Roses Are Red
It’s hard for me to put A Tour of Roses into words. I don’t know when or if I will be able to adequately say what it means to me. It was huge on so many levels—a complete departure from everything I have ever done.
In September of this year, during the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar, I led a small team from the U.S. on a ministry trip to Poland and Germany. Although this was my third trip to these countries I had never led a tour group before and had not done anything quite so bold as what we planned to do. Our team, which was continuously morphing, was all different shapes and sizes and many different languages as well. We were Jews and Gentiles, German, Ukrainian, British, Polish, and American.
We began in Oswiecim, Poland, handing out roses in the town square and marketplace while worshiping the Lord… “for those who don’t know, this is the Polish town where Auschwitz is located. Sally played (keyboard) and sang and worshiped in the town square as well as the marketplace as we gave out roses… the presence of God came down and we were enveloped in the Glory of God. It was like a piece of heaven. People stopped to listen, some were moved to tears, and we sensed how God was touching hearts. Sharing the love of Jesus has never been so easy! One man I spoke to just stood there and we were able to pray for him and lead him to the Lord—right there on the streets. Amazing!” (Mark Warwick)
It really was amazing! And it all became so easy, as if it were the most natural and joyous thing to do: sing to the Lord in the middle of a Polish town while all my friends are giving away these beautiful red roses, telling people how much God loves them, and inviting them to the concert. It was incredible!
We ran out of roses at the marketplace and bought another hundred. We gave those away in a heartbeat. Vincent was so thrilled he offered to buy some more–and we gave those out also. He was ready to purchase another round—and I have to admit being able to give with such freedom and joy is kind of addicting—but I reminded him we were just here to plant some seeds in people’s hearts. And we did!
People came to the concert—about 250. They heard and felt something in what we shared through the roses and worship, and they wanted more. Never mind I could barely pronounce the name of their town, let alone speak a word of Polish. Never mind that they didn’t know a single song I sang. Never mind that they had never heard me before. None of that mattered. They were hungry and the Lord put loaves and fishes into our hands.
They were grateful for the love and kindness that God poured out through us during those two days. I think it surprised them that we had actually purposed to come and reach out to them in their town—this place so seemingly God-forsaken because of its history. We were not—as so many others have done—just staying in the town so we could go see the camps and museums. We had also come to be with the people of the town and they were touched. Several times during the concert they broke out in applause over something I shared, and like children who know when they have tasted something good, they wanted more.
Later, we shared the apples and honey of Rosh Hashanah with the people of Oswiecim—to bless them with a good and sweet new year, and it was powerful. They were grateful to partake with us. It was a holy thing, like breaking the bread of communion together.
And we did go to the camps. The whole team participated in a time of worship and intercession in Auschwitz-Birkenau. We recited the 19 blessings from the Shemoneh Esrei—a special prayer said during the High Holy Days. And with each declaration we then added our own cries and prayers to God for His healing and mercy—for Jew and Pole and German. As Mark Warwick said, “…and when we were finished the Lord started to minister healing. You know this kind of thing amazes me—that in THIS place—this place of death, God chooses to heal. God is a God of redemption—He wants to turn every evil into blessing.”
Zeppelin Field is in Nuremburg, the place where Hitler set up the legal foundation for the Holocaust by introducing the anti-Semitic race laws in 1935. Nuremburg was the place where Hitler began building the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, where he addressed the masses every year at the NSDAP (National Socialist Deutche Arbeiten Partei) Rallies. This was where we prayed.
Perhaps one of the most meaningful moments for me occurred as some of us stood in the speaker’s box at Zeppelin Field, worshiping the Lord together. I sang the Sh’ma, the age-old declaration of the Jewish people: “Hear O Lisrael, the Lord our God, He is One.” I wonder if anyone else ever sang the Sh’ma from that terrible place, raised their voices and hands to worship the Lord? If anyone else has ever blown the shofar from that platform, to herald the goodness and mercy of God during the Ten Days of Awe? I wonder if communion has ever taken place before on the steps of Zeppelin field—where Jews, German, and Poles, broke bread and shared the cup together in recognition that the love of God is greater than man’s hatred? Or if spontaneous worship suddenly sliced through the morning air at the Congress Hall? My friend Dagmar, who lives in Nuremberg said, that day she heard the voice of God. She later wrote: “We had a great and blessed time to pray, where the altars of the evil were: in the middle of the former Congress hall and on the stairs of the Zeppelin-grandstand, where Hitler spoke his hate-speeches. The praise of God filled the air, sung by Jews, Polish, Americans, English and German people. The atmosphere changed so that we could breathe.”
