Posted: 5/9/18 at 11:15am. Written by Will Cumbia.
It’s a really quite a remarkable space. Currently very dusty, but even layers of concrete dust can’t hide the character of the space.
Most know it as the Donauhof, or Danube court, in English. Throughout its history it has been known as a hotel, a mechanic’s shop, and a woodworking warehouse.
Now, my church just wants to call it home.
The pale, yellow building in Vienna’s second district sits just a block from the historic Danube river. The second district was historically the Jewish district of Vienna, so it’s no surprise that the Donauhof’s first life was as a hotel run by a Jewish family. You can still see fingerprints of this hotel in the present day building: gorgeous original parquet wood floors, nicotine stained ceilings in the old bar, and the space’s main feature, a cavernous ballroom framed by two huge fireplaces.
Walking around the dusty building, you can almost feel the life that once animated the space. Unfortunately, like many things, World War II stole life away from where it had once thrived. Once Austria was annexed by Hitler, it became illegal for Jews to own property and businesses. And so the Donauhof, like countless other spaces across Europe, was seized by the Nazis.
We don’t know what became of the family that owned the hotel; but after the war, like most other seized properties, the first floor of the Donauhof was sold. After all, families had already moved into the newly refurbished apartments that once acted as hotel rooms. How could you kick out a dozen good Austrian families to return property to one Jewish family?
Walls were torn down, concrete poured over the wood floor, and soon cars were driving into the old ballroom for routine inspection. Eventually, cars gave way to saws and woodworking equipment, and piles of axe handles and hobby horses began to litter the space.
And then it came time for a new opportunity. In 2014 the Donauhof was yet again up for sale. Numerous national grocery store chains pounced on the opportunity for the prime real estate in the growing second district.
And another group put their name in the running. A relatively small community of refugees, students, toddlers, and theologians who had only recently officially been recognized as a church by the government. A motley crew showed up to the fight empty-handed, facing giants.
And yet, somehow, through divine providence perhaps, a small, crazy bunch of Baptists won the fight.
Suddenly this rough, broken, tired, storied space became ours.
For the past three years, the Donauhof has been an ongoing project, chipping away at the concrete and walls to unearth the lively space it once was. To see past the rubble to what the space could be. To breathe life back into a space where life was snatched away.
I love the vision that my church has for this space. We aren’t shoving it into a cookie cutter church mold with lights, a stage, a cross, and pulpit. No, our Donauhof will be so much more than that.
It will be a cafe, where refugees will work. Where the whole community is welcome to gather for coffee or a beverage. And its profits will support our refugee integration work in the church, blessing refugees for years to come.
It will be a co-working space. A space where young entrepreneurs can rent a desk and dream. Where new ideas are born and become something beautiful.
And it will be a big, amazing ballroom open as a conference space. A gathering place for all people: for a businesswomen’s conference, a Baptist missions conference, a fancy birthday party.
And yes, a church too. But it will never look like what you think a church should look like. There will be no Austrian flag hanging next to a Christian flag. There will be no cross or crucifix on the wall. There will be no pews or incense or hymnals or flowers.
In fact the only way someone will know it’s a church is by the people who gather there. And isn’t that a truer representation of a church than any space could ever be?
And so, a building that once held life and belief and God will once again live. Because the living God will dwell in the hearts of those who worship there. And our praises and prayers and love will seep into its walls so that everyone who walks into the Donauhof will encounter the Spirit of God.
I love that my church lives by faith. That it goes up against huge corporations to follow the path that God put them on. And how at every step of this project we have collectively learned to live more and more by faith.
God has brought us again and again back to God’s feet, empty handed, exhausted, and uncertain.
And God has provided at every step. As I know God will do again now.
We find ourselves yet again here at God’s feet, empty handed. A few weeks ago we hit a significant roadblock: we are not permitted to use the space for any purpose for the foreseeable future. This includes services for our growing church and any events that could bring in desperately needed funds. And without funds we can’t finish the remodeling work, the most important of which includes fire doors, smoke-proof glass in the skylights, and other things required to get the proper permits.
Regardless of the obstacles in our path, we will not give up. We refuse to give up, for we believe that God has called us to this space. And while a couple hundred thousand Euros is daunting to us, we worship a God of abundant miracles.
Who takes a few fish and feeds thousands.
Who turns some water into an excess of fine wine.
Who tells his disciples, “Try the other side of the boat,” and overwhelms them with abundance.
And who defeats death over and over and over again to breathe in new life.
Help us breathe new life into this space, so that God’s glory may be magnified.
If you are interested in supporting this project financially, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Grace and Peace,
For more reflections on Will’s time as a Venturer in Austria, check out his blog https://willswanderings.wordpress.com/blog/