Sitting on the other side…

DSC_0501One of the strange things about becoming a student at my stage in life is that I am finding out just how different it is on the other side of the desk. In the first few days here at IMC we were deluged with information – or so it seemed to me: timetables, rotas, introductions, guided tours, schedules, new faces and so much more. I kept thinking of induction days at the start of each new year in my previous job and how much information I loaded onto the students – expecting them to take it all on board and, no doubt, misreading their glazed smiles as evidence of understanding instead of indications of a serious dose of information overload.

Thirty-five years ago, in my early days as a primary school teacher, I remember having very little interest in what the children’s parents thought or had to say about their children’s education – teacher training did not include matters like that in those days. But then it all changed when I became a parent myself and stood outside the school gate, joining in the conversations with other parents about the latest happenings inside the school walls. I had opinions about my daughters’ education and I wanted their teachers to listen! I had found a new commitment to parental involvement in education and it stayed with me for the rest of my career.

So what is my point here? Just one more story… A few weeks ago, as part of our course here at IMC, we had some training in conflict resolution. One of the activities involved us sitting in pairs with a spare chair between us: Person A listened and observed while Person B expressed their opinion on something they felt strongly about; then Person B moved to the empty chair and tried to present the opposite point of view with equal conviction. We had a lot of fun doing the role play but the point came across strongly: literally sitting in someone else’s seat helped us identify with another opinion. Apparently Henry Ford said: ‘If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own’. Maybe it’s not too late to learn a new lesson for life!

One way or Return?

It’s a one way ticket to the Netherlands! We’re going by boat in old-fashioned missionary style though it will be a lot more comfortable in 2016 than two hundred years ago. In some senses, it’s no big deal. Amsterdam is an hour and a half’s flight from Belfast and an hour from Birmingham. map-portsThe level of spoken English in The Netherlands is amazing (embarrassing actually), there’s a Lidl store a few yards from where we’ll be staying for the first couple of months, BBC TV channels come as standard with most internet packages and we don’t even need a visa.   It’s not as if we’re going to the other end of the world like some of the rest of our group at IMC.

Nevertheless, buying a one way ticket has a significant psychological effect. We’re going and it’s not just for a holiday or short term visit. We’re going and will have to start building new relationships and new work routines. We’re going and don’t yet know where we will end up living for the long term. We’re going, but not sure for exactly how long or where exactly we will return to in the UK.

Even though I’ve travelled to Amsterdam or Prague many times over the past few years buying a one way ticket on this occasion feels very different. The journey will soon begin!

The day I wrestled with an alligator…

Yep, it was just another ordinary day at the International Mission Centre for me and Dot. It’s all part of preparation for work overseas. They take training seriously here in Birmingham. You would, however, be correct in assuming that I didn’t actually wrestle with an actual alligator, but metaphorically I did, honest!

This ‘ordinary’ day was a communications training day when the communications team from BMS World Mission HQ at Didcot came to encourage, equip and cajole us Mission Trainees in communicating with friends and supporters – that’s you.

Believe it or not, making the conscious decision to sit down and share what’s going on in my life with you isn’t that easy. You’re not the problem; in fact, knowing you are at the other end of this communication is really very important. The problem is with me, because sometimes writing feels awkward, a bit of a struggle, rather like wrestling with an alligator might feel.

The good news is that a hamster came to the rescue. A hamster called NUFKY – pronounce it however you like! NUFKY was introduced to us by Sarah, one of the communications team. You’ll not be surprised to learn that, not unlike the alligator, NUFKY the hamster didn’t actually make an appearance during the training session but if you google NUFKY you will find that he, or she, really is a hamster. Check it out for yourself:

Our NUFKY is not a furry little rodent but an acrostic, an aid to writing which stands for:

  • Not too long (check)
  • Use the best stuff first (maybe)
  • First five words are important (not so good)
  • Kung Fu titles make a difference (I agree, that requires further interpretation but I’ll leave you to work it out for yourself)
  • You – that’s me and that’s you. Writing about my life and writing for you. While doing so might feel like wrestling with an alligator it’s worth it because without knowing you are there and interested life could be pretty lonely.

