Taking Chocolate to Vienna

I’ve taken over fifty mission trips, mostly to Western Europe.  The first was in 1973–to Berlin.  The hosting church stood within sight of The Wall.  Viet Nam was a disaster at that point, and my military husband was continually called upon to answer questions about faith, love and war.  This was our first clue that evangelizing Europe would be different from what we had expected. In the years since, I’ve discovered that evangelizing Western Europe is, in fact, a lot like evangelizing in the United States.

Fortunately for us, the Berlin Airlift was within memory of most Germans at that time, and Air Force pilots were given a break. I was pregnant, and that helped endear the mothers to us.  To a naïve twenty-something from Texas, the European culture shock was as life-changing as my later adventures in Kenya and Indonesia.

The relationships we began during the week we served in Templehof Baptist Church have been the touchstone of our ministry, as we have continued to go to, and receive church teams from, various European countries.  Of course, the cultures of Northern Ireland, France, Hungary, and all the other countries in Europe are not the same, and their faith communities are vastly different, even within the Baptist fellowships that I’m most familiar with.  None of them much resemble the American manifestation of a Baptist church.

In many ways, Western Europeans are to Americans what the Samaritans were to the Israelites of Jesus’ day.  We share the same spiritual heritage, deal with the same unintended consequences of modernization and technology, and on the surface, we look alike.  Presently, Western Europe is the most under-evangelized continent on earth.  We say, “They have just enough religion to inoculate themselves against a real, life-giving faith”—just like many nominal Christians in America.

Those pesky Postmoderns prevalent in much of the world today, especially in the West, aren’t impressed by propositional, American, ‘50s-style evangelism. They may not believe in God, but they believe they’re going to heaven, wherever that is. The only sin they recognize are the corporate sins of society.  They’re willing to talk about God, the universe, and morality, but they’re not willing to commit to anyone or anything until they have a personal experience with it. They are not going to profess Christ after hearing the facts about Jesus, many for the first time. And that’s why I took chocolate chips to Austria.

Beheimgasse Baptist Church in Vienna invited a team from my church in McKinney, Texas to come for a week of evangelism—Austrian style. Months in advance they had planned what they would do with the eight of us–all ages and skills, experienced and first-timers. We were told that we would be cooking American/Texas food and entertaining guests at outreach events almost every day. As we began collecting recipes, we realized that many of the standard ingredients for American pies, chili, and cornbread were not readily or economically available in Austria.

Some of the greatest chocolate in the world is found in Vienna (like Sachertorte), but chocolate chips are unique to the United States. Chopping up chunks of chocolate won’t do.  The chunks melt into the cookies.  Who knew that such staples as peppermint, ground ginger, cinnamon, and chili powder were rare in Europe, and dearer still? So we loaded our luggage with measuring cups, aluminum pie tins, pastry blenders, spices, Christmas candy, and more than forty pounds of chocolate chips. The Austrians translated our recipes, converted the measurements to metrics, and published a little book with all of our American dishes.

We baked cookies with the youth who sold dozens and dozens to raise money for their own mission trip. We taught a pie making class to the women and served the pumpkin and pecan pastries at a Christian concert one evening during the week. For “Texas Night” we made chili and cornbread.  Our salad bar was quite the novelty, as well, especially the Ranch dressing.  We even taught the Viennese how to two-step at our line dancing class. I was hoping someone would volunteer to teach me the Viennese waltz, but that didn’t happen.

The Viennese and American women prepared a pancake breakfast (from scratch, no mixes available) for the men’s meeting on Saturday. Conversations full of questions and lively discussions took place in every venue.  Opportunities to share our faith came in one-on-one encounters, in groups of friends, and with those in crisis. A church member died (the first in their fifteen-year history) while we were there.  Later in the week we learned it was a suicide. By that time we had built a bond of friendship and trust and were able to speak into the situation, as well as to the dozens of ordinary life experiences that routinely happen to all of us everywhere.

Several times the church members asked us out for lunch with their friends and employees.  Virtually everyone speaks English in Vienna now, and it was another opportunity for us to invite people to Beheimgasse Church and to tell them directly why we were in Vienna.  We realized that the church members were “outing” themselves as believers through us.  Invariably the friends would turn to their boss (host) and ask questions about the church and his personal faith. That’s how friendship evangelism works.

It’s hard for any of us to speak about our personal faith to those who know us well and have seen us at our worst, but in another environment where people have never seen us lose our temper or say an unkind word, it’s easier to give our witness. Then too, when guests speak the same language, the nationals can speak freely about their personal problems and situations even within the church–something they could not do with a Christian friend whom they saw regularly. We would be going home in a week and taking their secrets with us.

The context of a local church is the ideal environment to share the Gospel in Europe.  Certainly in Vienna, the cooking project was their own invention. They planned the events, invited their friends and, of necessity, did the follow-up.  We were there to encourage and empower their ministry as they saw the need. They provided the established friendships.  We gave them the excuse and impetus to reach out in a particular way at that specific time. Unlike the folly of taking “ice to the Eskimos,” taking chocolate to Vienna proved to be a very effective method of evangelism.


Shopping Overseas

For most of us, shopping is an expected and anticipated part of traveling to another country.  Whether it’s the perfect souvenir, a promised gift for a friend, or an impulsive “got-to-have-it” item, purchases overseas will be long remembered, for the good or the bad.

First time visitors to a country sometimes return home as dissatisfied customers.  Their expectations of what was available in that country and how much it would cost proved inaccurate and will forever cloud their evaluation and feelings about the trip.  That’s why knowing as much as you can about a place, talking with people who have been there, and reading about where to shop and what to buy before you leave are a critical part of any trip preparation.

Lots of general information is now available on the World Wide Web, but it usually lacks the personal, insider secrets that entice true “shoppers.”  For those of us who experience shopping as entertainment, researching the options is as critical as selecting theater or sports tickets.  So unless you know someone who lives in the place you’re going, and has similar interests as your own, you need to go to a large library, or better yet, a bookstore and take notes.

I’ll usually buy one book about the place I’m going—the one with beautiful pictures.  I’ll fill a notebook with addresses, phone numbers, and times, but the photographs will inspire me before, during, and after the trip.  Look through travel magazines, as well.  If your destination is featured, buy the magazine and tear out the pertinent pages to take along with you.  All your research will make you an informed traveler who can converse with the nationals and assist fellow tourists.

When you pack, take along a fold-up bag in your suitcase for an extra carry-on.  (Since you’re only allowed two carry-ones, be sure your purse, camera bag, or computer will fit into one of your two bags, or can be used in reverse as your second carry-on.)  A measuring tape and a list of sizes for friends and family members you might be tempted to shop for is also a good idea.  Many countries don’t use our standards of measure, and if a conversion chart is not available, the measuring tape will come in handy.

