Germany: The Unfamiliar Familiar

I took a long layover in Frankfurt on my way home from the Middle East. I found life in a bustling Arab city to be warm, unpredictable, and thick with history. Now, the cool, impeccably clean, and perfectly regulated air of industrial Deutschland met me like the cleansing cream soap in the hotel bathroom.

In the Middle East my white skin is often noticed because it does not belong to the desert, but in Germany I am invisible. Arab men in antiquated minibuses would turn their heads to gape at the taxi full of straw-haired ladies in the next lane. I felt like a walking billboard for America. In Germany, though, no one spoke English to me until I stared at them, unable to respond to their polite and practical inquiries.

I want to tell my European hosts, Yes, your suspicions are correct; I am German. I value precise communication and organizational efficiency. I like eating sausages and celebrating Christmas. My people have lived along the Rhine; there is a place that bears my family name a few kilometers away.

Yet, I am not German. Long ago, my ancestors left this place. They decided that they would be defined not by where they came from but by where they were going. Now my American passport bears three perfectly aligned German border control stamps right after the page where the Arab security checker quickly slapped a visa, its corner falling off the edge.

Lately I have been wondering what it means to have an identity of mobility. The United States is a nation of immigrants; look around the Washington Dulles airport, and you’ll see faces from many places. Few Americans can claim that their ancestors have lived in this land more than a couple hundred years.  Many of my ancestors came to the U.S. for religious reasons. They wanted to have a place where they could express their shared spiritual identity freely. Now, what does this mean for their grandchildren’s grandchildren? What does it mean to have a heritage of movement for the sake of liberty?

My desire is to see people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation come to know the living God and bow down before him. Sometimes I wish it was easier to identify who I belonged with, that I could say something like, I am German. I speak German. I live in Germany. It is a beautiful thing, though, to be the person I am: to be German, and to be American, and to be Christian, all at once. I want to honor the many ethnic streams that have flowed into my person as well as God’s faithfulness to my ancestors as well as to me. May the heritage I hold in highest esteem to be to follow God wherever he takes me.

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