Two Years on a Mormon Mission: Gotha

The following is an interview between Olaf Simons for and Elder Brown and Elder Colson, Nate Brown and Eric Colson, two Mormon missionaries, who are presently stationed in Gotha, east Germany. Perhaps a bit of information to frame the interview:

View Gotha, Germany in a larger map

It is easy to locate Gotha on Google maps – it is more difficult to locate the city of now 44.000 on a the political, cultural and religious map. The former capital of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha used to be stronghold of Lutheran Protestantism.

Gotha's Palace, too big to fit into a picture
Gotha’s Palace, too big to fit into a picture

A massive palace was built by Ernest the Pious after the Thirty Years War. It is still adorned with a formidable research library of reformation literature, and it still towers over a city centre that could serve as a model for any Disney fairy tale.

The events of the Second World War brought the small town and the rest of Eastern Germany under Communist rule in 1945. Two city quarters grew during the years of the German Democratic Republic with massive 1970s Plattenbau-architecture (standardized large-panel system building) – designed to accommodate the growing population.

Plattenbau, left by its former inhabitants
Plattenbau in Gotha West, left by its former inhabitants

Atheism and Marxist-Leninist Materialism became the state doctrine, the Protestant church emerged, on the other hand, as the new stronghold of political dissent and dissatisfaction.

Gotha's Age Pyramid in 2012 - an aging city
Gotha’s Age Pyramid in 2012 – an aging city

Things changed dramatically when the wall came down in 1989. Local industry came to a stand still, unable to compete with western companies. 20.000 moved westwards – mostly the young, especially women between twenty and forty and the brain drain has not stopped yet. Gotha is still losing about 200 inhabitants per year. The population is comparatively old. Unemployment is high – at 12.2% whilst Germany had a rate of barely 5.5% (in 2012). Many live on social security. Foreigners are rather rare: Russians, Poles and Vietnamese are the three largest communities. (See Gotha’s statistical report for 2012 for more information.)

Lutheran Protestantism has remained the official religious mainstream in a city that has not yet received a wider share of the world’s population. Religion in general has lost, though, much of its importance after 1989. Those who are dissatisfied with Gotha leave – things were different before 1989 when leaving the GDR was no option and when the Protestant Church could still serve as a place of Innere Emigration.

Atheism has spread in the former GDR.

Germany’s traditional Protestant states have by and large developed a higher affinity to atheism than the old catholic states. East Germany, the heartland of German Protestantism, has, however, a far higher rate than any of the western states with both, German Lutheran Secularism and Marxist-Lenist Atheism working on the combined effect.

The following interview began as a vis-à-vis exchange at the Gotha Research Centre and found its present form in a later exchange of questions and answers on this web-page.

My thanks to Nate Brown and Eric Colson for offering this insight into their work as missionaries in Gotha.

Olaf Simons: (1) Your names “Elder Brown” and “Elder Colson” – what do they stand for?

Elder Brown: Elder is just a title that means we are missionaries for our church. My first name is Nate, I’m 21 years old and come from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Elder Colson: When we aren’t on a mission we use our fist names my first name is Eric and I’m 20 years old. I grew up in Connecticut then later on moved to Utah where my grandparents retired.

knocking at doors
knocking at doors

Olaf Simons: (2) For how long have you been here?

Elder Brown: I’ve been in Gotha now for five months, but have been in Germany for almost two years.

Elder Colson: I have been in Germany since January of last year and Gotha for a little more than a month.

Olaf Simons: (3) How do you finance your stay?

Elder Brown: I worked the summer before I came here in a grocery store. I saved all the money I could, then my parents helped pay for the rest. We give money to the Church every month, and then the Church distributes the money back out to me for expenses like rent, food, or travel.

Elder Colson: I worked before my mission, doing heating and air conditioning to save up for it. I did it gladly because I had a strong desire to serve my Lord Jesus Christ by becoming a missionary. I also receive help from my family. Our Church has a fund as well to help members who do not have enough money to finance a mission alone.

Olaf Simons: (4) Was it the place you expected?

Some more Plattenbau
Some more Plattenbau

Elder Brown: Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect coming to Germany. All I knew from back home were some of the basic stereotypes. But as soon as I got here, I found out it is a lot like back home, just some cultural differentiation.

Elder Colson: Yes and no. I really didn’t know what to expect. Germany is not so different than America in living standards, but there are cultural differences. I enjoy learning about them.

Olaf Simons: (5) How much information did you get before you came?

Elder Brown: I attended our Church’s Missionary Training Center in Utah for nine weeks before I came to Germany. There are 15 of these training centers worldwide and all missionaries go to one of them before their service in their assigned countries. My time at the training center has helped me to deepen my faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Missionaries also learn there how to teach and for those of us going to foreign speaking places, we have intensive language programs to help us learn as much of the language before we leave. For me, it was helpful to learn the basics of the language, but as soon as I got to Germany, I realized I still had quite a bit to learn. We are expected to use our two years to learn about and develop a love for the people and the culture while we’re in the country.