I’ve found that shopping for Christmas and birthdays, even shower gifts, is best done while I’m away on a trip.  I don’t have to take time out from my at-home schedule to go and look for something at the last minute.  The gifts I buy overseas are unique and have a story attached to their purchase, and I enjoy spending the money more when it’s for someone else.

One of the best places to shop in any country is a hardware store.  Think about the hardware stores in your town, especially the independent “Mom and Pop” variety.  Every place has these kinds of stores that sell every day gadgets, small, inexpensive household items, from toys to tools.  In the United States, we used to call these shops, “variety stores.”  Other countries still have them right on the most fashionable streets and readily accessible.

Bookstores are also great places to buy souvenirs and gifts.  Sometimes they are overlooked because of their non-English titles, but that can be a novelty in itself.  I often buy preschool, “board” books of familiar children’s stories, or alphabet books, which are primarily pictures anyway.

The best books about any country are found in that country.  Often I’ll find a beautiful book with photographs of the particular town I’m in with an English text, or at least, bilingual captions.  Great maps, both old and new, can be found in bookstores.  Unusual post cards, art cards, bookmarks, pens and pencils, stationery, posters, and wonderful prints can also be found there.

Usually, cookbooks from the region can only be found locally.  Of course, you’ll probably need an English version, but they are easier to find than you might imagine.  Make sure the measurements have also been translated into “cups” and “tablespoons,” etc., or buy their measurement devices for “grams, liters, and ounces” for an adventuresome cook at home.

Packaged, processed foods are a typical purchase for tourists, and they are usually available in duty-free shops at the airport, as well as in local shops.  There is usually not a problem getting them into the States although you must declare them when you reenter the country.  Fresh produce, homemade items, and opened packages are almost impossible to bring back, but I was surprised several years ago when I successfully brought home cut flowers (orchids) as a very special gift.  The hassle of keeping them wet and uncrushed and the extra time in Customs was a part of the gift.  Remember, customs agents have the right to take anything away from you.

Don’t forget about the “free” (or free for the asking) shopping available.  Some hotels have beautifully wrapped soaps, creams, and slippers that you can take home.  Colorful menus or placemats from restaurants are often complimentary, if you ask.  I have even inquired about the dishes in restaurants, and purchased cups, platters, and condiment containers very reasonably.

My favorite purchases are handmade linens and embroidered pieces.  Placemats, napkins, handkerchiefs, towels, and pillowcases are lightweight, malleable to any bag, relatively inexpensive, very practical, indicative of the culture, and unique for Americans.  Unusual Christmas ornaments are also great finds and easy to pack.  Stamps and coins from the visited country make for distinctive displays and memorable souvenirs, as well.  If something is really inexpensive, I’ll get two, just so I’m not tempted to keep it for my self.

I’m not much of a clothes shopper, except for baby clothes, which I find irresistible and so different from the manufactured things found in U.S. department stores.  I always have a stock of booties, sweater sets, and hand knitted blankets for baby shower gifts.  Most of the adult ready-to-wear is not locally made and is no different from what is sold in America, and is usually no bargain.  Some exceptions might more likely be found in shoes and accessories (perfume, too) where the local manufacturer is selling a unique design (fragrance) not exported and offered in the States.

Unlike American apparel retailers, European shopkeepers do not want you to serve yourself.  They do not want you unfolding, or even touching the merchandise.  Virtually every style they have is in their shop window, which is usually half or three-fourths of their total store space.  Sometimes I’ll buy something that looks so right for the country where I’ve purchased it, but when I get it home, it just doesn’t fit into my wardrobe, climate, or color scheme.

All countries have special products for which they are famous.  These are usually collector items, which are expensive and often breakable.  If you know you want to purchase such an item, you might consider having the store ship it home for you.  Of course, you will have to pay for this service, but you won’t have to hassle with carrying it, and it will be insured.  Send it the slowest, cheapest way possible so that it will arrive after you have returned home.  You can sometimes avoid paying the duty on the items sent home separately.  Every U.S. traveler is allowed to bring home in their luggage four hundred dollars’ worth of goods, duty free.

Speaking of duty free, perhaps you have heard of the VAT (Value Added Tax) rebate.  Most countries price an item with the tax included, unlike the U.S. where a separate sales tax is added to the marked price.  This tax is for residents of the country only, but getting your money back requires some forethought and effort.

Minimum purchases are required in each store and they vary from country to country, as do the percentages for the taxes.  You must get the refund forms in each store, fill them out in detail, and take them to the customs agents, along with the items you purchased, when you leave the country in order to get the forms stamped.  Match each form with its self-addressed, stamped envelope.   If your purchases won’t fit into your carry-ones, you must do this before your luggage is checked.

In Europe now it’s even more complicated because EU member nations will not always stamp non-member nation’s forms.  (Switzerland, Hungary, and Norway are not EU countries.)  Mail in the envelopes when you get home, but remember there are deadlines.  Then, wait five to ten months for your check, if you paid in cash, or a credit on your charge card.

Don’t take a lot of American currency, if any.  Charging on a credit card usually gives you the best rate, but in small shops and remote villages this may prove to be a problem.  Travelers Checks are getting harder and harder to cash.  Stores won’t do it, and banks are not open when I usually need them, and are sometimes difficult to find.  I think the best way to get cash in the local currency is through ATM machines.  Remember your password in numerical form because the letter keys don’t always match up with those in the U.S.  Make sure you can recognize such words as “checking, savings, withdrawal” in the local language.

By far, the best souvenirs from any trip are the photographs I’ve taken.  Film, extra batteries, and camera accessories are cheaper in the United States than anywhere in the world although they can usually be purchased in most places.  With the new high-powered x-ray machines, it is never advisable to pack film of any kind in checked bags.  I put mine, along with the entire camera, if loaded, in a lead pouch, which I carry on.  The lead bag is easily opened for inspection, if required.  In some countries you can get your film developed quickly and take home the finished pictures.  Digital cameras are also a solution to the “film problem.”

The final hurdle to bringing your bargains back is the Declaration Form, which you must fill out for the Customs agent in the U.S.  If you haven’t collected more than the duty free maximum, you can lump things together in categories, including “miscellaneous.”  But, you are required to pay tax on things you didn’t buy like gifts and found items.  Just estimate their value, but be prepared to give them up or pay the tax on the value assigned by Customs.  Ideally you should have receipts for all your purchases, but, in any case, have a list of what you bought and its value in dollars.

