2006-09-22 / Community

First Congregational Church Welcomes German Pastor

By Patricia Hannan

Interim Pastor Peter Dennebaum welcomes all to First Congregational Church, an affiliation of the United Church of Christ, one of the most diverse Christian churches in the U.S.Interim Pastor Peter Dennebaum welcomes all to First Congregational Church, an affiliation of the United Church of Christ, one of the most diverse Christian churches in the U.S.

Welcome, Pastor Dennebaum, or as they say in German, Willkommen!

Peter Dennebaum, the new interim pastor at the First Congregational Church in Rockaway Beach, told The Wave this week that congregants have welcomed him with open arms during his first days there. And they've helped him some confusion about American customs.

"When the people told me there was going to be a shower after worship, I thought, 'But I already took a shower. Maybe they mean everybody gets into their bathing suit and goes swimming?'"

Instead, he found the members of First Congregational had planned a welcome party for him, following his first service as interim pastor last Sunday morning. "Their welcome was overwhelming," Dennebaum recalled. "There were bagels, cake, and then came so many presents; it was like Christmas!" he gushed.

Dennebaum was called to First Congregational when the former Reverend Jan Powell left in June to continue her mission at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park, Illinois. Dennebaum had served as vicar at the Protestant Church of Hessen und Nassau in Germany from September 2003 until June of this year. He arrived in Rockaway on Saturday, September 9.

"I came with only two suitcases," Dennebaum explained. "Everything was empty [inside the provided living quarters]; there was only a guest bed [in my room]," he added. But the congregation showered their new pastor with an array of gifts - everything from shower curtains to kitchen utensils.

Through his thick German accent, it's obvious that English isn't Dennebaum's first language. But he speaks well enough to deliver his sermon and engage in a lively and extensive conversation with you. In fact, with his warm and wide smile, and down-to-earth personality, Dennebaum is a people person, making them feel comfortable and welcome in his presence. Still, he seems eager to learn more of our language. "I know I must exercise my English more because I want to understand the people," he explained. Having been in Rockaway for less than two weeks now, his English is already improving. Now he knows what it means to have a shower party for someone.

Born on September 22, 1967 in Mainz, Germany, Dennebaum is the oldest of four brothers. After completing the required nine-year high school education at Episcopal-Willigis secondary school, his career path began to emerge. In lieu of going into the army, he spent the next three years doing civil service at the intensive care unit at Workers' Welfare Association Nursing Home and Lebenshilfe home for the mentally disabled. It became clear to him that pastoral care was Dennebaum's forte.

At 20 years old, he converted from Roman Catholic to the Protestant denomination. "The reason was the way I saw how Protestant churches in Germany after the second World War took on responsibility for civil rights, ecological and ecumenical issues. In the early 80s, I had seen Protestant ministers with demonstrations against armament and nuclear energy. I saw their engagement for the protection of peace and the Creation. Furthermore, I saw more democratic structures than in the Catholic church, for example, more freedom and possibilities to change things," Dennebaum said.

Upon the completion of his civil service, Dennebaum made a life-changing decision to study theology instead of law. He studied at three universities, Humboldt-Universitat in Berlin; Universitat Hamburg; and Eberhard-Karls-Universitat in Tubingen, and he received his degree in 1997.

Dennebaum became animated when recounting his experiences touring the Middle East in 1993 in preparation for his thesis, which focused on interreligious dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He is a self-proclaimed storyteller; he believes telling stories is the easiest way to understand anything. "I was taken in by many Islamic families, who gave me a place to sleep," he explained. "It's funny, the Muslims were teaching me how to be a Christian," he added.

After university, the road to pastoral service was blocked, due to a financial crisis at his church. So for the next six years, he concentrated on working in the corporate world, holding managerial positions at both DaimlerChrysler IT-services and Commerzbank, one of Germany's leading banks. Though Dennebaum learned valuable lessons and became successful in the business world, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing - the conviction that his job was important.

In 2003, he began working in the field of pastoral care, which he knew was his real strength. His participation in the Vikariat, a three-year program at his regional church, the Landeskirche Hessen-Nassau, resulted in his ordination as a minister, a path through which he hopes to accompany people on their way to finding themselves and God, and to fight for human rights.

With his being called to First Congregational by his church in Germany, Dennebaum is reminded of the UCC policy to be "open, affirming, and accessible to all." The generosity of the people proved to Pastor Dennebaum just that. "You know, so many people speak a lot but they do little. But these people, they don't talk. They act," he said.


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