"Christmas is a really tragic story"

Brother Benno has a heart for those on the margins of society

The harsh reality of the first Christmas is repeated in many places in different ways, Franciscan monk Brother Benno Kehl tells swissinfo.

This content was published on December 25, 2008 minutes

Brother Benno, aged 42, has seen his fair share of misery and poverty in Switzerland as he goes out into the streets of Zurich several times a week, offering help to people who have lost their way in life.

To experience something of the joy of Christmas, he advises people to open their hearts and homes to strangers and those on the margins of society.

Brother Benno, who has just published a book about his experiences, says he doesn't expect thanks for the help he offers to Zurich's marginalised. He is often at the receiving end of aggression and anger, and has been attacked on more than one occasion.

swissinfo: What does Christmas make you think of?

Brother Benno: On the one hand I think of the traditional things: family festivities, beautiful songs, candles, turkey or whatever. But the reality of Christmas is different.

I believe Jesus Christ is the light of the world, or the meaning [of life] for everyone who believes in Him. In reality there was a crib, an underage mother, no real father that He knew. The only people who came to visit were on the margins – shepherds or foreigners. The official authorities didn't want to know and the family had to flee.

Christmas is a really tragic story, a story that unfortunately happens in many places. Christ came into this darkness and shared in this kind of misery from the beginning. He was certainly loved very much by Mary, Joseph and the angels but the external reality was harsh.

swissinfo: What are you going to be doing at Christmas?

B.B.: We are organising a Christmas for single people but couples are also welcome. The people on the margins of society are invited. I know there will be former prisoners coming, for example. We'll eat and try to have a pleasant time together and we'll have a religious service.

The word single can also mean lonely and in a way it's a kind of cry for contact with people. We'll try to provide that. It's something new and I don't have a clue how it's going to be. It might go totally wrong because expectations are high and reality is reality.

swissinfo: Who exactly are the people who come here?

B.B.: We get all kinds of people: men and women, people with addictions, many with more than one problem – alcohol, pills, heroin, cocaine, or anything they can get. Some are living on social welfare. We also have invalids who have mental illnesses, and there are more and more foreigners. These are all people who have not been able to find a proper place in society.

swissinfo: How easy is it to have contact with such people?

B.B.: It depends. There is no real problem except when they are aggressive or have drug withdrawal difficulties or have taken too many drugs. Then it can be difficult, but usually they are very open to me.

They tell me I'm not there for them as much as they would like... but I can't be everywhere. It's nice to hear: 'you are not here enough'. But that was one reason why last week someone threw a punch in my face.

swissinfo: So where does your motivation come from?

B.B.: '...inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.' (St Matthew, Chapter 25). That means the appreciation doesn't come from people but from the mystery that is Christ.

swissinfo: You've spoken about a fist in your face. What other bad experiences have you had?

B.B.: I've seen people die from an overdose, I've had to tell fathers that their son has died, and there have been disputes and conflicts. Several times I've been punched, and once I was even involved in a shooting incident.

The question is how you deal with such traumas. And, in the spirit of Christ, out of the wound comes resurrection. That's the special secret in the back of my mind about Christmas.

swissinfo: What kind of message do you have for so-called normal people, people who will probably eat and drink too much at this time of the year?

B.B.: If you want to experience Christmas, go out into the countryside, celebrate Christmas in the woods and take a little crib and feel how cold it was [in Bethlehem when Jesus was born].

Or if you want to meet people, invite a 'shepherd' in - that can be someone who lives on the fringes. Or a king from the Orient - a Muslim or someone with a different coloured skin and language. Look for people you don't know and celebrate with them in your home. Then I think you've experienced something of Christmas.

swissinfo: Have you ever had moments when you've said that you don't want to continue doing this?

B.B.: When you are exhausted you might ask that question but deep down I know that at this stage of my life, it is the will of God and I want to fulfil this task.

swissinfo: The title of your latest book translated roughly into English is: "God is free of charge, but not for nothing". What do you mean by that?

B.B.: The gift of love and mercy, or the inner strength that changes our lives is offered free, so to speak. But if you are moved by this and say 'yes' to following God, it can also cost you.

If you take God really seriously you will say: 'Dear God here's my bank book, my house, what do you want to do with them?' He may tell you to take someone in... and that can cost you really quite a lot (laughs).

swissinfo: Do you feel you are rich or poor?

B.B.: You become rich through Christ, and if you don't, you are not following Christ.

I personally have no money. I look after money as a trustee for quite a number of organisations. We live from donations. We take what we need; the rest we give to people... and so we feel that we are rich.

swissinfo-interview: Robert Brookes in Zurich

Brother Benno-Maria Kehl

The 42-year-old Franciscan lives in a small community on the island of Werd near Stein-am-Rhein in northeastern Switzerland.

He grew up in a Roman Catholic family, did an apprenticeship as a carpenter, led a youth group and had a girlfriend, whom he loved. Despite this he had the feeling of being "in the wrong film". Parting from her was a sad experience.

After joining the monastery, he studied theology and underwent training as a social therapist.

The charismatic monk has given many television, radio and newspaper interviews and is best known for his work helping marginalised people, particularly drug addicts, in Zurich.

Apart from helping people on the streets, Brother Benno has an ambitious project in Burkina Faso, where he is aiming to build a dam to help people in one locality.

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Brother Benno's book

Franciscan monk Brother Benno has made three vows – those of poverty, obedience and chastity.

Since making them, his life has a meaning. But he wants more: a gift of hope for those who no longer believe in the future.

In his book Gott is gratis, aber nicht umsonst (God is free of charge, but not for nothing, he recounts his experiences as a street worker in the Swiss city of Zurich with those people on the margins of society.

The daily confrontation with misery and despair put his faith to the test.

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