Shopping overseas is one of the best ways to get to know another country.  I wander into grocery stores, pet stores, and service providers like dry cleaners and barber shops just to observe.  It’s a great way to practice a language in an environment where people are trying to understand and please you.  Besides, it’s fun!  The treasures you bring back will remind you of your own experiences, or communicate to a recipient that they were a part of your trip.  You remembered them while you were away.  What better way to say, “Wish you were here?”

Portugal: The Last Old Place

PORTUGAL has been called “the last old place.”  It is the least known corner of Europe—“Iberian, but not Spanish; Latin, but not Mediterranean; cosmopolitan, but not crowded.”  The people are melancholy, conservative, religious and prudent, but they also have a flair for the exotic and enjoy being different.  Portuguese people are passionately  proud of their country.  Everything about their culture speaks of the nostalgia they feel about their unique place in world history.

The first world revolution, before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the Information Revolution of the 20th, was the Geographic Revolution of the 15th century.  It was begun and lead by the Portuguese.  Always a seafaring people, the Portuguese, under the patronage of Prince Henry, began a navigation school.  By 1500, Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias and numerous other Portuguese explorers had reached the coasts of Africa, the Arabian and Malay peninsulas, the East Indies, and the Orient.  They had become the most powerful nation of the world.  The Portuguese jokingly say, “We never intended to rule the world, but rather, to buy it cheap and sell it dear.”  History has shown that in actuality, the price was very dear and the “selling” very cheap.  In 1999, Portugal gave up its last colony, Macao.

Sharing only a fifth of the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, Portugal is a small country—about the size of Indiana.  Situated on the west coast of the Peninsula, facing the Atlantic, 350 miles from north to south, Portugal’s topography is as varied as its population.  Most of Portugal’s 10 million inhabitants live in rural fishing and farming villages, while Lisbon, the capital, claims a fifth of the population.

Portugal is a matriarchal society, “spoiled” with a lot of personal freedom and not much discipline.  Its people favor patience to perseverance, and tolerance is considered the prime virtue.  They have grown up with only the vaguest sense of time constraints, and generally with a streak of independence and an unsinkable self-esteem.  Nevertheless, friendliness, especially to foreigners, is Portugal’s greatest asset.

The economy of Portugal is still based on the time-honored skills of fishing, farming and hand crafts.  Ceramic tiles and pottery, needle work, cork products, wine, olive oil, tomato paste, sardines and cod have long been the staples of trade, but the last decade has seen great growth in the service industries, including tourism.  In 1986, Portugal joined the European Community as its poorest member.  It is now the fastest growing nation in the European Community and in the summer of 1998, Portugal will host the World’s Fair.

The recorded history of Portugal began 5,000 years ago.  Phoenicians, Celts, Greeks and Carthaginians all conquered and settled in Iberia.  The Romans claimed the peninsula in 201 B.C.  and named the Portuguese portion of the empire Lusitania.  They built cities and linked them with their system of roads.  Latin became the root of both the Portuguese and Spanish languages.

During the A.D. 400’s, Germanic tribes took over until the Muslim armies arrived from North Africa in 711.     By the mid-1200’s, the Crusaders had driven out the Muslims and Castile (Spain) officially recognized Portugal’s border, the oldest in Europe.

The monarchy was overthrown in 1910 and Portugal became a republic.  However, after the instability of 45 different governments, the army overthrew the civilian government sin 1926 and put Oliveira Salazar in control.  Within a few years, Salazar became dictator.   Modern Portugal came into being in 1974, when the military leaders again overthrew the government–this time Salazar’s fascist regime, and returned the country to a republic with a parliament and a president elected by the voters.

At Home in Islay, Scotland

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”  Anita Desal

I looked down from my window seat in the little plaid-painted commuter plane to view the green and purple island below.  There I surveyed the wee Scottish island as if it were the tourist map laid out on my kitchen table back home in Texas.  It really did resemble a witch carrying a bag of coal on her back!

Twice before I’d come to Islay on the ferry from the Argyll coast of western Scotland.  I came first in 1987 on a church mission trip, and six years later, I brought my daughter.  My husband Jerry, who is adamantly opposed to sailing, accompanied me on this his first visit to Islay.

For twelve years Jerry had heard me speak about the violet heather that covers Islay’s moors in October, much like the bluebonnets that cover Texas in April.  He was not disappointed.  The breeze was cool and scented with peat that was being hand-harvested in the bogs along the roadside as we rode with our friends, James and Mary, to their white stucco cottage in Port Ellen.

Jerry and I had the bedroom on the second floor with a casement window that overlooked the harbor, just beyond their street.  The outside walls of their home, more than a century old, were a foot thick.  Just standing in front of the window made me feel as if I were looking out from a castle tower.  I imagined the bay was a large mote keeping out any and all unwanted intruders.

There was so much I wanted to share with Jerry, and new discoveries I hoped we could experience together.  Two days would not be enough time, but I reminded myself that hurrying would taint my reality of Islay.

Jerry and I slept late the next day.  Once awake, however, I remembered my urgency to explore.  I put on jeans and my Islay sweater. The “jumper” with its black sheep design had been hand-knitted for me from Islay wool.  It was a glorious day for bike riding, but there wasn’t time.  Instead, Mary chauffeured us around the island.

From the car I pointed out to Jerry the woolen mill, the whiskey distilleries and the WWI monument to the American sailors who drowned off the coast of Islay.  Our first destination was the Kildalton Cross, Islay’s most famous treasure.    Hewn from a singe slab of local, gray-green stone, the ninth century, eight-foot Celtic cross stands unbroken and well-preserved enough for us to recognize the Bible heroes carved on its east and west faces.  Nearby in the ruins of a medieval church, a grave slab, carved with a depiction of a man in armor, spawned our speculation about what the twelfth-century patron, the Lord of the Isle, might have looked like.  “All of the MacDonalds in the world come from Islay,” Mary bragged.  Indeed, the church had stone arches!

We stopped at Claggain Bay, where the small, smooth beach stones were multicolored and resembled a giant’s marble game laid out in the circular cove.  Jerry spotted gray seals basking in the sun atop some rocks in the bay.  We passed a field with two prehistoric standing stones, and it was simple enough to climb over the stone fence to get a closer look.  Mary took our picture with the Bronze Age monolith, and then showed me how to gather heather by its roots.

In the town of Bowmore, we visited the eighteenth-century, Church of Scotland “Round Church.”  Just around the corner is the little Baptist Church where I worked the first time I came to Islay.  I was so anxious to revisit my favorite shops that our anticipated lunch of fish and chips was postponed until I could browse at Roy’s emporium, The Celtic House.  Next-door was the bakery where I always buy Empire biscuits. We ate the jelly-filled, cut out cookies as an appetizer.

