“Let us now share the signs of peace with one another.”
When I heard the pastor say these words, I stood up, ready to smile and calmly shake hands with people in the neighbouring pews, just as we do in my hometown church in the Czech Republic. But what I got was something quite different. Suddenly, people jumped out of their seats. The band burst into a fast-paced song. Everyone started running around the church, greeting anyone and everyone who happened to stand in their way. Many warm hugs, kisses, and firm handshakes were loudly exchanged. After at least five minutes of this chaos (and after everyone but me circled around the whole church at least once), people seemed to start to calm down. When they finally found their places again, the service moved to its next point as if nothing happened. But I couldn’t move on; I had so many questions! “What just happened? How was this mayhem a sharing of the sings of peace? And most importantly: which of the several lunch invitations I just received will I accept?!”
Surprising moments like these became an everyday reality during my stay in the United States. I had the opportunity of spending my fall semester of 2017 at Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) in Decatur, Georgia. And I loved it.
There is a long-lasting relationship between CTS and my “alma mater”, the Protestant Theological Faculty in Prague. The schools regularly exchange students (and sometimes even teachers). Moreover, once every couple years, there is a group of students from CTS visiting Prague, learning about the history and present situation of Christianity in the Czech Republic.
Since Columbia Theological Seminary is a seminary, the teaching there tends to be a bit more practical-oriented. The overwhelming majority of its students are studying with the intention of becoming pastors, counsellors, youth workers, etc. But that definitely doesn’t mean that the teaching there would be too easy or shallow, not paying heed to the depth of theological knowledge; the legacy of Walter Brueggemann, the world-renowned Old Testament professor who spent 17 years at CTS is still very much alive.
I think the strongest thing that I got to experience at CTS was the community. Unlike to what I am used to, most students live on campus there, and many teachers have houses in the neighbouring streets. Dinners, potlucks, or evening deep-talks accompanied by a glass of wine (or a glass of one of the locally brewed beers) are things that soon became a cherished part of my CTS life. The school also meets in one of its chapels four times a week for prayers and regular services. Both the teachers and the students are very active in the fight for social justice as well.
I learned a lot from my stay. Even though the culture, food, spirituality, and so many other things were different (it definitely took me a while to get used to the omnipresent air-conditioning for example), I experienced what being accepted feels like. Despite my language inabilities and many tragic faux pas, I tasted what being welcomed is like. And I learned there can be peace in difference.
May we in the Czech Republic, in Europe, or anywhere else share the signs of peace with one another as well.