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Filling a Niche Abroad

Ministry: Former Angeleno and his family now live in a tiny Swiss village. The adjustment has required persistence, but his open manner has won residents over.

April 25, 1998|HELENA BACHMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DOMMARTIN, Switzerland — Although many people go to America to seek their dreams, Jeff Berkheiser left Los Angeles two decades ago to find his in Switzerland. When the former city dweller gazes out of his window now, he sees cows and sheep grazing in the meadow across the road. His house, a sturdy parsonage with whitewashed walls and green shutters, dates to 1602, which, he pointed out, "is 18 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock."

So what is a Californian, a former U.S. Navy officer, doing in this Swiss village of 250 people and 204 cows 40 miles east of Geneva? "You might say I was open to go where God would guide me, to follow his will," he said.

After serving on a destroyer in the Pacific in the Vietnam War and graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Berkheiser came to Switzerland in 1976 on a special visa allowing him to play on and coach a small-town basketball team--the only way he found to obtain a hard-to-get Swiss work permit.

The real aim of the relocation, however, was to use Switzerland as the base for an evangelical mission targeting Soviet-bloc countries. When that fizzled, Berkheiser and his wife, Donna, made a decision that changed their lives.

"We decided that we either had to commit ourselves long-term here or we would pack up and go back to the U.S.," he said. "Having already lived here for several years, we opted to stay."

After working for several years for a youth ministry, learning French--the language spoken in this part of Switzerland--and acquiring pastoral training, the Berkheisers and their four children, now ages 9 through 19, settled in Dommartin, where the post of the village pastor needed to be filled.

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When the Berkheisers moved in, they had to share the parsonage with another family. "One day, the mayor came to visit and asked how the two families were managing with just one bathroom," he recalls.

"Well, I told him that it did not pose any problems--first all the kids went in the bathtub, then all the adults. The mayor was quite taken aback; he was obviously not used to such a straightforward and humorous answer."

Despite the lighthearted approach, the Berkheisers' early days were not worry-free, especially as the Swiss are often suspicious of foreigners, particularly in small, close-knit communities with no outsiders.

For Berkheiser, who was not only American, but also inexperienced in rural living, it was a double challenge. "I heard a lot about the so-called village mentality, and I wondered whether I'd be able to integrate," he said.

"Often, when a new minister comes in, he starts changing things around," he said. "But I did not want to come in here with my own plans. After all, there was an established Christian community here, and I wanted to get close to the people and find out what their needs were."

He also adopted what he calls a "California-style openness."

"I say 'hi' to everyone, stop and chat. I try to conduct services in a clear, direct style, and not to impress anyone with my theological knowledge," he said.

The villagers warmed up to Berkheiser's open manner. Parishioner Dominique Delessert said a big part of the American's appeal is his readiness to listen. "He might be going somewhere in his car, but if he meets someone on the way, he always takes the time to stop and talk," she said.

Since formal counseling "is not in the Swiss mentality, especially village mentality," Berkheiser said, he lends an ear in an unobtrusive way in most unlikely places.

"It's a grass-roots approach to the ministry," he said. "You discover people's needs and sensitivities while talking to a farmer in the stables or by visiting him in his house.

"People keep telling me I should stay American enough to shake them up a little and get them to move ahead," he added. "They don't want me to become so set in local ways that I won't have anything new to offer."

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