Mary knows and spoke to everyone.  One woman we meet on the street exclaimed, “You’re wearing my jumper.  It must have been ten years ago, at least, that I knitted it.  I’ve had hand surgery and can’t knit anymore.”  I wanted to tell her how much pleasure and how many wonderful memories her sweater had given me, but I am overwhelmed by the serendipity of our meeting.  Instead, I told her that I had returned with my husband, and hoped that that was evidence enough of my devotion to Islay.

The next day, I insisted that we take the five-minute ferry ride to Jura, Islay’s neighbor island to the north.  Mary and James’ daughter, Ruth, was the county nurse and the only medical personnel on Jura at the time.  The cottage where she lived was separated from the beach by her rose garden, which was in full bloom.

We went inside for a cup of tea and scones. Hours later I checked the time only to realize that we had just missed the last ferry returning to Islay.  Ruth raced us to the pier in her little blue Audi, which doubled as her mobile clinic and traveling office.  She honked sharply three times at the departing barge.  The captain recognized her car, and teasingly admonished her from the ferry’s loudspeaker.  “Will the nurse from Jura kindly set her watch with the rest of us?”  The all-but-empty boat turned back to rescue us.

Too soon it was time for us to go.  Jerry said he didn’t think he could actually live in a place where the sheep out-number the people, “but it was a nice place to visit.”  I’ll be back, someday, but until then, I’ll have my heather bouquet to remind me of my island home in Scotland.

A Home, A Haven, A Hotel – The American Colony in Jerusalem

Eight years after the 1873 tragic shipwreck that took the lives of their four daughters, Horatio and Anna Spafford, along with baby Grace, three-year-old Bertha, and fourteen friends from their Chicago church, sailed to Palestine.  They sought the peace that Horatio had so courageously written about when he penned the words to the song, It Is Well with My Soul, over the water where his shipwrecked daughters had lost their lives.

The group arrived in Jerusalem, which was part of the Ottoman Empire controlled by the Turks, without specific plans other than their desire to live a simple life for a few quiet years.  They purchased a house near the Damascus Gate in the Old City, and the group soon became known as the American Colony.

The Colony offered charity to its neighbors, both Jewish and Islamic.  The house on Mamilla Road became a gathering place for Horatio’s Bible study classes, singing and social events.  Child welfare and settlement work began when Anna befriended an Arab resident whose baby would not nurse.  Anna introduced the family to Nestlé’s Condensed Milk fed from a bottle.

In 1895, the year after Horatio died, Anna, Bertha, and Grace Spafford returned to the United States to raise funds for their work in the Holy City, which Anna had decided would become the family’s permanent home.  More residents returned with them to Jerusalem and within two years, thirty-eight farmers and their families from Nas, Sweden joined the Colony.  A larger residence was needed.  The Colony then purchased a former Turkish palace outside the city with several acres of vineyard for farming.

Cottage industries, employing Arabs and Jews, wove cloth, supplied bakery goods, and planted the city’s first potato crop enabling the American Colony to emerge from poverty.  Young people came for teas, receptions, literary and art clubs, and a choir and band performed on Sunday afternoons.  The Palestinian Director of Public Instruction asked Anna Spafford to take charge of the Moslem Girls’ School, which she did.

The American Colony officially became a hotel in 1902 when Barron Ustinov (grandfather to British actor Peter Ustinov) who owned a hotel in Jaffa, made arrangements with the Spaffords to take in some of his visiting European guests.

During World War I, the American Colony started a soup kitchen, feeding Syrians, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Russians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  The Turkish general in charge of Jerusalem became quite emotional when, on the very day America entered the war and broke diplomatic relations with the Turks, the Spaffords offered to nurse both the British and Turkish wounded.

On December 9, 1917, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem came to tell Anna of his intended surrender to the British that morning.  Anna insisted that he take a white truce flag, which she tore from a Colony hospital bed sheet.  (It now hangs in the Imperial Military Museum in London.)   Before the mayor left the house, he joined the Christians present in the room in singing The Doxology in praise to God for the end of the war.

Under British rule, the American Colony expanded its relief work, establishing a sewing enterprise which hired eight hundred Arab and Jewish women to make and distribute garments throughout the Holy Land.  In 1925 the Anna Spafford Baby Home was born, and soon after, the Infant Welfare Center with a playground, toilets, showers, first-aid facility, and recreational equipment was added.

During World War II, the Infant Welfare Center was enlarged to serve all the sick, regardless of age or religion.  Three years after the end of the Second World War, The Colony was once again situated in the midst of conflict from its unique vantage point, literally on the border between the Israelis and Arabs. The hotel was struck numerous times in the crossfire, but both sides respected the Colony’s neutrality, even to the point of granting a temporary cease-fire so The Colony could bury one of its members.  The International Red Cross opened a casualty clearing station in The Colony’s big dining room.  The American Colony became a part of Jordan at the conclusion of Israel’s War for Independence in May of 1948, and then returned to Israel in 1967 when Israelis again took control of all of Jerusalem.

The American Colony continues to be an oasis of peace for Arabs, Jews, and Christians in Jerusalem.  International journalists, diplomats, tourists, and, no doubt, a spy or two have taken haven in the three buildings that currently house the eighty-four room hotel.  In 1992 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Faisal Hussein, a descendent of the original owner of the palace who had sold the home to Horatio Spafford, and representatives of the Israeli government met in Room 16 of the American Colony Hotel for the secret talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords.

The American Colony Hotel, now managed by Gauer Hotels of Switzerland, is still owned by the descendants of the Spafford family, who serve on the board of directors.   For one hundred and twenty-five years, the American Colony has been the life work of four generations of Spaffords.  At various times controlled by the Turks, British, Jordanians, and the Israelis, the American Colony has a unique place in Middle East history.  It stands as an example of and a hope for the peace in Jerusalem.

Western European Culture

Observed by Jerry and Janice Byrd for work with International Commission-2006

Western Europe can be likened to Samaria (for Americans) in Jesus’ command to reach all people.  We share a history, a common heritage, a physical similarity, and a parallel development in education, government, and language, but our similarities often cause conflicts and our subtle differences seem to loom larger than ever.

