The Story of My Time on Prayer Cards [My European Adventure]

I was going through some boxes of old family photos that I haven't put into scrapbooks yet and found several prayer card photos of my family.

I was 14 when my parents became missionaries and I was on my first of many prayer cards. I'd meet people for the first time and they would tell me "oh, I know you! You're on my refrigerator." Prayer cards are so much more than just family photos. They are family photos taken in hopes that people will see your family on their refrigerator and remember to pray for you. And also, by the way, remember to send the monthly donation check that was pledged. 

Of course, if you are a teenager posing for a prayer card photo you secretly hope that it lands in the hands of a family who has a son who will offer to personally help you re-acclimate to the United States when you come home on furlough. Yes, prayer cards are so much more than family photos.

That's why we had to take three rolls each time we posed for a family photo. That's pre-digital photography speak for 108 photos (three rolls of 36 exposures). That was back in the day when you could not look at the LCD display to see whether he closed his eyes or her smile was fake or the lighting was bad. You just took as many pictures as you could and hoped that one would turn out.

I think the experience of posing for the prayer card is why I have a tendency to take way too many photos of anything. And also why, as yearbook editor, I firmly believed that you had to take as many pictures as possible in order to capture an entire layout for the event. "For every one picture that is usable, there are ten pictures that are not." That's what I told the photographers on my yearbook staffs. I thought it sounded much better than the 1:108 ratio I'd posed through.

(This tendency of mine to take too many pictures tends to make my weekly review posts rather longish. Now you know why. Bonus feature.)

Our family's first prayer card, 1986

Our first family prayer card picture was taken in 1986. That's when the ministry that my dad worked for, Open Doors, decided to reorganize its development division. They closed down their New England office and, along with it, my dad's job. After that a door opened for our family to move to Europe. First to Amsterdam, Holland, for training and then to West Germany to work with friends of theirs who'd planted a church in F├╝rth.

My parents had a burden for the persecuted church since they were first married. They had gone on several smuggling trips, taking Christian literature into countries that had prohibited it. I'd grown up hearing about the stories of persecuted Christians, so when my parents asked me what I thought about moving just one hour from the Czechoslovakian border so they could travel into Eastern Europe more often, I was excited for them. For us.

Thinking about moving to West Germany, I had images of The Sound of Music running through my head. I imagined throwing my arms out to my sides and swirling in circles like Julie Andrews. Of course I knew that The Sound of Music did not take place in Holland or West Germany. It was set in Austria. But Austria is in Europe and I had known I was destined to go to Europe since I was a little girl eating her Christmas Lutefisk. Which is a horrible old Scandinavian Minnesotan tradition, by the way, not Dutch or German. But the point is that Minnesotan Swedes like to think that Lutefisk is Swedish. And Sweden is in Europe, along with Holland and West Germany. Naturally, going to Europe was my destiny.

Sometimes people will ask me if it was hard to move to another country when I was a teenager. It wasn't, really. At least, not in the beginning.

In Amsterdam we lived in an English speaking community at the Youth With a Mission school, so there was no language barrier. Actually pretty much everyone in Amsterdam speaks English because it is such an international city. So there wasn't really even a language barrier when we would walk out the front door and into the city.

The youngest people in mom and dad's class were just three years older than me. Between them and the other MKs, I had people to hang out with.

I was trying to home school myself, so I had a lot of freedom to discover Amsterdam. I tried to study. I really did. But it was so much more fun to wander along the canals and call it Physical Education.

I went to an evangelistic punk rock concert every Wednesday with my brother. It was quite a fun, crazy experience. We were the only ones there who looked, well, normal.

I sang Christmas carols with my family to prostitutes sitting behind windows in the Red Light District. Seeing the expressions in their eyes (which we were told only to look at!) was pretty amazing. The little Lord Jesus was born to die for them, too.

