The plastic coin bank is called a Büchse, which means tin, but your mind builds a bridge between this German word and the English word box. You and David will refer to it as the Büchse even as you speak your own language. It’s coloured horizontally, three stripes of red, yellow and blue for The Salvation Army. Not the valiant colours of the flag: the burgundy of saving blood, the gold of refining fire, and the navy of the purifying spirit. Rather, this little container is the fire-engine red, canary yellow, and sky blue of a child’s toy, the kind with shapes that fit through matching slots. By the end of the night, the tin will be so heavy with loose change that the thin metal handles will dig into your forefinger, a discomfort you will find satisfying. In winter, gloves will cushion that pressure.
Waiting outside the bistro on Keithstrasse, this will become the time when you let go of the weeklong dread of Friday night and accept the imperative. It’s a small place, just a few tables; David figures the two of you would crowd it up, so he does this one alone. You stand on a grey stone sidewalk, looking up at well-appointed apartments girded by wrought iron balconies. Tonight is your first time ever, but every week will start like this, the spell of waiting that conjures a state of submission. By the time David emerges, you’ll be ready.
You might need to adjust your perceptions. Back in Canada, “pub-booming” is an old Salvationist tradition that exists mostly in the stories of old-timers. Occasionally, a group of cadets, clergy in training, make a jaunty project of handing out copies of the War Cry magazine to lonely old men in bars. In recent years, though, the more common activity is to offer coffee and conversation from the side of a mobile kitchen. But here in Germany, the Wirtschafftsmission, or Pub Mission, is integral to the financial operations of the small Salvation Army Corps. For David, assigned from the UK to serve as a missionary in Germany, the money collected on any given Friday night may very well be the amount that covers his family’s salary for that week. David would never tell you that himself, but that’s what you’ve been told.
“Haben sie keinen Lied fuer uns?”
Don’t you have a song for us? What happened to the good old days, when the Salvation Army came out with music? A group of four in a dark wooden booth, their food just been placed before them, they’re disinterested in me yet entertained by their own sense of humour. And there I was, bold as Sally Ann brass, taking up the challenge, singing the first thing that came to mind. And the restaurant went quiet; the people at the table were a little bit embarrassed, a little bit amused. And then there was applause and good-natured laughter, and the obligation to give. I felt larger than my uniform, large as life. I may have submitted to their whims, but I knew that for a half-minute, there was a spotlight on Me. Whatever I might do for David or the Salvation Army on that night, those four lines of Amazing Grace were all about Me, and those people with their plates of pig knuckle saw Me.
You have to be careful what you call it. Within the Army, the term “pub mission” carries a certain cachet, the “aroma of the knowledge of Christ.” If you are working in an administrative position, say at the National Headquarters level, you can talk of the “pub mission” and have in your head the idea that there are fine people bringing the good news of salvation to those in the depths of addiction and despair. You can believe that this is the Army doing what it was founded to do.
Try writing an article for the German War Cry about your experiences. The main idea would be that, in spite of your initial apprehension, you have grown to appreciate the unique experiences it provides. The article will first be edited by your supervisor, who wants to make it clear he is the one, as head of the National Youth Department, who has assigned you to participate in the effort. The people should know that the Army’s administration is just as active as those clergy on the front lines of spiritual service. Your article will then be revised by the War Cry editor to tidy up any suggestion of financial gain. The official line is that you are sharing the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear it. Granted, the public’s financial support helps to fuel the work we do, but you don’t want to sound mercenary when you talk about it.
Some Salvationists are less sensitive about the fact that this is a fundraising activity. When they talk about “selling War Crys” it might sound brazen; it is also slightly more realistic. But, you try passing off a religious tract as a consumer product, and see how much money you’ll make. No, anyone who has done it knows, there is nothing as appealing as the opportunity to be generous. And so your best bet is to stand up straight, smile graciously, and say “Do you have a little spende for the Heilsarmee?” And don’t forget to offer them a War Cry; you never know who might come to the Lord through the reading of the magazine.