  1. W. Europeans do not see our work ethic as good.  Hard labor, long hours of employment, our “time is money” concept, and upward mobility are not valued.  Instead, a twenty-five-hour work-week, which allows time for daily personal leisure activities, eight weeks of paid vacation annually, and a contentment with the status quo are the ingredients of European happiness.
  2. W. Europeans are suspicious of individual achievement.  They take pride in group accomplishments.  Ambitions and goals are for their extended families, communities and countries.  Competition is not considered a good motivation.
  3. Countries in W. Europe have only recently known a “separation of church and state.”  Even now, secularism has become the new state religion.  Many European governments demand, support, and promote secularism, tolerating nothing else.  It is hard to overestimate how little Christianity has to do with public discourse.  Even in “Catholic” countries, with a few exceptions like Ireland and Malta, the church is kept out of daily life precisely because it has a paid position in a building, on Sundays.

Over the last thirty to forty years, Western Europe has experienced radical change.  The rise of “post-modern” thinking, as opposed to the “modern” thinking of the last 300 years, has further separated American and Western European values, and has caused major miscommunications, complicating even further the process of communicating the message of the Church.

Post-modern thinking is neither right nor wrong; it is a type of thinking that emphasizes relationships, processes, communities, the unknown supernatural world, and relevancy to daily life.  It devalues scientific proof, the need to know everything, organizations, and self-assurance.  Like all belief systems, in practice, it looks differently in the lives of Believers than it does in the populace in general.

Although post-modern thinking is now being talked about in the U.S., it is entrenched in Western Europe in anyone younger than fifty, including church members.  Communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to Europeans means that we must know their culture.  (They already know our language, thanks to the internet.)

Western Europe has become very ethnically diverse. Large groups of immigrants inhabit almost every country, but have not become integrated, in the American sense.  (Think salad bowl, not melting-pot.) European tolerance is actually a self-protecting indifference.  Ethnic groups have been “tolerated” as segregated and isolated communities, but the host governments have done little to affect the language, religion, or customs of their newest citizens.  That is beginning to change.

Within twenty years, large groups from the Middle East and Africa (Muslims) will threaten to dominate the national populations in countries like France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Holland where immigration policies have been the most liberal, and where population growth among the immigrants is two or three times that of the nationals.  Assimilating the large influx of Muslim immigrants is a huge problem for European governments, but, at the same time, it is an equally gigantic opportunity for the churches in Europe.

For the first time in their lives Islamic peoples are free to discuss, question, explore, and choose their beliefs.  These immigrants have come to realize their political clout and personal freedoms.  Some have reacted with violence to their marginalization, while others, driven by curiosity or despair, have gone searching for the truth.  Churches are reaching out to these immigrants, developing relationships and ministering to their needs.

Because faith communities are so important to the Believers of Western Europeans, they want IC’s participants to have a vital relationship with their own churches at home.  (Lone-Ranger Christians do not exist in Western Europe.)  In fact, they want a “church team” to partner with so that can continue for years to come the sharing and encouraging begun during the project.  They expect to have a long-term relationship with their guests and their guests’ home churches.  Some will come to the States to visit, and will want to correspond through email.

Most of the work on an IC project in Western Europe will be part of a local church’s relationship-building strategy for reaching their city.  They will spend the first few days of the project doing nothing but getting to know you.  Your presence is their excuse to plan and execute events designed to connect with their culture in Western Europe.  They don’t need your abilities, and will probably question your ideas, but church members, most of whom will speak English, will appreciate your encouragement and counsel in their homes and in numerous private conversations.

Once they trust you, the church members will introduce you to their friends and you will have many opportunities to discuss your relationship with God with unbelievers.  Be prepared to dialog from your own experiences, not the Bible, but do not expect people to make a commitment to Christ after hearing for the first time the facts about Jesus.  (We’ve seen this happen, but we don’t expect it.)

In everything you do, connect people to the local church.  Trust the church members to continue the God-conversations with the “seekers” even after you’ve returned home.  A large part of your work in Western Europe is to encourage the Believers.  Remember that God is at work in Western Europe.  He still speaks to the hearts of people, even post-moderns, through His Holy Spirit, convicting them of their sin and of His righteousness.

In Western Europe true partnerships can happen because we come as peers in every respect.  We go to facilitate THEIR work for the Lord.  Every project is an opportunity to learn from the Europeans as we serve with them.

Latvia: Looking West, Living East

by Jerry Byrd

The Republic of Latvia is land of contrasts and contradictions, but in many ways very innocent and pure, like a child who has been raised in the conservative country-side and now finds itself suddenly thrust into a fast-paced and a-bit-scary large and cosmopolitan city.  It is one the three “Baltic” countries, along with Estonia and Lithuania, which were forcibly included in the Soviet Union.  Latvia chaffed under the Soviet boot until finally being set free in 1990 as the iron curtain fell.  It had originally declared its independence from Germany in 1918 near the close of World War I.  It joined the European Union in 2004, a process that will continue for several years until it is fully integrated.

Today, the country looks as though it “belongs” in Eastern Europe:  the architecture, the communist-built (and crumbling) high-rise apartments, men wearing fur hats, most everyone appearing to prefer dark and conservative clothing, and a simple agricultural model with raw wood being a major export.  One unusual item of note is that Latvia is the nesting area for the storks of Europe.  Their nests are everywhere.  The country wraps around the Baltic Sea like an old woman’s shawl, giving the county an abundance of humidity in summer and snow in winter.

Although Latvians certainly appear to live in the “East”, virtually every Latvian see’s their country’s future connected to the “West.”  Most love all things western and are intentionally moving to embrace a life on the Western European/American model.

Latvia is relatively sparsely populated with only 2.27 million people, but whose population is shrinking due to mobility enhancement by being a part of the E.U. and the desire to go elsewhere to seek improved job opportunities.

Christian missionaries arrived in 1180. When the local people did not readily convert to, and strongly opposed, Christianity, German Crusaders were sent into Latvia to convert the pagan population. By 1211, Christianity had effective control with the foundation stone for the Dome Cathedral in Riga, (now its capital and largest city) having been laid.

For the next 700 years, the Swedes, Russians, Germans and Poles successively fought over pieces and parts of Latvia.  World War I devastated the country. When independence was proclaimed in 1918, what followed was a chaos that resulted in three governments, each claiming to be the rightful government of the country.

World War II brought first Russian, then German occupation of Latvia, both of whom dealt harshly with the people.  More than 200,000 Latvian citizens died during World War II, including approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation. Latvian soldiers fought on both sides of the conflict. The Soviets reoccupied the country toward the end of the war, and further mass deportations followed as the country was forcibly collectivized and Sovietized.  42,975 persons were deported in 1949, and by 1959 the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62% and the Latvian language was suppressed.

