Cultural homogeneity and diversity both affect assimilation

I'm listening to a news account of how difficult it is for Germans to accept the refugees Angela Merkel has invited into the country. Back in 1991, I went to Germany for a conference on economic conversion from military to commercial production. First I stayed in Frankfurt with two friends from an international nonviolence circle. Then I went to Kaiserslautern for the conference and from there north to Hamburg to visit a Catholic Worker community.

Finally I went further north, almost to Denmark, to visit Friedemann Green, a pastor I had worked with when he did his conscription alternative service with the United Farm Workers in Florida, back in the '70s. We had memories and lives to catch up on.

One morning I walked with him through the cemetery behind the churchyard. There, the dead from the first and second great wars were marked with stones in their family plots. You could see at a glance how many men were killed in these wars. And there was a stone memorial to murdered Jews.

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Friedemann spoke that morning about how difficult it was in his parish to assimilate East Germans. I tried to say to him that I could grasp the difficulty of assimilation because I was so astounded at how homogenous Germany was. In all three homes where I was a guest, morning coffee was made exactly the same way. Breakfast was heavy bread and cheese and possibly a piece of ham. And on the train, no one spoke within the compartments, but upon leaving, a passenger would say farewell and thank you to the others. Everybody did this.

Homogeneity is a great charm and strength of Germany, but it's a flaw that hampers refugee resettlement. Meanwhile, here in the United States, our diversity has made assimilation easier for the immigrant -- whether documented or not. But these days our diversity may tear us apart. We have to hold on to what we share, treasure our common values, and above all love one another.


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