On this night, there were four of us. David, speaking a slippery, slurred German, all English syllables sliding around the front of his mouth. I’d done this tour with him every Friday night for a month or so. Andreas, the Army’s PR representative in Berlin, was two metres tall and had curly hair down to his shoulders. He looked like a statue of The Modern Salvation Army Soldier. The reporter was diminutive, but had the poise of one who is accustomed to talking to strangers. At the start of the evening, I’d helped her put the pin on her shirt collar and clip into place the black felt hat with the burgundy crest; she’d been inclined to set it high on her forehead, and I’d shown her that it should sit just above her eyebrows.
On the street, between businesses, we made conversation. She asked me how I came from Canada to be working for the Salvation Army in Germany. I told her about my life back in Newfoundland, about my old office job, about my volunteer youth work, about my friends and family. I wanted her to see that I was a real girl. I joked to her that I came to the Army when I was a teenager, because of the cute boys in the youth group.
At one restaurant, a man beckoned David to his table and said, “I know three of you are the real thing,” then, pointing at the reporter, “but who is she?”
The Salvation Army is lesser known in Germany than it is in Canada or England. You can approach a group of young Germans, asking for a donation, and they’ll examine you from head to toe, confusion and distrust painting their faces, as they say, “Heilsarmee? What’s that?” But there are others who know a larger historical organization. Picture a portly man, cheeks and nose rounded and reddened with work and age, a mug of beer in his hand. When you approach him, you’ll get, “Heilsarmee? Always!” And then a flourish of wallet and paper money.
Every week, you’re likely to encounter at least one English-speaking person. You’ll make your request in German, and the tourist will point to her ear and say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” You’ll smile, exhale a little, and say, “That’s okay, my English is better than my German. I’m collecting for the Salvation Army.” For a moment, you’ll feel as if you’ve found a friend, and then she’ll say to her husband, “Oh, it’s the Salvation Army,” and they’ll exchange moment of visual communication as they decide what to do with this appeal.
One week, we tried a new route, around Alexanderplatz, the centre of the former East Berlin. During Communism, there was no Salvation Army in the east. We encountered many that night who were distrustful of the military-style dress. I was with my supervisor’s wife this time; he believed two women could bring in more money than a coed couple.
There was a group of guys, loud and laughing, apparently from England. I approached them in English. They seemed to think I was hitting on them, at least for a moment. Then they saw the uniform and their attitude changed to one more like respect but not lacking in machismo. They were curious about me, a Canadian girl in Berlin. My uniform may have had the effect of the iconic librarian’s cardigan and eyeglasses. One of the guys told me they were here for the weekend, the group of them. Then, a rowdy one asked me how much I wanted for my hat. I laughed, internally calculating how much it would cost to replace it. Someone offered me twenty euro. I countered with a hundred. We eventually settled on sixty euro and they pooled a thick wad of money. Outside the pub, when I explained to my partner what had happened, she instructed me to return the money and get my hat back. Lucky for me, the wad of euros they’d given me wouldn’t fit easily into the slot in the tin.
When I went back inside, the boys gave me the hat and let me keep the money too. One guy said, “How much for your underwear?” I assumed a mother hen pose, “Now, now!” and I realized how much I missed this kind of careless carousing.
This is the route around the KuDamm. You park the car on Keithstrasse, a quiet, mostly residential street, and head toward Wittenburgplatz. Lots of wide open space, stone and concrete, with pretty flashes of trees and flowers. Made for outdoor eating, most of the year. There’s a big monument that pays respect to people who lost their lives in the concentration camps under the Third Reich.
Down a side street to Kurfürstenstrasse, where there’s an Italian restaurant that’ll make you wonder. A large circular booth on one side of the bar, always with four or five men playing cards. The old guy sits in the centre, thick messy hair more salt than pepper. He wears polyester pants, blue plaid, and large glasses with thick square rims. A young man in a black leather trench coat approaches that table swiftly, consults with the old man. If you have an imagination, you might think he’s the grandson. His face is Roman, tanned and unblemished, his dark hair combed slick toward the nape of his neck. Something like impatience or urgency tightens the face of the young man, but on the faces of the older card-playing men, there’s a dangerous confidence. You’ll wonder if you should disturb their game, or if it might be more insulting to ignore their table altogether. Go ahead and approach them. They always make a donation, even the young guy, after he sees the old men give. You can’t imagine that this restaurant having casual diners; everyone here seems more like a fixture than a customer.