So many fun, new experiences! Not to mention, I discovered an enduring love for black coffee and black licorice. I loved our Amsterdam adventure!

And then we moved to West Germany.

Our family's prayer card from Niederndorf, West Germany. 1987, during my banana clip phase.

When I was in eighth grade in New York there was a boy who came to our school who didn't speak English. I don't remember much about him except that he was very tall, had funny looking clothes and was very quiet. Obviously. 

I thought a lot about him after we moved to Niederndorf. I wished I could have gone back and been a little kinder to him. I wasn't unkind to him. I smiled at him probably. Maybe even showed him to his next class on his first day. I guess I just would have made more of an effort to make him feel welcome. Because I found out how scary it is to go to a school when you don't speak the language. It's scary stuff, man.

My brother and I were enrolled in the German Gymnasium (the highest level of their three high schools, the track that you are in if you want to go to University). Since we didn't know German, we had to repeat the grade level that we had completed in the States. Ninth grade for me, sixth grade for him. Waiting at the bus stop with my brother that first day was awful. The two of us stood off to the side, no one coming near us. We watched the rest of them look at us, then say something to each other that we didn't understand and laugh at we didn't know what. Everything inside of me wanted to walk back home and yell at my parents that I was done with our little European Adventure and I was ready to resume my teenage life back in the United States where I belonged

But I didn't. I got on the bus every day and learned a little bit of German and made it through the rest of the school year. Due in large part to a Dutch girl in my class who spoke fluent English and German. She translated everything for me and made sure I was invited to hang out with the kids after school. I loved her. She saved me from certain linguistic loneliness.

A good thing happened as a result of being submerged in a different language and culture: my brother and I became friends. Up until that time we had a sibling rivalry thing going on. But after we endured that bus stop together, and walked with each other through the door of the Gymnasium into the unknown each morning, we stopped being adversaries and became allies. When I think of my little sister, all alone at her German elementary school, I can't help but marvel at what a brave girl she was.

During Easter break that year our family stayed with a couple other missionary families at a chalet in the Austrian Alps. It was the first time that I had ever seen such breathtaking mountains. I was completely in awe of their majesty and of their Creator's majesty. It was a turning point for me because after that trip I was glad to have the opportunity to live there and see what I saw. I was glad even though it was hard to be an American in a German school in the American sector of West Germany. (I once received an anonymous "hate note" telling me to go home.) Still, after seeing the Alps, I was glad to experience both the good and the bad of living there. And I was glad for my Dutch friend and my new German friends.

I learned German too. Among other important German language lessons, I learned that if you order a pepperoni pizza you will get a pizza topped with green peppers. But I did not learn enough German to be able to learn Chemistry sufficiently. Consequently we looked for schools with lessons taught in English and found a boarding school for missionary kids called Black Forest Academy.

I don't remember if this was a prayer card or not... but it's a family picture taken in Holzen, West Germany. 1988

BFA was about seven hours from where we were living at the time. There were closer options, but I wanted to go there. I thought it would be fun to go to a boarding school. Perhaps I had read too many teen romance novels. Or something.

It was my home for the next three years. The first year, tenth grade, I lived in a dorm with twenty-one other girls, two twenty-something resident assistants, and an older couple we called our dorm parents. I liked it. And I hated it. It was teenage angst, 24/7. Sometimes we'd sneak out to roam the farmer's roads in the moonlight. Sometimes we'd anguish over unrequited teenage love. Always I was eager for a letter from home.

Since my parents traveled into Eastern Europe to do their work, they had the flexibility to choose where to live. The next year they moved to Holzen, near Black Forest Academy so that I could live at home and so that my brother and sister could attend school in English. I was happy to live at home again, though I truly am thankful for the experience of living in a dorm in a foreign country with a bunch of high school girls. It's a part of my story.

This prayer card photo was taken on furlough in the summer of 1989, before my senior year of high school. 