Learning to wrestle with an alligator, yet another useful training day at IMC. There have been lots of them and I anticipate there will be lots more in the weeks ahead. I’ll keep you posted.

Reflections on a visit to the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp

Flossenbürg is a short distance off the main road between Nurnberg and Prague, not far from the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. I’ve driven that road numerous times back and forward to Amsterdam or the UK. This summer we travelled in the motorhome to Germany on our way to Prague and took the opportunity to visit Flossenbürg.

The main reason many are aware of the existence of Flossenbürg is the link with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor.

The Bonhoeffer memorial in the church at Flossenburg

The Bonhoeffer memorial in the church at Flossenbürg

Bonhoeffer’s story has had a profound impact on many people. Coming from a large, academic and well connected family Bonhoeffer lectured in theology before being ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1931. For the rest of his relatively short life his work portrayed the qualities of theologian and pastor, thinker and practitioner.

Bonhoeffer was strongly opposed to the Nazi ideology and, as with other members of his family, was recruited into a resistance movement whose intention was to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Third Reich. He was arrested in April 1943 and eventually executed at Flossenbürg on 9th April 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by the Americans.

Unlike some of the concentration camps built by the Nazis, such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, where vast numbers of Jews were detained and executed, Flossenbürg was built to detain German male criminals and others perceived as ‘asocial’, or antisocial. It soon became home to German, Czech and Polish political prisoners and members of resistance groups. Eventually Soviet prisoners of war and some 20,000 Jews were incarcerated in Flossenbürg or one of the satellite camps associated with Flossenbürg. Ultimately 100,000 peo­ple from 47 coun­tries were in­terned at Floss­en­bürg or one of its sub­camps: 84,000 men, 16,000 wom­en and child­ren. Some 30,000 of them died in the camp from illness or hard labour, many were executed. You will find more details on the history of the camp at the websites listed below.

The things that struck us on the visit were:

  • The ‘quality’ of the exhibition and the renovation of the site. There’s not much of the original camp still standing but what there is has been restored and put to use as a well equipped educational centre.
    The view of the Flossenbürg camp and parade ground from the former officers mess

    The view of the Flossenbürg camp and parade ground from the former officers mess

    As the director of the memorial puts it, ‘The site developed from a cemetery to a memorial, which dedicates itself to the commemoration and honouring of the victims, as well as to political and historical educational tasks.’ The facilities at the site are excellent including the locally run restaurant staffed by people with learning difficulties and managed by a local NGO.

  • The emphasis on telling the human story of the victims. The basement of one of the two main blocks has a wonderful display of many of the prisoners, not as prisoners in the familiar pyjama type clothing, but taken pre-arrest, people with their families, work colleagues or enjoying recreation. The effect is powerful. The stark nature of the story of the camp and its horrors told on the story boards and videos on the floor above seem all the more tragic and brutal when you ‘meet’ the victims as family members, ordinary people who happened to dissent or be of the wrong sort.
  • Standing in the large shower room where new inmates were stripped and showered together in large numbers. Walking on a suspended glass floor you see the floor tiles upon which stood many of those whose photos are on display. The tiles on the walls are the tiles that caught the spray of the water that doused the tragic victims of the Nazi purge. There’s something quite powerful standing for a moment in the place where the dignity and identity of so many people was torn from them at the beginning of the most horrible experience of incarceration.
  • The lower section of the camp. There’s a steep path at the rear of the camp that leads to a small building with an open door into which you can walk unhindered and unaccompanied. It’s the crematorium.
    The crematorium at Flossenbürg.

    The crematorium at Flossenbürg.

    While not on the scale of Auschwitz it has the same chilling effect. Here human beings were disposed of without ceremony, without mourners, without dignity, without any sense of them being human. At this lower level is the area where prisoners were shot and a huge grassy mound made up of the ash of the remains of the dead.


Visiting such places as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Flossenbürg has, for us, been a valuable opportunity to struggle with the reality of human hatred and barbarism. These visits have been deeply disturbing but have left us feeling incredibly privileged that we have lived most of our lives, despite the problems of Northern Ireland, free to hold and express our views without fear of oppression. However, it is heart breaking to think that what is memorialized in places like Flossenbürg remains a current reality for many people in the war zones and oppressive regimes of today’s world.