Sacramento, to which I referred earlier. After serving at the Friends church, we returned to the church where I had been pastor. The new pastor, Frank Duerksen, and the congregation were very gracious to receive and welcome us as part of the congregation. It is a rare experience for someone who has terminated his responsibility for leadership in a congregation to continue to worship in the same church—not only to worship but also to participate in the leadership—but this has been my privilege. They had sold the property that we intended to sell when I was pastor, and had nearly completed erecting a new facility on the property we had acquired, as mentioned earlier. Pastor Frank Duerkson, and later on, Gary Hardaway, and now, Pastor Steve Toews, have been very cooperative men and easy to work with. I have appreciated the opportunity to work with each of these younger men.

I have had the opportunity to teach adult classes as well as serve as moderator of the church. I serve in whatever area I can be of help and wherever my service is desired. God is blessing the work and the church is moving on under able leadership with a considerable number of young families in the congregation.

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