Workshop for an empathic understanding in Dortmund, Germany

Workshop for an empathic understanding in Dortmund, Germany

„We’re looking forward to the next meeting“

I often perceive it as surprisingly wonderful to meet people from different cultures. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are without any potholes. That’s the way of my personal experience. Well, my wife Ulrike and I had an idea. Under the slogan: ‘Decipher the code’, we had invited to a one day seminar in February.

Because we didn’t want the atmosphere of a conference   and because we were not so many people, we could enjoy those six hours in our living room. That was terrific!

People, who liked talking a lot, listened surprisingly closely within the context of the workshop. Others found space for their stories.

Francine was one of them. She spoke up, when the question arose:”When did you perceive yourself as strange, different and unfamiliar?”

The teacher from Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo is known to me for a couple of years. But I didn’t know anything about how she had felt during the beginning of her stay in Germany. She had never spoken about that issue.

„We didn’t know anything. They have just given us some money and they told us where the supermarket was located to buy some groceries!“ recalled the mother of four boys : “But we had just arrived in Germany with our kids a couple of hours ago. We had no idea of anything!  That was very bad for me.“ Even today her emotions are almost graspable. „ In Goma we would have cooked for the newly arrived“, tells the pedagogue, „ but here they slipped the keys in our hands and left us alone.”

And I was wondering how fragmentarily the German hosts seemed to know the needs of their international guest despite decades of professional experiences.

I ask myself the question: How empathic am I?

Dirk got some new inspiration too. As a teacher of the Matthias Claudius School in Bochum he has been cooperating for years with the Majengo Institute in Goma, DRC and the Rainbow House of Hope in Kampala, Uganda. Meanwhile he has got a lot of friends in the East African country. He goes there as often as possible. So he is an old hand indeed. I was all the more surprised when Dirk summarized thoughtfully after the workshop: “Only today I realize, that a ‚no‘will be perceived as a serious personal rejection in many culture! “

During the dialogue it is important to listen carefully and to give space to each other. The word is no weapon. Nobody should be slained by arguments. Several small things were spread on an old table cloth:

a stone, a small wooden heart, a prickly hedgehog and a small drawer.

These items are not part of a dogma. Though they are modifiable they have been deliberately chosen.


Jean Gottfried takes the little wooden drawer. He turns it to and fro, takes a look around and starts telling:”I just acceded to my new pastorate and wanted to give some pleasure to my German counterpart during this Advent season”. And then theologian with a PhD continues: “So I got going with a sack of potatoes, rice and a bottle of oil. My sons I took with me”.

Finally the Congolese stood in front of his colleague’s house. In the dusk he rang the bell and the wife of his fellow pastor opened the door. There was no greeting. There was no introducing. The presence of this unknown man provoked a short question: „ Do you need help?” That was what I was asked.” explains the representative for mission, ecumenism and responsibility for the world. He shakes his head saying: “I will never ever forget that!”

Though they are academics and work in Germany they are treated automatically as helpless and needy people.

Listening to this episode I had to laugh loudly. And I thought that this gesture did Jean Gottfried good.


We had no paid experts invited for the workshop. And we had no talks either. All participants carried their expert knowledge in themselves.

Every single person experienced her or himself as valuable. And they look forward for the meetings to come.

We took Francine into town to an African food store. She wanted to buy some plantains for dinner for her family.

Written by Tom E. Laengner, Ambassador of GPENreformation in Germany