In 1989 the separation of Latvia from the Soviet Union began and was complete by August 21, 1991.  Latvia’s parliament was elected in 1993, and Russia completed its military withdrawal in 1994.  By 2004, Latvia had joined NATO and the European Union. The Latvian language was made official and complicated issues of citizenship (i.e. what to do about Russians who stayed in Latvia) were being addressed.

Since the year 2000, Latvia has had one of the highest economic growth rates in Europe.  However, it has recently dropped, partly due to active economic migration, mostly to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Latvia plans to introduce the Euro as the country’s currency but, due to the inflation being above E.U.’s guidelines, this is unlikely to happen before 2010.

While most Latvians understand and speak Russian, it is a reminder of the sad days under the Soviets and most ethnic Latvians are not pleased to speak it.

The largest religion in Latvia is Christianity, although only 7% of the population attends religious services regularly. The largest groups in 2006 are Lutheran – 400,000, Roman Catholic – 450,000, and Eastern Orthodox – 350,000.  According a recent poll, 37% of Latvian citizens responded that “they believe there is a god”, whereas 49% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force” and 10% that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force”. Lutheranism was much stronger before the Soviet occupation, when it was a majority religion, but since then Lutheranism in all the Baltic States has declined to a much greater extent than Roman Catholicism has. About 40% of the total population is not affiliated with a specific religion.

International Commission has assisted with evangelism projects from the earliest time of freedom from Soviet domination.  The first project was introduced by Carlos Gruber, an IC board member who was an ethnic Latvian who lived in America, but never stopped loving and praying for his precious homeland.  He was a musician, evangelist and global part-time missionary and was given the highest civilian award by the Latvian Congress in recognition of his service to never let Latvia be forgotten while a part of USSR.

Prior IC projects were conducted in 1995, 1999, 2006, 2007 and 2008.  In addition to these “standard projects”, a Youth Project was hosted by about 6 Latvian churches in2006.  IC has a strong relationship with the Latvian Baptist Union and its Secretary General, which they call the “Bishop”.  Baptist pastors in Latvia often wear a clerical collar (as do Baptists in a few other parts of the world).  Additional projects are envisioned for each year well into the future.

Because the culture is “old” and “new”, “Eastern” and “Western” and structured (traditional) and chaotic (post-modern), the outreach material and approaches will be a mixture of the typical Western Europe and the traditional (Catholic).  Some churches will have services every night, some will have a few evening services along with other night-time evangelistic events, and others may have no evening church services at all and focus on home-based and other outreach activities.  Normally, the urban churches will be more “post-modern” and innovative while the rural churches can be expected to be more traditional.

Food served in the rural churches is basic but good and much they grow themselves.  There will be some items that you may not recognize.  In the city, the food is a bit more sophisticated and in the headquarters hotel and other similar properties, it is world class.

Participants will find many indicators of a Latvian history rooted in the East, in old Russia.  But when you see their eyes and their hearts, they will be facing the West.

Irish Culture and Evangelism

by Janice Byrd    February 2008

Christianity came to Ireland around AD350, but one hundred years later Saint Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary and changed the world forever.  Patrick had been born in England and kidnapped by Celtic pirates as a young man.  Isolated in the wilderness herding cattle, he meditated on the scriptures he’d learned in catechism, prayed, and encountered God in nature.  After six years, Patrick was lead by God through a dream to escape to France.  He became a priest, and twenty-five years later returned to the place of his captivity as history’s first missionary bishop.

Patrick knew the language and the culture, but his way of evangelizing was very different from the Roman (Catholic) way which demanded that the people be civilized (Romanized) first.  Instead, Patrick and his disciples would move near a tribal settlement and befriend the king and other leaders.  The team would meet with people, pray for the sick, mediate conflicts, tell stories, sing songs, engage in drama, counsel and answer questions.  Typically they would spend months ministering as a faith community, bringing the Gospel to the people in forms they could understand.

By the time Patrick died twenty-eight years later, he had baptized tens of thousands of people, planted about 700 churches, and ordained 1000 priests.  These indigenous Christian churches multiplied and sent out missionaries to all of Europe.  Irish Christians initiated social and legal reforms, and, indeed, “saved civilization” by preserving literature and Biblical manuscripts, which were being destroyed by the invading Vikings during the Middle Ages.

During the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII of England, who broke from the Roman Catholic Church because it would not permit him to divorce, forced the Irish chiefs to surrender their lands.  Henry’s successor, Elizabeth I, tightened Britain’s hold on Ireland by establishing Scottish settlers on the lands Henry had seized.  By 1704 the first of the Penal Codes were passed restricting Catholics from owning land, and banning Catholics from voting, attending schools and military service.

One Irish leader after another was killed in the process of rebellion and in the fight for independence.  Ireland officially became a part of Great Britain in 1800.  Two million people died during the potato famine in mid-century and a mass emigration, largely to the United States, began.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood/Army (IRA) was finally successful in creating an Irish free state in 1921.  Six counties in the North, whose English descendents from the Protestant settlers of centuries past, chose to remain with Great Britain.  They became the country of Northern Ireland with Belfast as their capitol.

The Catholics in the North continued their terrorist efforts against the Protestants and the British.  Rioting, hunger strikes, and violence escalated in the 1970’s.  It wasn’t until 1998 that a peace agreement was signed, and it was just a few years ago that the leaders of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland actually agreed to cooperate.  Tensions have lessoned, but in Belfast, the emotional baggage and talk of “the troubles” still permeates daily life.  The Irish mafia and other radical groups operate underground for the most part.

In truth, the British would rather not have any part of Ireland.  Prime Minister Tony Blair tried unsuccessfully to disengage, but Northern Ireland has enjoyed prosperity, and does not want to leave the security that is Great Britain.  Only now are tourists and the first wave of immigrants coming to Ireland.  New home construction and economic development are beginning in the Republic of Ireland.

The Protestant churches, including Baptists, were never divided between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  All Protestants, including non-evangelicals and evangelicals, make up only four percent of the population.  Ninety-five percent of the people of the Republic of Ireland are practicing Catholics.  The new immigrants are not, and they are establishing and growing large, ethnically segregated Baptist churches with no connection to the Irish people.

Evangelicals are reaching out to the Irish Catholics by connecting with the Bible.  Unlike the younger post-moderns who reside in the few large cities, most Irishmen acknowledge the authority of the Bible although they have never read it.  They know that they should know what it teaches, and many are curious enough to ask questions, search the internet, or even join a Bible study group.  In his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter talks about how the ancient Celts initiated a relationship by connecting with people’s common beliefs.  The Bible is a good starting point for a spiritual discussion in Ireland.

