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Rolling Church spreads message of hope

Pastor Jo takes his mobile church where others fear to tread swissinfo.ch

Pastor Jo Scharwächter is a man with a mission: to carry the Easter message of hope into the darkest corners of Swiss society.

This content was published on March 24, 2005 - 14:56

A former pimp, Scharwächter understands that if people won’t come to church, the church has to go to the people. Convinced of his calling, he set up a mobile church to take the Good News into the country’s red light districts and drug scenes.

"Hallelujah Jo" as he is known, says Switzerland’s smallest church is putting into practice the instruction given by Jesus to his followers in St Matthew’s Gospel: "Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

"We drive to motorway service stations, drug scenes and red light districts, set up our van and try to make contact with people," Scharwächter told swissinfo. "We hand out flyers and invite them to a service, which usually takes place two hours later.

"Anyone who wants to experience such a service comes. From the rich to the poor, a broad spectrum of the Swiss public attends," said the pastor and trained counsellor, who was born and brought up in the Netherlands.

Visiting brothels

But Scharwächter’s work goes far beyond the occasional service of worship within his blue caravan.

"We talk to them about their situation and try to offer them help, it’s evangelical social work that we do," explained the 61-year-old Dutchman.

"Every fortnight I go to a brothel to talk to the women about Jesus. One of the women there was a Christian. She just couldn’t find any other way to earn money, because no one gave her a chance.

"Whenever she found the possibility to talk with a client about Jesus, she did so. That way she brought the Christian message to Swiss top managers and showed them how to live with Christ."

As a trained counsellor, Scharwächter comes into contact with people who have differing needs. One of those he has helped is Monika Sutter. Sutter, who is in her 40s, sought counselling over her boyfriend’s drink problem.

"Shortly after my second session my boyfriend died of a heart attack, which was a huge shock," she told swissinfo. "I called Jo and told him, and he said immediately that he would come with me to the funeral in England, because he didn’t think I could cope by myself."

Sutter says she doesn’t think she could have come through the trauma without Scharwächter’s help.

"He understands people, and he has a love for his neighbour no matter who they are or where they come from. This love attracts people to him. What he does is simply amazing."

From pimp to pastor

Scharwächter says the reason he can relate to people on the fringes of society is that for many years he was part of the criminal underworld.

An unloved child, he took to crime and was jailed for the first time at the age of 15. He became a pimp and, at 18, took a conscious decision to become a professional criminal – a decision which led to a conviction for the attempted murder of a policeman.

"The turnaround came when a young woman, who later became my wife, showed me the way to God," Sharwächter explained. "After seeing a documentary on the Salvation Army, I knew that this was the place where God wanted me to be."

After a period of theological training, the one-time criminal became an officer with the Salvation Army and worked there for 16 years.

But his marriage suffered under the strains of the constant travelling involved in the job, and Scharwächter soon found himself out of the family home and the Salvation Army.

Once again, he had to rebuild his life. He asked God for forgiveness and embarked on training as a Christian counsellor in Switzerland.

Hallelujah Jo is a great believer in the power of redemption, and quotes the Bible passage in which Pontius Pilate agrees to the Jewish request to free a convicted criminal and instead hands Jesus over to be crucified.

"This passage is essential to me. It shows that, thanks to Jesus, even a criminal gets another chance to start over again and be redeemed. This is what I’ve experienced in my life and that’s the message that I’d like to pass to other people."

swissinfo

Key facts

During the Swiss national exhibition, Expo 02, a mobile church offered visitors a place of tranquillity and prayer.
This led Jo Scharwächter to the idea for the Rolling Church, which he set up in 2003.
The mobile church visits motorway service stations and red light districts, and invites people to take part in services of worship.

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