You’ll walk through streets advertising brands like GUCCI and Calvin Klein and BVLGARI. Large windows with singular items, an extravagance of empty space. This is where you’re most likely to encounter the English speakers, at the large Irish pub or the steakhouses with familiar names. You’ll cross an intersection, and there’s a newspaper kiosk. Every week, the large round man who works there will call out to you. He can’t leave his station, but if you go over to him he’ll always give you some loose change and a jolly greeting that eludes your fledgling German.
Farther up the KuDamm, the landscape looks rawer, the buildings lower, the vegetation wilder. The earlier parts of the route you’ll see before dark, at least in the seasons when the sun sets later, but this part of the tour will never see the light of day with you on it. Here, you’ll make your way through a confusing maze of booths; it’s hard to tell if it’s one big complicated restaurant or a constellation of small ones. On a generous night, you might feel free to skip this part of the route.
And then the long, brisk, glorious walk back, straight up the KuDamm to the car. No more stops, no more side streets. You’ll pass the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where a bomb dropped directly down through steeple, breaking the spire but leaving the building intact. Looks like a broken tooth.
It was a quiet street, with houses and even a few driveways. We approached a house with no sign, just a door, a peephole, and a doorbell. David rang the bell, and a white-haired man answered the door, speaking a precise, cultured English, “Oh, it’s the Salvation Army, please come in.” We entered a room, the size of Mom’s living room, with a bar opposite the door and just a couple of tables.
“Would you like a Shirley Temple? I know you don’t take alcohol.” On a busier night he wouldn’t have offered. Tonight there were just the regular old guy at the end of the bar and one other man, whom we didn’t recognize. The stranger lost his look of disdain when the large man handed us a fifty-euro note from his wallet and the white haired man gave us one hundred from his till. The large man asked for a War Cry, telling us he likes to leave them in the mailbox of his Muslim neighbour.
As he mixed our drinks, the white-haired man switched to his native German and explained to the stranger that he’d been a supporter of the Salvation Army ever since he was a young man and “found himself in difficult circumstances”. A phrase polished with repeated use, but the slight shimmer in the timbre of his voice told me that there was a whole story packed in that smooth line.
I was mesmerized by the mixing of this drink; a shot of something spread pink through the juice in the glass. Grenadine? He told David, if the band could come at Christmas time, he would pack the place with his customers. They could have a good old fashioned carol-sing, and perhaps David might give a short sermon. He promised moist eyes and generous wallets. My first sip of his drink, the citrus tang seeped through my consciousness, and my quiet politeness burst like a pomegranate seed, “Oh, this is so good!”
So here you are now, outside that first tiny restaurant, your first night, waiting for David. Look across the street, the grey stone buildings that look like a movie set of Europe. Remind yourself you’re really here. This is a real Berlin street. This isn’t exactly what you pictured when you imagined yourself living and working abroad. You’re hardly a tacky tourist, but this task will make you more conspicuous than you ever wanted to be.
Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.
The Youth Department had been invited to host an assembly at a private Christian school. We’d performed sketches and sang songs. Afterwards, we’d talked with teenagers one-on-one. That had been earlier in the week, Monday morning.
It was now Friday night, we were just finishing my first night on pub mission. A girl came up the stairs from U-Bahn, Berlin’s underground train. She called out as she approached, all staggery and dreamy, maybe stoned? “You were at my school!” she said, “You sang! It was sooo pretty.” She gave me a hug, and then moved on with her friends, past the big church with the broken steeple.
The Pub Mission was first published in Windsor Review in 2010.
Check out my Reading Room for more bits of creative writing.