Together at one table – Stuttgart’s Vesperkirche
As the German winter lingers on and the Christmas spirit of giving wanes, a church in central Stuttgart opens its doors and for several weeks becomes a “home away from home” for many persons. In affluent Germany, there are many people who do not have access to the minimal necessities such as sufficient food, health care and social activities.
Hence, the Stuttgart Vesperkirche project was launched in the early 1990s, the dream of Stuttgart’s then pastor for diakonia, Martin Friz. People, who in other circumstances would never meet, were to gather in one place and share a meal. From its very inception, the Vesperkirche was to be a place where poor people and the well-off, people on the fringe of society and those who enjoy a bourgeois existence, would come together to socialize. And this place was to be a church, the medieval church of St Leonhard in the heart of Stuttgart, the capital of the federal state of Baden Württemberg.
In early 2009, Rev. Karin Ott, the new pastor for diakonia in Stuttgart since autumn 2008, took the baton from Martin Friz. “The vision of the Versperkirche of sharing life together became reality over the past weeks,” she said at the closing of the most recent Vesperkirche at the end of February 2009. The fact that the Vesperkirche succeeds in bringing people with fundamentally different life situations together to have a good time fascinates her. “Small children and 90-year olds, failed businessmen and third-generation welfare recipients come to us.” The Vesperkirche gives them much more than a warm meal: “Our guests receive practical support in precarious life situations and respite in the daily struggle to survive.”
Many preparations were necessary so that the Vesperkirche could get under way 15 years ago. Church pews had to be removed, container toilets had to be installed, a volunteer head cook and a canteen kitchen had to be found and a delivery service had to be set up, just to name a few. The Stuttgart Vesperkirche received around 70 guests on the opening day in January 1995; in 2009, it received around 700 visitors daily.
Guests include retirees who because of periods of unemployment receive minimal pensions; adolescents without school-leaving certificates who have no chance on the job market, families and single parents whose tiny incomes do not go very far in the expensive capital, female sex-workers, street people and many others. The range of assistance available has been broadened. Over time, the Vesperkriche has become a kind of temporary social service. It is funded primarily through donations, which amount to around EUR 240,000 per year.
Every morning at 9 a.m. the church opens its doors. A small group gathers at the coffee bar. A few steps away, a social worker is conversing with a visitor. The church gradually fills up.
Two men sit at a sunlit table playing chess. Around 11:30, helpers bring in the first meal delivery in huge kettles. A line begins to form at the food counter. Fresh deliveries arrive continuously into the early afternoon. A lunch costs EUR 1.20. Most visitors can afford that amount, but those who cannot receive meal tickets nonetheless.
In the afternoon, the church is once again deserted. Many guests stand in the square in front, smoking, laughing, chatting. In the meantime, a medical service has also opened in a side chapel. “Many poor people do not know how they will be able to pay doctor’s fees and for drugs,” said Dr Regina Dipper. At 4 p.m. the Vesperkirche day comes to a close with a prayer.
Seven deacons and social educators are part of pastor Ott’s team, which also includes six doctors, two veterinarians and between 30 and 45 volunteer workers daily. They all help make it possible for the Vespekirche to regularly provide, in addition to material and medical assistance, counseling, pastoral care, cultural opportunities, worship services and prayers.
Thanks to the example set by Stuttgart, there are now 23 Vesperkirche in Baden Württemberg.