Churches in the cities are trying to reach out through “reconciliation” programs, which basically means lots of conversations, singing, storytelling, social service, youth and children ministries, and just getting to know people.  The Irish love Americans which is rather rare with Europeans these days.  They welcome visitors into their homes, even strangers.  Expect a “cuppa” strong Irish tea to be served.

The weather of Ireland influences their culture in every way, making possible the golf greens, misty moors, and peat bogs of our stereotypes.  The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful!  The harbors house a host of colorful boats; the sheep rule the roads, and it is always so gloriously GREEN.  An Irishman once told me to look up at a nearby mountaintop as a surefire way of predicting the weather, “If you can see the peak, it is going to rain soon,” he said.  “If you can’t, it’s raining already.”

Irish pubs are a way of life.  Unlike the bars found in America, pubs serve as community recreational centers, family restaurants, cafes, convenience stores, and meeting places.  Of course, they do serve alcohol all day long, and late at night you might find patrons who had imbibed too much.  Pubs are a place to hang out for people of all ages and walks of life, and they are a natural place to strike up a conversation about anything.

Irish food can be described in word—potatoes.  They eat potatoes with every meal, and often several types of potatoes are served together.  Traditional “meat and potato” items like shepherd’s pie, pot roast, lamb chops, steak-and-kidney pie, as well as “fish-‘n-chips” and casserole items are common fare.  The Irish like locally produced food which means fruits and vegetables are seasonal.  “Organic” is nothing new to them, and just another way the Irish have of being GREEN.

The Irish government is encouraging the use of the Gaelic/Irish language.  Proficient students can get extra credit for learning it.  In the Republic, all the road signs are written in English and Gaelic.  Irish poetry and proverbs seem to be written on everything, including sugar packets, shirts, and ceramics.

Our common heritage and mutual admiration unite Americans and the Irish, making spiritual conversations natural and friendly.  We depend on the national Believers to make the connections to their friends and family with whom they have a relationship.  We work in partnership, church-to-church.  The Irish churches expect to have an ongoing relationship with you and your church.  They will often return your visit.

Because they speak English (sort of), they will often talk with you about their personal problems, things they could not discuss with their fellow church members.  A lot of ministry takes place in the homes where we stay.  God has a remarkable way of matching up hosts and guests.  One thing is for sure, just like the song says, “. . .they’re sure to steal your heart away.”


Going Dutch: The Culture and Christian History of the Netherlands

by Janice Byrd

What is now the country of the Netherlands was first Christianized in the eighth century.  The first years of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther missed the Netherlands, but by the seventeenth century the second wave of the Reformation brought the Anabaptists, the Mennonites (founded by a Dutch Anabaptist Menno Simons), and the Calvinists.  The Dutch even fought a civil war between the liberal and orthodox Calvinists.

The Netherlands won its independence from Catholic Spain, with seven Protestant counties and one Catholic.  (The largest county was called Holland and to this day, the entire country of the Netherlands is often referred to as Holland.)  Calvinism became the official state religion in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Netherlands became a haven for all religiously persecuted people.  The country gained a reputation for its tolerance, and immigrants poured into every area of the tiny country.  By the end of the eighteenth century, half of Amsterdam’s population was first generation immigrants.  French Huguenots and the Pilgrims from England also came to the Netherlands.

By the late nineteenth century, a system of four religious “pillars” had developed.  The orthodox Calvinists, other Protestants (including Baptists), Catholics, and Jews, which were 1/8 of the population in Amsterdam, tolerated each other and coexisted peaceably, each in their own culture.  This is the Dutch definition of “tolerance.”

During World War II, most of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was exterminated (the largest percentage of any country, including Germany).  Like most European countries after the War, Netherlands began to secularize.  It is now one of the least religious countries in Europe.  By the end of the twentieth century, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, prostitution, and drug use had been legalized.

Dutch culture today tolerates practically anything and anyone.  There is no death penalty and only a handful of people are ever incarcerated for more than five years because virtually nothing is illegal.  The legality or propriety of any action is determined by the time, place and circumstance of its happening.  There are designated places for legal drug use and prostitution.  There are rules and distinctions for euthanasia and abortions which determine their rightness or wrongness.

The newest challenges to Dutch tolerance and “pillarization” are the Islamic immigrants from Indonesia, Suriname, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan.  Only recently, after the murders of two Dutch leaders by Muslim extremists has the government started restricting its very liberal immigration policy.

The Dutch government is very socialistic–with universal health care, years of unemployment benefits at 80% of salary, and over three months of paid vacation time for everyone.  The standard of living is high although the Netherlands has a higher density population than any country on earth including India and China.

Netherlands is a picturesque place, which still looks like the classic images of Holland.  Old windmills and new ones are everywhere, especially in the south, as are dikes.  People still wear wooden shoes in their gardens, and cheese is eaten at every meal.  There are more kinds of yogurt than you can imagine.  Jersey milk cows dot the landscape as do flowers of all types.  May is tulip time, but the blooms don’t stay long on their stalks.  Farmers cut them to allow the nutrients to go to the bulb, which is the real crop.  If you are lucky enough to see the fields in bloom, you will be overwhelmed by their beauty!

The Dutch eat lots of bread!  I once had a lady tell me that her husband was a diabetic and his doctor had restricted his bread consumption to seven slices a day!  Breakfast is usually bread with cheese, jam, chocolate sprinkles, or meat.  Lunch is always cold cut sandwiches.  They don’t eat potato chips with their sandwiches and think it’s strange that we do.  Chips are just for snacking.  They put mayonnaise on French fries, but not on sandwiches.  Potatoes are eaten with the evening meal which is usually earlier than other continental countries, around 5:30 to 6:00 pm.  They love cookies of all kinds, but gingersnaps are a specialty.

There are whole parking facilities for bicycles.  Bikes have their own lanes, lights, and the right of way.  You will still see WWII vintage bicycles in use especially in the cities where newer ones would likely be stolen, and there’s really no need for gears.  I’ve seen couples well into their 80’s with one on a handicapped scooter and the other on a bike.  Don’t be surprised if you’re given the use of a bicycle while you’re staying in a home.

After a short time in the Netherlands, you’ll understand the meaning of our expression “Dutch treat.”  (Of course, they have never heard of that expression and might be offended by your use of it.)  The Dutch are not stingy, but their history as traders is embedded in their DNA, and their love of a bargain far surpasses the Scots’ idea of thriftiness.

