This month marks 10 years since the big Columbia Seminary Jan Term in Geneva. A couple dozen of us went that year, along with a group of DMin students. It was a spectacular trip and thanks to that experience, I still get the urge to travel each January. Several years ago I wrote some memories of the experience. I’m posting them this week in the hopes that it will inspire some of the other Geneva folks to reminisce as well.
This post begs for pictures, but I don’t have any that are scanned. Use your imagination…
Part VI: Geneva
After two days here, two days there, Geneva is where we got to unpack and live for a while.
We took a day train from Florence to Geneva, meandering around mountain after spectacular mountain. Geneva finally announced itself in quiet glory; we came around a mountain pass, and suddenly Lake Geneva lay shimmering before us. We had arrived.
We stayed at the Cenacle, a beautifully simple retreat center with single rooms, a huge common area, a cool and quiet chapel, and rustic bread and jam for breakfast, and a unisex bathroom and shower. OK, that made for some funny conversations.
We commuted via bus each morning to the World Council of Churches for classes, then spent the afternoons shopping, sight-seeing, hanging out, and occasionally studying.
Geneva is a wonderful city, no doubt about it. Cosmopolitan, bustling, convenient to get around. The John Calvin sites are sure to please even the nerdiest of Presbyterians. We toured Calvin’s church, stood next to Calvin’s pulpit, and took photographs next to Calvin’s immense statue. The church used to be decorated with ornate frescoes, but in a zealous attempt to root out any idolatry in the church, Calvin and his associates had the walls scrubbed clean. There’s one secluded corner where the frescoes still remain, but are barely visible—little ghosts of pre-Reformation worship, lurking in the shadows.
Geneva has scrumptious food. The fondue was first-rate, and the chocolate! Oh, the chocolate. You know Hershey’s Miniatures? The bag of assorted chocolates—Mr. Goodbar, Special Dark, etc.? Imagine bags like that, available in every shop, and filled with chocolate that doesn’t suck.
The class was interesting, too—an introduction to the work of the World Council of Churches, and an opportunity to research a topic relating to global Christianity. My group researched the role of the worldwide church in advocating for an end to apartheid. How does the church witness for change, while acknowledging its complicity in unjust systems? That is always the question.
Geneva is a city with gravitas. It’s the home of the World Council of Churches, but also the United Nations European office, the World Health Organization, the International Red Cross (and its wonderfully moving and informative museum)… and last but not least, a place I never would have visited if I hadn’t been married to a geek, CERN, “the world’s largest particle physics laboratory” according to its website.
But for me, Geneva was all about the Cenacle’s common room. Most seminaries like to harp on the importance of community. Building community, creating community, an inclusive community, a diverse community. Blah blah blah. I lived off campus in seminary, so I sometimes felt separated from the heart of the community; but for me, the common room was community. In one corner sat huge brown couches—the American kind, big and slothful, the kind of couches that eat paperbacks and loose change. There was always someone sitting there, ready to chew the fat. The rest of the room was filled with mismatched tables, usually packed with people playing hearts or spades. Day and night, the place hopped. And when I didn’t feel like hopping, I could retire to my cozy single room, to read, write, or make plans for my free weekend: