I wanted this city to be my next home. Wrapped up in a rich history that promised hope and growth. Who wouldn’t want that? The chocolate, the watches, the countryside, and the mountains. And the Reformation.
Three days. I had only three days to experience the rich urban culture, endure the blistering early winter without an extra coat, and explore the churches that birthed the Reformation 500 years ago. And convince an exceptional faculty at ETH Zürich that I was good enough.
Good enough. A kid from an unknown town where half the population was killed by AIDS. An orphaned child despised by many and educated by grace. And a thousand letters of regret from universities and companies in Australia, Europe, and North America in less than a year. I wasn’t good enough.
I was heading for an interview, but it felt like I journey into personal discovery. Although I had never been there, I knew where I was going but I didn’t know how it will go. I knew who I will meet but I didn’t know what they would think. I just went.
The taxi spiraled through the quiet streets. A tramp passed, a car overtook and my mind raced. I watched in awe at the urban jungle unfolding before me like a storyline in a crime thriller. The chilly weather outside complimenting my anxiety created a suspenseful atmosphere.
An interview at the heart of the Reformation
I wanted nothing to distract my incoherent thoughts, but the nice Indian driver didn’t want any of it; people here are nice and friendly, the streets are normally empty by 8 pm, shopping is best done in Germany or Italy, it’s not easy finding an apartment and Zürich is the best place to call home. He had every answer on life in Switzerland but I had only one question, which I knew he couldn’t answer: was Zürich going to be my next home?
A soundtrack of cryptic Swiss German conversations echoed melodramatically in the background ushering an unnerving episode of suspense in my life. I was the only one who spoke English with a light accent. Yet, I had to repeat everything for people to understand me.
I became self-conscious; I talked too fast and too quiet, I walked too fast, ate too slow and sat too awkwardly. I guess interviews make you too jittery. After all, I was one of the two black people on campus. “I have never hired a person from Africa,” my potential boss mumbled, “Well, I never had someone qualified enough apply.”
I didn’t know what to think. Was I supposed to be happy that I am the first African called for an interview? Was this an indication that he probably had problems with black people? If so, why would he make me take a 12-hour flight?
But that wasn’t all.
“Swiss people laugh in the basement. They are too formal but they think they’re more outgoing than Americans,” a German guy told me. I wanted to tell him about an incident that happened an hour earlier. I couldn’t. He was one of the people interviewing me.
“Swiss is known for red tape more than its chocolate,” a Swiss lady volunteered, “But it’s helpful though as you can see everything around here’s orderly.” She was working on my reimbursement with a lady behind a counter. It was true, the small Post Office even had US dollars.
There was a problem, I could tell from the tone in her voice. A heated exchange ensued yet both of them remained calm and kept smiling. They all turned to me and shook their heads, as if saying, “I’m sorry you had to witness the ugly side of Swiss bureaucracy.”
Meeting Ulrich Zwingli and co.
Friday evening, I took a tram to the famous Grossmünster. This is the place where the Reformation began. I was going to sit in the church that Ulrich Zwingli broke the status quo. Sitting in the tram, my mind wandered to the 16th Century.
How did it feel hearing forced fasting, religious images, and celibacy among priests openly condemned?
Ulrich Zwingli probably didn’t know, together with his German compatriot Martin Luther, they were starting a theological tradition that will survive 500 years.
The tram stopped and the driver said something in Swiss German. Whatever he said it wasn’t good because people began disembarking. Police lined up the streets dressed up in SWAT-like gear. There was something going on somewhere. And I didn’t care.
Two and a half miles from the Grossmünster, nothing wasn’t going to stop me from getting there. My resolve was steadfast like the gospel as succinctly captured by Ulrich Zwingli.
For God’s sake, do not put yourself at odds with the Word of God. For truly it will persist as surely as the Rhine follows its course. One can perhaps dam it up for awhile, but it is impossible to stop it.
After 30 minutes, I finally arrived at the Grossmünster.
It took long but it was worth it. Yes, I sat in the Grossmünster, prayed in that iconic church, and marveled at its heritage. In those walls, Ulrich Zwingli transformed a Catholic Mass into a Protestant worship service.
As the wooden tiles beneath me in the serene pew, I took off to the tower. Half a dozen people were ahead of me. The small hall spiraled up, panting like a dog in trapped in a desert, I made it to the top. Before I could collect myself, I came face to face with the indescribable Zürich skyline.
Was this beauty ever a distraction to Ulrich Zwingli or his protégé, Heinrich Bullinger?
A Lesson from Zürich
The Zürich skyline was like a mirror of my life, poetic and scary. I tried to ignore the unction by taking pictures of the Fraumünster, Predigerkirche and St. Peter, the main churches during the Swiss Reformation. 500 years ago, Zürich was a center of the Reformation, yet it is now a center of opulence with its theological tradition shrinking.
Will I choose opulence over knowing God? A trip to the Fraumünster settled it. I did not sit in the pew because it was getting dark and I did not know my way back to the hotel. I headed to the basement where letters by the church fathers were kept. One letter stood out, it was by Johanne a Lasco to Heinrich Bullinger.
And there’s no human wisdom, no endeavor to which I attach so much importance that I would rely on it without the Word. Indeed I know that I will not be judged one day by people, however, clever and gifted they might be, but according to the pure and everlasting word of God, which was conveyed to us by our Lord Jesus Christ through his Apostles.
I left Zürich with my mind made. Zürich, like the rest of Europe, was choosing opulence over Christ. And in Africa, where I was headed, the church Incorporated opulence in the gospel. The prosperity gospel was an attempt in exploiting the best of both worlds.
But Christ said (Matthew 6:24), “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
A month later, I received a response from ETH Zürich – another letter of regret. Yes, I missed out on a job I was going to earn four times my current salary. But I learned more about Ulrich Zwingli, walked through the centers of the Swiss Reformation and visited Europe and Asia for the first time. And I also missed a flight for the first time.