Just about everyone except seniors speaks English or is learning it, which makes their propensity for frankness all the more direct.  Don’t be taken back when a Dutchman asks you how much money you earn, why you are divorced, or any other personal question, even if they’ve just met you.  The Dutch have an opinion about everything and they’re not timid about voicing it.  They speak loudly and often sound rude to our ears.  There’s no “beating around the bush” or any attempt at diplomacy especially in their second language.

The Dutch are the tallest group of people on earth which can cause problems considering the size of their homes and cars.  Needless to say, they don’t require a lot of personal space and will stand inches away from you when talking.  They love to brag about their country.  From the way they talk you’d think they were from someplace really big—like Texas, instead of being from a very small country, much of it reclaimed from the sea.

The Dutch are deep thinkers, yet as fun-loving as the sailors.  They are confident, resilient, and can laugh at themselves.  They love their royal family, art, and the traditions that make them truly a unique people.  They value education and order.  They are punctual!

In my opinion, the Dutch are a lot like Americans.  (Don’t point that out to them, however, unless you want an argument.)  They like to argue amongst themselves, and the Baptists are divided between the union and non-union churches.  They like to plan, organize, and direct activities.  Sometimes their sense of tolerance makes them seem indifferent or two-faced.  They hesitate to say that anyone is wrong.  They root for the underdog–just like us.  Unlike other European countries, they have sided with the U.S. on almost all international issues.

The Dutch Christians have asked to work with Americans.  They admire our passion, efficiency, and ingenuity.  They want to trust us.  They just don’t want to be dictated to.  They are indeed our “Dutch uncle.”

Austria: Edelweiss and Anschluss

by Janice Byrd

I suppose any American over the age of thirty, associates the European country of Austria with the 1962 movie The Sound of Music.  The song “Edelweiss” (the Austrian state flower), the talk of the 1938 German “Anschluss” (literally, “joining”, but understood in Austria as a take-over), and the breath-taking beauty of the Alps were hallmarks of the movie, and still epitomize Austrian culture today.

The Austria-Hungarian Empire was vast and very Catholic.  Even after the Protestant Reformation, the ruling Hapsburg dynasty (1273-1913) prevented Protestants from becoming politically influential.  Although as much as two-thirds of the population sympathized with the new ideas of the Reformation, ruthless persecution by the Hapsburgs forced most of these would-be Protestants to emigrate or revert to Catholicism.

Much later in the nineteenth century, the Austria-Hungarian constitution officially gave religious freedom to twelve religious groups.  (Baptists were not one of the recognized groups.)  In fact, the main Protestant churches (Lutherans from Germany and Reformed from Switzerland) were “Catholicized” to the extent that they kept infant baptism, failed to teach personal conversion, and became quite liberal and socialistic.  However, small groups of Evangelical Christians, like the Baptist in the nineteenth century and the Pentecostals in the twentieth century, formed and met throughout Austria.

After WWI, the great Austria-Hungarian Empire was broken up and Austria was arbitrarily divided into a small country of 7,000,000 people with little patriotism or pride of country.  As a German speaking country that had fought and lost with Germany in the Great War, the Austrians struggled to find their own identity.  So, when Hitler came along in the 1930’s suggesting that the two countries be joined together, the Austrians willingly went along with the Anschluss—except for a few like Captain Von Trapp (Sound of Music).  Today Austrians consider themselves the first Nazi victims.

Austria’s large population Jews is gone now, except for the recent immigrants. Foreign workers, of all religions, continue to come to Austria from the former East Germany, Turkey, Serbia, Romania, and other Central Asian countries because the economy of Austria is one of the strongest in Western Europe.

Austria prides itself on maintaining its neutral position during the Cold War.  Vienna was often the only meeting point between the USSR and the West.  The few who were actually allowed to leave Russia (mostly Jews) before 1989 were taken to Vienna.  Now Austria sees herself as a diplomat between the Middle East and the West.

Baptists consider themselves Protestants, part of the “free churches,” meaning they are not subsidized by the government as are the Lutherans and the Reformed.  Baptists are seen as a Bible-oriented movement, more political than the Charismatics, and open to liberal thought.  The average Austrian’s perception of Baptists is that it is “an American church-like religion.”  Baptists are interesting, exotic, but not connected to Austrian culture.  There are only twenty Baptist churches in all of Austria.

Most Catholics and main-line Protestants are nominal, if that.  Religious affiliation is lower in the cities, especially in Vienna.  After WWII, socialism secularized the country, and even Catholics now practice what they call “baptismal certificate Catholicism.”  Because the government taxes anyone from a recognized religion, many people have withdrawn their names from church roles ceasing to be even nominal Christians.

Scandals within the Catholic Church during the 1990’s (one involving the Archbishop of Vienna) have caused thousands to abandon their traditional faith in resentment and cynicism. Socialism is on the decline, as well, after thirty years of corruption and greed.  Many Austrians are looking for something and/or someone to trust.  One of the political parties took as their slogan, “Lederhosen and laptops.”  They seem to be caught between tradition and technology.

All of Austria has something of the Baroque (17th century) about it—from the custom of hand-kissing, the old-world coffee shops, the waltz, the oversized sculptures, and the architecture of spires and steeples.  Even the cuisine has changed very little for hundreds of years.

Homemade pastries (like apple strudel), Hungarian goulash, Wienerschnitzel (Vienna breaded escalope of veal) dumplings from the Czechs, pasta from the Italian, and kasspatzle, an Austrian cross between dumplings and pasta, sweet and savory pancakes, and are heavy and rich befitting a cold, woodsy, outdoors lifestyle, as are the ubiquitous beer “gardens”.  The Austrians love game meat, fish and pheasant, soup, marzipan (deserts made with almond paste) and chocolate.  In fact, the world-famous Sachertorte is named for the Viennese Sacher Hotel where it was invented.

The Arts are a very large source of pride for the Austrians.  Musicians like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Haydn, artists such as Gustov Klimt, doctors (Freud) and scientists from the past are still celebrated.  Alpine athletes, Olympians, and soccer players (Austria hosted the European Championship in 2008) seem to be the greatest source of pride and national identity today.  Austrians love nature, hiking, and the outdoors.

As a people they value courtesy, humility, family, gratitude, loyalty and security.  They are sophisticated and diplomatic, made so by their geography and by the diverse ideologies that surround them.  They are both artistic and logical.  They’re not afraid of emotions or facts, which makes them the epitome of post-modern thinkers. It is their nature to keep a low profile.  An old Austrian adage says that “happiness is in a quiet corner.”  For centuries, Austria has been crossed by foreign tribes, soldiers and traders.  Many of them stayed to make their home.  Austrians have always had a reputation for being a hospitable people, and that remains a part of their new national identity.