Handing out roses in Dachau was a profound experience! The first day it was too easy. We were in a part of the town where there were a lot of shops and cafes. Many people were surprised but genuinely open. And these were extraordinary roses. They had been picked in Kenya and shipped the next morning. They were stunning! The morning of the concert we gave out roses in an older part of town and the reaction was quite different. It was as if people were protecting themselves, never thinking for a moment that the rose could really be a gift for them. One woman walked away shaking her head, assuring us there had to be a price for receiving a rose. “Geschenk,” we told them. It’s a present! It’s for you, because God loves you and me! And then their faces changed—softened into smiles and wonder. Could we really mean that this gift was for them?
Magda said that this trip deeply impacted her life, she felt that before the trip she didn’t know Jesus very well and that during the trip she really saw who Jesus is: “I have this feeling that there something amazing happened. Something unique, breaking through and not only for me personally, but most of all—for people from cities we were handing roses out. It was like opening doors that kept being locked ’til this time.”
The concert at Dachau Palace was a total surprise. We were in the ballroom, which featured crystal chandeliers and a hand carved wood ceiling. There were long serious paintings of people I have no clue about and lots of artistic tributes to various deities. The windows were wide open with a wonderful view of an English garden in the back. It was really an amazing place! Here is an excerpt from an email I sent back to our intercessors in the states…
“Last night no one knew how many people would actually come to the ballroom in the Palace. And we are really talking some serious palace! After 7 people started coming—to get the “good seats.” Wow! I was blown away! About 300 people came to the concert. Several people raised their hands to receive the Lord and many more prayed with me. Inna Pikman, Vladimir’s wife, led us in worship and then I shared. Toward the end of my concert Vladimir came up and talked about how the Holocaust is a scar between the Jews and the Germans. That when Jews think about Germany they think about the Holocaust and when Germans think about Jews they think about the Holocaust. And Vladimir said, that is not all there is! It was amazing! The pastor of the church who had kind of been very cautious about what we were doing was smiling so hard I thought his face would split in two. There was so much love… It was truly as if God rained down His mercy from heaven on us last night. So much love expressed between Jews and Germans and even my Polish friend, Magda was totally blessed to see such love. I don’t even know what to say about this—except this is so obviously God’s heart for these people to heal and not to live under condemnation and shame. And, by the grace of God, and also your prayers, I said as much. They, like in Oswiecim, wanted me to do an encore. And I couldn’t go there. I just came back to say how precious they are in the sight of God.”
“I met Sally at the conference in Oswiecim last year. She came afterwards to visit Nurnberg and we went together to Dachau. It was typical for God that I had a breakdown in front of the first crematorium on German earth and Sally as a Jew was consoling me. After that we had seen the beautiful garden that God made in Dachau at the palace. I could start to realize, that God has given us Germans a chance to live, although we did the most cruel thing which I could think of to his people. I’m very thankful that God gives us Germans, who always felt our sin, relief of it and that the shame—which is there for every German generation—could be taken away by the blood of Jesus. My experience is, that this could only be given to us by Jews, who speak to us and pray with and for us…” – Dagmar Menzel, Nuremburg, Germany
After we packed up the van to drive to the small town of Bergen in Germany, we said goodbye to Karen and Mark, who drove back to Poland. It took a long time to drive to Bergen from Dachau. When we finally arrived we were met by Katharina Hoopmann, the Events Coordinator for the town council. She had worked out all the details for the Saturday night concert in the park at Bergen, and made sure there were posters in all the important places in town. She welcomed us our first night with a lavish feast.
