The high energy of Hamburg city hits us the moment the plane touches down at the airport. These people are confident and vital. The country isn’t looking to the past as it greets an unknown yet welcome future.
Hamburg and its neighbor Lubeck were at the center of the Hanseatic League, a federation of commercial cities that ushered in prosperity for four hundred years. The League encompassed the Baltic and beyond, and even supported an impressive military to suppress piracy, enforce free trade (Lubeck, Danzig, Riga, Visby, S Sweden, London, Bruges and Hamburg were key towns in the Hanseatic League), and counter greedy monarchs (they helped defeat the King of Denmark in 1431).
Unlike wealthy Swedish towns that have changed their focus from trade to social equality, Hamburg continues to thrives from its key location and magnetism for entrepreneurs and immigrants alike. As soon as we set foot in Hamburg, jumping aboard the rapid train from airport to city, we felt the expressiveness of thirty-something Germans freely interacting with one another, despite being strangers.
At Central Station the surge of humanity is in full force, folks from thirteen to seventy-five, bronze tanned white, blue black, milk coffee colored, yellow skinned, pale white and pink skinned, chocolate brown, wearing all styles of dress, marching purposefully to their destination, disregarding slow moving and uncertain tourists like us.
Google maps navigates us away from the station, across busy streets, and into the store-front lined neighborhood where we will stay the next four nights. Police patrol the square at its center in groups of four — we ask one for directions and he answers curtly as if we are dumb — after following his directions we unlock three sets of security doors and climb three stories into an old apartment with 12 foot ceilings and a fifty foot long corridor connecting its five rooms. — such a contrast to our tiny Visby home where we had to crouch in the attic bedroom.
Our soft eyed host is caring, well intentioned, sincere and very helpful. He’s also into black leather boots and ropes, not unusual in Hamburg. At evening in the square outside pimps prowl and three young women wait for offers of cash for sex. Almost everyone of the one hundred men scattered, in groups of three and four, about the plaza sports a chilled beer bottle and shares a cigarette - sometimes with complete strangers. The police check young immigrant men for legitimate German identity cards, and watch intently for illegal drugs. This pool of humanity is dynamic, changing each hour with different actors every day. The scriptless actors of our lost community appear on the stage perhaps for an hour, perhaps for a month and then disappear, replaced by another actor in an almost identical role. Music and voices waft up to our apartment through the night; the square is never noiseless.
Yet the gross crime of Hansaplatz is not that young men are wasting away their lives, nor that young women are entering the sex trade. The gross crime is that the church is absent. Ministry opportunity is evident literally at every corner, but visiting Christians like us hide behind three sets of locked doors and resident Believers avoid dens of vice like the plague. And so the sun sets on a Church that is daily choosing irrelevance.
What if, instead of taking pride in hushed gatherings in holy places, we the Church energetically invested in expressive cities like Hamburg ? What if, instead of caring to be comfortable with family and friends, we befriended transient communities in the same way that wandering strangers welcome one another? What if, instead of seeking financial security, we made it our mission to host immigrants like Hamburg hosts passers-by? What if we made space for each person as if we were welcoming Jesus for the first time — would heaven be pleased no matter what became of the Church on earth?