Elder Colson: We go through a missionary training center before go out. I was there for nine weeks. How long you stay depends on the language and country. They teach us how to teach and the basics of the language, so we have a foundation when we arrive.

Olaf Simons: (6) Did you have to look for accommodation?

Elder Brown: No, I did not have to look for accommodation. We have a ‘mission office’ in Frankfurt where those kind of things will be taken care of and paid for before we get there. We do go shopping for ourselves every week and are expected to clean and maintain our apartments.

Elder Colson: No, our Church rents apartments throughout Germany for us to live in. When we go to a new part of the country, we take our things and leave it to the next missionary coming in. Not having to worry about accommodations helps us to focus more on our main task as missionaries – serving other people and inviting to learn about Jesus Christ.

Gotha's Kaufland in the morning: The best place to meet pensioners at a coffee
Gotha’s Kaufland in the morning: The best place to meet pensioners at a coffee

Olaf Simons: (7) How do you spend your days?

Elder Brown: We spend our days very differently, our main goal is to spend our days teaching people about Jesus Christ and His Church. We take time to try and find those people as well, sometimes we try and stop people on the street or knock on their doors to extend a friendly invitation. We meet with the members of our Church as well, and try and help them any way we can, we also look for opportunities to help the people who we meet everyday; we help with yard work, teach people English, or help people move.

Elder Colson: We spend our days doing a variety of things. We visit members of our Church, and people who would like to learn more about us. We also look for opportunities to help in the local community or just people. For example, I have raked leaves, helped people move, I even helped dig out a basement. When we aren’t busy at some sort of appointment, we try to talk with people about their beliefs and ideas about life and share ours with them.

Olaf Simons: (8) Are there things you are expected to get done on the trip?

Elder Brown: We are expected to give all of our time and efforts to teaching people about Jesus Christ. It’s also a great opportunity for us to learn about new people, places and things.

Elder Colson: We are expected to help people learn of Jesus Christ and follow his teachings. We are also expected to learn new things and become better people ourselves. A mission is a new thing for us, there are a lot of great learning experiences.

Gotha, those who have not left get couple of beers till 10pm at the Kaufland
Younger people tend to leave Gotha. Those who stay enjoy the long opening hours at the Kaufland

Olaf Simons: (9) How much do you feel people know about Mormonism?

Elder Brown: People don’t usually know all too much, there are some who know a little, but many confuse us with other religions. When they take the time to talk to us, they realize we’re pretty normal people with normal interests.

Elder Colson: In general, I would say where I have been in Germany, not too much. Some people know quite a bit, but very few really know or understand our basic beliefs, like we are Christians and that the family is very important to us.

Olaf Simons: (10) How do you get into contact with people you want to win?

Elder Brown: People who search for meaning in their lives will contact us. We also contact people on the street or knock on their doors. Our local members invite their friends as well to learn more about Jesus Christ. We really do believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and we want to invite other people to feel this happiness as well.

2014 Gotha Children
Children having fun on a Sunday morning in Gotha West

Elder Colson: There are a lot of ways that we get in contact with people. We talk with people on the street or some people walk up and talk to us or call us. We also receive names and address from our internet site of people who have requested a Book of Mormon or a visit from the missionaries.

Olaf Simons: (11) How do they react?

Elder Brown: There are some people who really are interested to know more about Jesus Christ and His Church and they are the ones who are open and willing to talk. Many others say they are too busy or they show little interest.

Elder Colson: It depends on the person and his or her background, for some people Christianity or even God is a very new thing. Most people are open to hear our beliefs and even share theirs, but sometimes changing a whole lifestyle can be a difficult thing that takes time.

Olaf Simons: (12) What do you feel is most difficult to explain to them?

Elder Brown: We are really here because our relationship with our Father in Heaven and with Jesus Christ makes us happy. We would like to share our happiness with them. For me it really is as simple as that, but often hard to explain to people.

Gotha's Neumarkt, on a sunny market day
Gotha’s Neumarkt, on a sunny market day. The  population is aging.

Elder Colson: From my experience, I think it’s hardest to explain that God really is there, listens to us and more importantly loves us. Many people don’t take the time to seek him out to see if he is really there. So its a very new thing for them.

Olaf Simons: (13) What questions do you feel are really satisfying to be asked?

Elder Brown: I really like it when people ask sincere questions; questions that they have thought a lot about. I think everyone has those sorts of questions, and most of the time they are questions about life: Why am I here? What happens when I die? Why do bad things happen to good people? I’m really grateful that I’ve grown up with answers to these questions and I think it’s awesome to be able to tell people that these answers have helped me.