Hannah, an American team member, wrote in our community journal: “Giving out roses in Bergen was a joy-filled experience. The people seemed so happy—only a few were too busy to stop and hear what we were saying about God’s love, roses, and Sally’s concert. Many knew her name and about the concert because of the articles placed in newspapers by Katharina.”
Igor, who was from Jews for Jesus, handed out roses with me as we walked down the main street of Bergen. We gave a rose to one of the young British soldiers stationed at the military base in Bergen Belsen. He was incredulous that we would give him a rose. He couldn’t believe it was free, and that it was for him. He was deeply touched and said we had made his day. Dagmar met up with the chaplain for the base and also gave her a rose. Heather was her name, and she was impressed by what we were doing and was hoping we might be able to come to the base Sunday morning for chapel, which we ended up doing.
The town council paid for a stage to be built in the park for the concert and also a canopy to be hung over the benches. The canopy was very elegant and the stage was impressive. About 150-200 people turned out for the concert. It was an intimate crowd.
There was one moment toward the end that was especially meaningful. The team had passed out candles to everyone in the crowd and at a certain point, as I was talking, they began lighting them. Young and old were passing the light from candle to candle, illuminating the hope that often lies dormant in our hearts. I was standing on the stage with Dagmar who was translating, when the overhead lights cut off. We stared out at a field of tiny flames flickering, each expressing the hope that God will heal the deep wounds of loss in German and Jew alike.
In a tour filled with moments of wonder this particular snapshot remains deeply embedded in my soul. A wave of tears rushed me and it was hard to sing, as all these people lifted their candles in response to my invitation to remember—the Jewish people, their own people, and the hope for healing that can be found in God.
Afterward the mayor came up to greet me and thank me. A priest also came up, visibly moved, and blessed me. There were many others as well. As the techies took down the stage and lights, Katharina opened her house to us, inviting us for refreshments. It was an interesting gathering since all of us on the team were believers and very elated about the evening. Katharina, her husband and friends, as they pointed out to me, were “not that religious.” At one point, as we engaged in conversation, a friend of Katharina’s commented on how rare it was for someone to think the way I did about the relationship between Germans and Jews. She said I was very idealistic. Next to me Steve, an American team member, boomed: “It’s Jesus! It’s because she loves Jesus!”
And so it is.
It was Jesus who led me to Poland and Germany. Quite honestly only Jesus could have brought me there to extend myself in His love. And the surprising thing is although it began in my mind as a burden, it was not a burden at all. I experienced so much joy in places I had only associated with pain, because I felt the presence of God and His love for the people around us. But then it is Jesus who reaches out through us every time we extend our hearts beyond those way-too-comfortable boundaries of our faith, to touch the hand of someone broken and forgotten. He does not forget nations or individuals. As Hagar said of Him in her particular wilderness, “You are the God who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13)
We are our own limitation. Afraid to see where God is looking, afraid to hear what He might be saying, we turn away from the opportunity to realize our true purpose in this life—what we were created for. Instead, we choose to color carefully inside the lines of our understanding of Christianity as we decide it applies to us, and our faith slowly withers and dies.
It is Jesus who tells me through Paul’s writing: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” That means all our acceptable, justifiable, and all too predictable Christian prejudice is out the window. We are not supposed to think about anyone in the same way we did before we came into relationship with Jesus. We are called to love—not judge. That is God’s job and He says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
Loving with the kind of unconditional passion God has for us is nowhere in our human DNA. Some of us learn to judge just to survive our situations and that is how we protect ourselves. I know. I am among the chief sinners on this issue.
But “God so loved…”
How deep, how wide, how high, how long is the quality of that love described in those two little letters—so? We have been so loved and are called to love others as we have been loved
In this season may God illuminate our hearts to see clearly where we still hold ourselves back from His fiercely tender love, afraid we might drown in its depths. May God help us fall out of ourselves and into Him, that His love would be ever increasing through every aspect of our lives, for the sake of those who are lost and longing, and for His great glory!
—Sally Klein O’Connor