Great Love in Germany

Pope Francis designated 2016 as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and actively held talks with religious leaders to discuss matters such as cross-religion cooperation for humanitarian aid. The Tzu Chi Foundation was among those invited. Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, was not able to personally attend, so she asked two Tzu Chi volunteers in Germany to go on her behalf.

The couple, Susan Chen (陳樹微) and her late husband Rudolf Pfaff, felt honored by Master Cheng Yen’s request. They had been volunteering for Tzu Chi for just five years, so they were deeply touched by the trust behind the Master’s request.

How had the couple come to join Tzu Chi? Chen said with a smile that it was all due to a misunderstanding. She still remembered it all so clearly, as though it just happened yesterday.

In 2011, a Tzu Chi volunteer from Los Angeles, USA, visited Munich, Germany, with her husband to seek treatment for her cancer. Sadly, she passed away while undergoing treatment in the country. Her husband contacted Tzu Chi volunteers in Germany to help him put things in order after her passing, but almost all the volunteers lived in Hamburg, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) from Munich, too far away to render immediate help. Nevertheless, one of the volunteers contacted a Taiwanese chamber of commerce in Germany to try and help the grieving husband. That was how Chen, a Taiwanese who had settled in Germany after she got married, became involved.

Living in a foreign country, Chen felt that anyone of Chinese ethnicity, even a stranger, was like a distant relative. Therefore, although it was close to midnight when she received the phone call asking for her help, she and her husband quickly hopped into their car and headed towards the hospital, 50 minutes away.

When the man from Los Angeles saw Chen, he thought she was a Tzu Chi volunteer, so he addressed her as “Sister” and broke down in tears. Seeing him cry like that, Chen didn’t have the heart to correct him. Instead, she and her husband helped the man move his wife’s body from the hospital to a funeral home.

After they had arrived at the funeral home, the man invited Chen to chant the Buddha’s name with him for his wife. “I was frightened out of my wits,” Chen recalled. “The funeral home was in the countryside, and it was late at night. It was already spooky enough. How was it possible for me to get up enough nerve to stay near a stranger’s corpse?”

Rudolf Pfaff (middle) and his wife, Susan Chen (left), meet with Pope Francis on behalf of Tzu Chi. The Holy See designated 2016 as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and actively held talks with religious leaders to discuss matters such as cross-religion cooperation for humanitarian aid. The Tzu Chi Foundation was among those invited. Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hualien headquarters

Despite her reluctance, Chen eventually mustered enough courage to enter the room containing the body. She posted herself near the door at first, trying to put as much distance as possible between her and the body. And yet strangely, the more she chanted, the closer she moved toward the body. She found that the deceased woman’s face didn’t look frightening at all. Instead, she looked like a Barbie doll, with a serene smile on her face.

Later, when things had come to a satisfactory conclusion, Chen heard the man say to his son, “Look how nice Tzu Chi volunteers are. Take this Tzu Chi sister for example. She helped us so selflessly. I hope you’ll become a Tzu Chi volunteer in the future too.”

As Chen recalled those words later, a thought popped into her head: “Maybe it would be nice to become a Tzu Chi volunteer.”

A promise fulfilled

That same year, at the invitation of Tzu Chi volunteers in Germany, Chen went back to Taiwan to attend a Tzu Chi camp. Being the straightforward type, Chen said honestly that she didn’t learn much during the camp. Suffering from jet lag, she couldn’t stay awake in the comfortable air-conditioned classes and slept through many of them. “However, I did discover how nice Tzu Chi volunteers are,” she said.

Two Tzu Chi sisters had come to the airport to pick Chen up when she arrived in Taiwan for the camp. As soon as they met, they handed over to Chen a plate of still hot stir-fried rice vermicelli, a popular Taiwanese food. The food stirred up her longings for her homeland and warmed her heart. Her heart was further touched by how cordially she was received throughout her stay in Taiwan. “The kindness of Tzu Chi volunteers really captured my heart,” Chen observed.

While she was in Taiwan, she had a chance to go with others and meet with Master Cheng Yen. When they met the Master, they prostrated themselves before her to show their respect. “Only I remained on my feet, not sure what I should do,” Chen remarked with a laugh, amused by the memory of that awkward scene.

She said that wasn’t the most embarrassing part of the meeting. “I saw how everyone was making pledges to the Master about how they would carry out Tzu Chi work in their countries. When it was my turn to speak—I don’t know what struck me—I said to the Master that I’d volunteer for Tzu Chi to help her out.”

The Master looked at her quietly for a while, then said, “Don’t join Tzu Chi because of me, but because of yourself.” Though Chen was a little embarrassed by the Master’s response, she felt better when the Master continued: “Invite your husband along on your next trip back to Taiwan.”

“Okay!” she replied reflexively. Then, as if suddenly recalling something, she added: “But my husband is pretty big. He weighs more than 100 kilograms [220 pounds]. The chairs here are all too small for him.”

The Master gave a light laugh before she said, “Don’t worry. I’ll prepare a large chair for him.”

Susan Chen hugs a child at a refugee camp in Adaševci, Serbia. She and other volunteers in Europe have worked hard to help refugees in that nation.

When Chen went back to Germany, she related the incident to her husband. Though they didn’t think any more about the Master’s promise or whether it would be fulfilled one day, they were both interested in doing good and helping others, and so were unified in their desire to volunteer for Tzu Chi. “I didn’t know Tzu Chi very well back then,” Chen said. “I only knew that the foundation did good things and helped those in need.” That was reason enough for them to join.

Soon after, Italy was hit by two strong earthquakes in quick succession. Many people were affected. Chen and her husband, along with some other volunteers in Germany and a few like-minded friends, went to Italy to assess damage and evaluate how the foundation could help.

