‘Mind-changing, unforgettable’ trip to Poland


Once, I was invited to participate in an international immersion study in Krakow, Poland. With The Ohio State University and Community Shelter Board of Franklin County in leadership organizing roles, 10 of us working in housing and homelessness from the central Ohio area went to the region of Auschwitz Birkenau, Jagellonian University, and the factory written about in “Schindler’s List.”

An alum of both the Ohio Wesleyan University and Methodist Theological School (clergyman) was in our cohort. The executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, a mayor, and the previous senior leader of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, a professor who led the OSU College of Social Work doctoral program, were traveling companions. It was mind-changing and unforgettable for all of us.

I spent a lot of time in congregations within 30 minutes of concentration camps learning their role. We all participated in an in-depth study of pre, during, and post trip on post-Communist housing and social exclusion in this part of eastern Europe.

A peer who went with me happened to be the first female president at Temple Israel. A most vulnerable part of the journey was being with someone I care about and respect deeply in a context of such historically targeted devastation and hate. She and I spent the bulk of 24 hours completely moved to visceral silence with what we were seeing.

We stood in the firing range where Jews, Gypsies, intellectuals, persons “with disabilities,” political dissidents, and all who had been deemed by the powerful as less than human were executed. We had another session situated right under shower nozzle’s where the Zyklon B gas was dispersed. Then, we directly touched the ovens used for cremation.

One of our teachers said many churches very close to the Auschwitz Birkenau camps had ministers who preached actively and often about tolerance during the time period directly before and during this Holocaust. It happened to be the first time in my life I specifically heard, “tolerance was not enough then. Tolerance is not enough today. When we tolerate there remains a very dangerous distance, a detachment, and the capacity to write someone off.”

We see tolerance sometimes in communities when it comes to housing. There’s often a very sincere empathy for people in a housing and homelessness crisis. Delaware is truly very generous. Food and donations frequently flow to what we call “Love’s Front Porch” or Promise House.

It is, however, so much more difficult for our residents to find affordable, attainable places for people to live or what’s sometimes called “space and place.” Two households moved from us into permanent housing last week. But, a large family of nine with an infant, has been unable to secure a four bedroom for months. Months.

At the end of the movie “Schindler’s List,” you see people putting rocks on headstones as the ultimate way of honoring. As the teaching goes, when a stone is placed in this way, there’s so much dignity because there’s not a thing the honored person can do in return. It is truly done without any return obligation, instead merely a most just act. Our translator was in this movie and had a deeply transformative way of educating us about this ritual. Watch the end of the film again, if you can.

During the pandemic, I have witnessed this perpetual flow of grace: Love given with no expectation of any specific return action. Masked people, one after the other, dropped PPE, food, and financial donations at our “Love’s Front Porch.” This certainly is way beyond tolerance. Folks know we’ve constantly been working 24/7 on that essential front line and the community literally wrapped their arms faithfully around us without any expectation of gift in return or quid quo pro kind of giving.

I know the very same people want to make sure people in our collective care have access to housing. Truth is, we all haven’t come up with the most complete answers to these complex issues. Prevention is important. Stabilization in order to minimize re-entry is important. Shifting any community tolerance to community acceptance, as the Krakow lesson goes, is very important, too.

How can we include and create a sense of belonging in places where that has not happened previously? That’s a challenging spiritual and ethical question for all of us, across faith traditions. Among the many who are displaced, we still have a family of nine, with a baby, seeking acceptance. They love their Delaware and don’t want to leave it.

Gwyn Stetler

Your Pastor Speaks

Gwyn Stetler is a community minister and executive director of Family Promise of Delaware County.

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