At a wedding this weekend, I met yet another German who spent a high-school year abroad in the U.S., and came back a bit nonplussed, to put it mildly. She was placed with a family in a small town in a rural part of Indiana. There, she learned excellent English, and was introduced to baseball games, barbecue, apple pie, and…Jesus.
She was placed with a Lutheran family, which seemed like a good fit, since she herself was a "Lutheran" (that is, Protestant) German. But, as she soon found out, there are followers of Luther's teachings and there are American Lutherans. Her student-exchange host family spent all day Sunday at the church (Bible study, potluck dinners, etc.) and sometimes attended services during the week. They always invited her to come along, and clearly expected her to say yes. They asked about her views on issues such as abortion, sex education, etc. Eventually, all the God talk made her uncomfortable, and she begged off more and more religion-related activities. This caused friction, and the relationship broke down entirely. She requested a transfer to another family before Christmas.
You might chalk this up to bad luck. But I've now heard versions of this story from dozens of Germans. Usually, they add that their student-exchange host family was friendly and accommodating, and that they learned a lot. But the omnipresence of religion is intimidating. The host families often declare the German exchange students' views to be shockingly lax, and invite the student to impromptu Bible studies to help the poor German understand "Jesus' plan for their lives" better.
The exchange students can't escape or parry this proselytizing. They depend on their host family for everything, and are often placed in towns or suburban developments which don't resemble European neighborhoods (i.e., you need a car to get anywhere). Since their English is far from perfect, they find it difficult to disagree with their host families (or make excuses) without seeming rude. By the time the student year abroad is at an end, they're convinced — to put it bluntly — that the U.S. is a nation of religious zealots. For the rest of their lives, they describe their experience to many people who've never visited the USA.
Now, a little religious proselytizing is hardly the worst thing that could happen to a German exchange student in the U.S. But shouldn't student-exchange programs take this factor into account? The programs seems to run mostly by private volunteers and non-profits. I'd be interested to know if there's a code of conduct that requires host families to sign a contract respecting exchange students' religious autonomy. A short search reveals at least one group that explicitly advertises for American host families to "Be a Host Family for an Exchange student and send them back as a missionary for Jesus." (!)
Are the foreign exchange students being told about their host families' religious views when they sign up? Are Germans unwittingly getting drawn into explicitly proselytizing programs? Is that because they don't catch the signals that would tip 0ff Americans that this is a religious group, or because the organizations hide their mission? I'd be interested to know if readers have had similar experiences.
[Picture: "The atheist, the fool, who grinningly cares not at all," from the "Mystery of Life" sculpture group in the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, California.]