“No one thought we would be able to achieve anything,” Chen remarked. “Very few people in Europe knew about Tzu Chi. Why should they believe that we were really there to help them?”

Aside from the challenge of winning the trust of the local people, they had no money to allow them to carry out relief operations. Undaunted, they endeavored to find a way to help. When Chen learned that a Tzu Chi fundraising concert was to be held in Singapore, she obtained permission from the volunteers in charge to find a famous painter to paint on-site and then sell the works during the concert. The money raised would provide relief funds for quake victims in Italy. The artist ended up creating two paintings, which were sold for 50,000 euros (US$54,500).

With that money in hand, and because Pfaff could speak fluent Italian, they succeeded in delivering aid into the hands of quake victims. Chen and other volunteers in Europe have maintained the relationships they established back then, and are still helping local people in need.

The couple put in a lot of effort to pull off that relief mission, and even though they didn’t know much about Tzu Chi at the time, they did it all in the name of the foundation—all because they identified with Master Cheng Yen’s philanthropic ideals and because of a strong desire to do good. When Chen Chiou Hwa (陳秋華), the head of Tzu Chi Jordan, learned about what they had done, he commended them for their actions and urged them to become certified volunteers.

Chen, Pfaff, and other people in their team thus began training to become certified volunteers. When the training had concluded, they went back to Taiwan to receive their certifications from Master Cheng Yen.

“When the Master saw my husband, she immediately asked people to carry in a large chair for him,” Chen recalled. A year had passed since her first meeting with the Master, but the Master had remembered. “Because of that chair, both my husband and I were deeply moved, my husband especially. After that, he became even more involved in Tzu Chi work.”

Susan Chen and Rudolf Pfaff talk with Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan by means of videoconferencing on a cell phone. This was when they were in Serbia extending aid to refugees in that country in March 2016.

Even cancer couldn’t beat his determination

Pfaff was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year after he was certified, but he was so committed to Tzu Chi and to doing charity work that not even the disease could beat his determination to do good.

In late 2015, they decided to go to Serbia to distribute winter clothes to the large number of refugees that had flooded into the nation. However, it wasn’t as simple as just going there and putting clothes in the hands of the refugees—they had to first obtain permission from Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. Most of the NGOs reaching out to the refugees were famous around the world, but Tzu Chi was, by comparison, far less known. People in the Commissariat were thus very passive in response to Tzu Chi’s application.

It was only through the help of a restaurant owner that Chen, Pfaff, and other volunteers finally got to meet with the Commissioner for Refugees and Migration. Chen would always remember the commissioner’s distrustful attitude toward them when they first met. He even said to them, “I know nothing about Tzu Chi. Why should I trust you?”

In response to that question, Pfaff took up his tablet computer and patiently, systematically introduced Tzu Chi to the official. Only then did they win his trust and obtain permission to distribute aid to refugees.

Pfaff had an appointment with his doctor for his cancer treatment when the distribution was kicked off, so his daughter drove him back to Germany for his appointment. Though he was feeling weak and feeble after the treatment, he was so concerned about the distribution that he drove 860 kilometers (535 miles)—over 13 hours—back to Serbia on his own to participate in the mission.

Chen’s heart went out to him seeing him like that, but she knew how much he wanted to give of himself, so she let him be. By that time, the cancer had metastasized to his bones. When he was feeling especially frail or when his legs ached when he walked, Chen let him stay at the hotel and handle paperwork. “When night fell and we had finished a day’s work and gone back to the hotel,” she said, “we’d discuss with him how to proceed the next day. This also gave him a sense of participation.”

Their help for refugees in Serbia continued even after they had successfully carried off that aid operation. It became a routine for them to drive back and forth between Germany and Serbia to extend care and carry out more aid work at refugee camps. As long as his health allowed, Pfaff almost never missed a trip. One time, right before they were setting off, Pfaff’s spine suddenly hurt so much that he couldn’t move. They usually set off at eight in the morning, but that time he asked Chen to wait for him a little longer. He said the pain might go away in a little while and allow him to go.

Anxious and feeling for him, Chen could do nothing but pray. Right at that moment, the phone rang. The call was from the Jing Si Abode, the convent founded by Master Cheng Yen. The nun on the other end of the line said to Chen, “The Master is worried about Brother Pfaff and wonders how he’s feeling today. Is he feeling well enough to go to Serbia?”

Pfaff didn’t make the trip that time, but he was profoundly touched by the Master’s concern for him.

Despite being from a different country and speaking a different language from the Master, Pfaff felt the Master was like family to him. During important holidays or on her birthday, he was sure to make a video to wish the Master the best, then had the video translated and transmitted back to Taiwan.

Chen was just as dedicated to the Master and Tzu Chi as her husband. When she encountered difficulty while carrying out Tzu Chi work, she would recall a video of the Master that she once saw on TV. The footage was shot in 1984 at the ground-breaking ceremony for Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital. After numerous challenges had been overcome, the hospital was finally to be built. Overcome with emotion, with tears welling up in her eyes and biting her lips, the Master stood beside Lin Yang-kang (林洋港), Taiwan’s Minister of Interior at the time, as he gave a speech. Every time Chen recalled this scene, she was infused with renewed courage and strength to surmount whatever difficulty had been thrown her way.

Accompanied by his wife, Pfaff walked steadfastly on the Tzu Chi Path until he passed away in February 2020, at the age of 73. Though her husband has passed away, Chen is sure to stay firm and true to her Tzu Chi Path, fulfilling both her and her husband’s commitment to relieving suffering in the world.

Susan Chen visits a refugee camp in Šid, Serbia.


May 2020