Volume 19 Number 1
Beyond Her Wildest Dreams
01 February 2006
Elsa Vogel tells Paul Williams why those who have suffered have so much to give.
WHAT CAN stir us so deeply that, despite the pain, we are prepared to make changes in our lives and to create new initiatives?' asks Elsa Vogel. 'When this happens it can have repercussions beyond our wildest dreams.'
Now living with her husband Laurie in Birmingham, she was born in Paris in 1925. Looking back, she has no doubt where her own journey to faith began. 'My father was a Norwegian industrialist. Besides his legal family, he had a family outside of marriage and I am one of three children of that union. I never lived with him or bore his name.' She says there was never any possibility of an acknowledgement from her father. 'The all-important thing at that time was to hide such a situation.'
She was eight years old when she discovered the truth. 'I experienced what it was to be hurt and to feel shame. At that time illegitimacy carried a real stigma.' It made her rebellious and difficult to live with, she recalls.
At the age of 15 she was taking studies to prepare for her first communion in her Presbyterian church-and wrestling continually with the unfairness of life. 'Walking in a Paris street, I determined not to be confirmed, since society had given me nothing. Then I heard a voice deep in my heart saying, "You don't need a physical father. I am your Father and you are my daughter. I will look after you for the rest of your life if you live as I want you to." It was amazing- God was reaching into me.'
She said nothing about this experience to anyone. But the next day on waking she had the thought, 'If God loves me so much, I will stop stealing money from my mother and my piano teacher.' She explains that she had been doing this quite often. 'I stopped from one day to the next. Faith was born in me.'
After finishing secondary school, she went to study at the School of Medicine of the University of Paris. She had lived as a schoolgirl through the German occupation of Paris and witnessed much that was painful and distressing. So when she met two young women whose families were engaged, through the work of Initiatives of Change, in building reconciliation between France and Germany she was immediately interested. Captivated by their approach, she agreed to experiment with listening in silence to the inner voice. 'It was for me a moment of truth. I was lying to hide my family situation. The thought came, "You have been hurt, but you have also hurt others. You are clinging on to bitterness. Be honest with your mother and thank her for having brought you up." '
Her first reaction to the latter was 'Impossible!' But, although it took her a year, she eventually did it. 'I experienced a great sense of liberation. It was a big step on my journey of faith-realising that it had to become practical, lived out in everyday life.'
After two more years at medical school, she felt a call to give her whole life to reconciliation and the adventure of faith through the work of Initiatives of Change. Initially this involved reconciliation between France and Germany, but it led on to service in Latin America.
While in Brazil she found herself living alongside young people who had similar family problems to her own. 'As we talked together I realised I still felt, at bottom, that we were victims of our parents' choices. It came as a shock to realise how much bitterness I still had. So I gave an ultimatum to God-"Give me a full answer or I will stop working for you." The answer came in a time of reflection, "If you are still bitter and hurt it is because you blame others and don't accept any responsibility yourself."
'She had not asked to come into the world, she argued.' But, with great care, God took me back to when I was eight and discovered the truth about my family. He showed me how at that time I had closed my heart and chosen bitterness, and carried it around for 15 years. That choice had been mine-it was not made by my parents. I felt God was saying he was more concerned about that than about the circumstances of my birth. Though hard to accept, I knew it was true. The bitterness went and never returned.'
Having gone to Latin America for an initial two years, Elsa stayed for 41. It was a time, she says, packed with adventures, one of which was meeting and marrying her British husband, Laurie. Looking back at that time, she says, 'I learned that significant changes in society are born when there is a deep change in individuals, who go on to find a life's mission under God.