I loved our house with cows in the basement and the neighbor women who swept the streets on Saturdays. Holzen was home to me. That's why, when I was a freshman at a college in Illinois I was traumatized when my parents decided to move to Prague. I felt suddenly homeless. I hated it when people asked me where I was from, a question that I was often asked as a freshman. I didn't know what to say in reply.

I wanted to say I was from Germany because that's where home felt like to me. But it wasn't home anymore and never would be again. Besides, I wasn't German. My parents were spending the year in Minnesota. But I hadn't lived in Minnesota since I was five so that didn't feel like an honest answer. The last place I lived in America before moving to Germany was New York, but that was no longer home to me. Any time I tried to answer the question, I felt like it needed an explanation. But if I offered an explanation, I suspected by the way they shifted their weight or looked past me that they really didn't want one. It was supposed to have been a simple question with a simple answer. And so I learned to dismiss my story.

The summer before my sophomore year in college I helped my parents move to their new home in Prague. The church leader, who we had brought bibles to during our family "camping" trips when Czechoslovakia was still Communist, noticed that there were many English speakers moving to Prague. He invited my dad to be the pastor of their church's English speaking congregation.

The opportunity that my parents had to live on a day to day basis with the people they were working with, well, I understood that it was more valuable than my own need to have a neat answer for the where am I from question. I quickly forgave them for moving away from my Black Forest memories, to the "Paris of the East." I loved Prague with it's untarnished old world beauty. And I found new memories there. Among them: getting engaged to JD in front of my family on Christmas Day, 1993.

Prague, Czech Republic 1991. My last appearance on the family prayer card.

The prayer card of my family in Prague is my very favorite family photo taking memory. To be honest, it's really the only time I remember actually taking three rolls of pictures even though I like to say it was always that many. My dad had scoped out just the right spot to take the picture, but when we got there a large group of swans was sitting on the bank of the river right at the spot where we wanted to take the picture. Swans are very large birds and we were just a little bit afraid of making them angry because we'd heard some angry swan stories. But we braved those swans for the sake of the prayer card cause.

I had woken up on the day of the family photo outing with a big pimple on my chin and I was very concerned that it would show up in the pictures. I mentioned my concern every so often to Chuck, my parents' friend, while he was taking our pictures. "Can you see my zit? Should I turn my head a little bit? Would that angle be better so that you can't see it as well?" He was a good sport. 

Back in the day, sometimes you'd get a bonus exposure on your roll of film. At the end of the photo session with the swans, Chuck told us that we had an extra photo on the last roll. I suggested that we all hold our chins for this last bonus shot. I figured that was one way to make sure no one could see my zit. And by that point I was feeling silly. My little sister held her chin right away because she looked up to me and did whatever I said. (Something which I took advantage of on occasion, I admit, but have also profusely apologized for.) My brother just rolled his eyes, laughing at us. My dad was serious about getting a good prayer card shot and so he wanted each picture to count. But my mom hugged him and convinced him to have a little fun with it since we had just taken three rolls of film. Surely one would turn out. 

And that one last bonus shot turned out to be my absolute favorite picture of all:

A bonus snapshot of our family.

Yes, prayer cards are so much more than just family photos. They are family photos taken with hope. 

And hope does not disappoint.


Anonymous said...

Well-written and inspiring. Thank you for sharing this story! (The title piqued my interest after I Googled and read your birthday banner post.)

Unknown said...

Enjoying trolling through your blog for your "birthday party". Getting to know you further. Still amazed at how we have come to know each other and the friendship in Christ connection that I feel with you. Thankful for the ways that God brings people together.

I always appreciate what you've written when I take the time to read it. I like your outlook. I admire your faith. Perhaps what I have read in the past that I was most moved by was your family raising money at Christmas for a single mom in Africa to have a home. When your husband has to raise his own support, you are still there supporting others.

Thanks for sharing your life and letting others see Christ living in you.

-Kari Coppinger


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