November 9, 2009
LEIPZIG, Germany (RNS) -- St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church hasn't changed much since the 16th century. Bach once played the organ here and the music remains alluring, but it is the church's more recent history in the last days of the Cold War and its role in the fall of the Berlin Wall that draw tourists today.
The Rev. Christian Fuhrer became the pastor at St. Nikolai in 1980, when the world was divided by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Germany itself was split in two, most visibly by the wall the East German government -- the German Democratic Republic -- built in Berlin in 1961 in an attempt to keep its people from fleeing to the West.
In the GDR, atheism was the norm. Churches like St. Nikolai were spied on but allowed to remain open.
"In the GDR, the church provided the only free space," Fuhrer said in an interview with Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in which people were free."
In the early 1980s, Fuhrer began holding weekly prayers for peace.
Every Monday, worshippers recited the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Few came at first, but attendance grew as the Soviet Union began opening to the West.
The prayer service, Fuhrer said, "was something very special in East Germany. Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church -- young people, Christians and non-Christians, and later, those who wanted to leave (East Germany) joined us and sought refuge here."
As a college student in those years, Sylke Schumann was one of the hundreds, then thousands, who joined the vigils in the sanctuary at St. Nikolai and then marched in the streets holding candles and calling for change.
"Seeing all these people gather in this place ... from week to week and more and more people gathering, you had the feeling this time really the government had to listen to you," Schumann said.
In October 1989, on the 40th anniversary of the GDR, the government cracked down.
Protesters in Leipzig were beaten and arrested. Two days later, St. Nikolai Church was full to overflowing for the weekly vigil. When it was over, 70,000 people marched through the city as armed soldiers looked on, but did nothing.
"I remember it was a cold evening, but you didn't feel cold, not just because you saw all the lights, but also because you saw all these people, and it was, you know, it was really amazing to be a part of that, and you felt so full of energy and hope," Schumann said.
"For me, it still gives me the shivers thinking of that night. It was great."
"In church," Fuhrer said, "people had learned to turn fear into courage, to overcome the fear and to hope, to have strength. They came to church and then started walking, and since they did not do anything violent, the police were not allowed to take action. "(East German officials) said, `We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer."'
Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount were Fuhrer's primary motivations, but he also drew inspiration from German pastor and Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fuhrer said King "prepared and executed this idea of nonviolence, peaceful resistance, in a wonderful way. Then it became our turn to apply the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount here in Leipzig."
Just a month after the massive demonstration, the wall between East and West Berlin came down. The church had sent a powerful message to the world: the East German government no longer controlled its people.
"If any even ever merited the description of 'miracle' that was it," Fuhrer said. "A revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church. It is astonishing that God let us succeed with this revolution."
Fuhrer, who retired last year at 65, as required by the church, has written a book about those historic days. St. Nikolai itself has gone back to being a parish church, its congregations not much larger than before the demonstrations.
But Fuhrer said he and his fellow worshippers didn't do what they did back then to draw people to the church.
"We did it," he said, "because the church has to do it."
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.