Elder Colson: For me, there’s no one specific question. I loved to be asked sincere questions, things that people really do want to know or are searching for, because it lets me answer them in a very personal way.

Olaf Simons: (14) What kind of questions do you ask?

Elder Brown: We ask questions that will help us get to know people better. Once we know the people and their big questions, we can better help them to try and find answers through prayer and a relationship with God.

Elder Colson: We ask question that help us understand a person’s basic beliefs and background so we can teach in a more personable and engaging way.

Olaf Simons: (15) When you think of Mormonism – are there things you feel difficult to believe in?

Elder Brown: I grew up with the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I can honestly say that I really do believe what this Church teaches. I wouldn’t still be out here in Germany trying to tell people about something I didn’t believe in. Yes, I have had my doubts, but I’m grateful for these doubts because they have helped me to really try and find out more for myself and gain my own conviction.

Elder Colson: Faith is required every religion and even in everyday life. You have to have faith in your friends and family. You have faith that they will be the people you have come to know them as. It’s the same with our faith in God, only that He will never let us down. I’ve had small doubts before, but who hasn’t? The more I learn about God, our Church and myself, the stronger my faith becomes.

Olaf Simons: (16) What about the more exceptional tenets of Mormonism – they must be extremely difficult to explain to Germans who have never heard that Jesus spent the rest of his life (after his crucifixion in Jerusalem) on the present US territory. If that had been the truth why didn’t God give this information to Ernest the Pious and his scholars here in Gotha in the 1650s? I as a historian would have immense problems with a plotline in which all native Americans are the descendants of Jews who lived in the Americas. We do not have a single artefact of that culture…

Ernest the Pious in front of his castle (19th century monument)
Loved by all Gotha tourists: Ernest the Pious in front of his castle (19th century monument)

Elder Brown: It’s actually not all that difficult to explain to people. For me it makes sense that God would send His son and show him to the whole world. We meet people, we tell them about it, and we invite them to find out if it’s true, it’s really up to them. I don’t know why God didn’t tell Ernest the Pious that Jesus went to the Americas; I think God does things on His time and in His own way. For me, it comes down to faith. From the perspective a historian, someone who finds truth based on facts they know and things they can touch and see, faith is not necessary. But in our church, and from the perspective of someone who believes and hopes that it is true, faith is necessary. I didn’t see Jesus Christ come to the Americas or see the civilizations there, but I’ve read in the Book of Mormon, I’ve prayed and thought about it, and I believe it’s true. They are two very different perspectives, but I think one can definitely learn from both of them.

Elder Colson: To many people it actually makes sense that Jesus Christ would visit another land. When Jesus Christ in John 10:16 says: ‘And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.’ We believe that to mean theses descendants of the Jews who left Jerusalem in The Book of Mormon. We also don’t believe that all native Americans are a descendant of these people. Why didn’t he reveal this earlier to Ernest the Pious and his scholars in Gotha? He is now, not specifically to them, but through The Book of Mormon people can know now. I can’t explain God’s timing, but we can read and pray it about these things now.

Olaf Simons: (17) Are there views you encounter which you find inspiring, mind opening, interesting to adopt?

Elder Brown: I’m really glad I’ve been able to meet so many different people as I’ve been out here in Germany. And I have encountered quite a few different and interesting views. They have all been interesting, without a doubt. But I think the biggest thing that has been influential for me is just the German culture. The different traditions, the mind-set and attitudes of the German people. I think it’s awesome and I’m definitely going to take parts of it home with me.

Gotha West, Plattenbau
Gotha West, Plattenbau

Elder Colson: Living in Europe has been a great experience. Germany has similar rights, lifestyles and ideas compared to how I have grown up in America and as a Mormon. There are so many little differences that I have now adopted without really noticing I don’t think I can really answer that until I’m back and America and can compare again.

Olaf Simons: (18) What do you think are the things you will remember of Gotha?

Elder Brown: The things I will remember most about Gotha will probably be the members of our Church here. I’ve been able to develop a really close relationship with them that I will treasure for the rest of my life. They really are wonderful people and I’ve loved getting to know them.

Elder Colson: There are two things I will remember the most here. Firstly, the members of our Church in this area. They have been so kind and willing to help us and all the other people around, whether or not they are members of our Church. Secondly, Gotha itself. It is a unique place – the Wartburg, Thüringen Wald, the old buildings and Castles around town. These are things that you can’t see in America. The Wartburg itself is older than the United States.

Gotha can indeed be a dream.
Gotha, a dream.

Olaf Simons: (20) At the end of a meeting you fill in a form with results – what would be mine?

Elder Colson / Elder Brown: Normally we fill in these forms to document what we covered with the person. This helps the next missionaries coming in to know what is happening. But what we do is not about forms or procedures, but about individuals and their relationships with our Lord Jesus Christ.


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