Sharing the Stories: Steve and Lisa Smith – Germany

Sharing the Stories: Steve and Lisa Smith – Germany

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Allow me first off, to express our tremendous gratitude for all your support, financial and prayerful over the years.  Your sacrifices of time and resources and the generosity of your prayers mean more than you can imagine to us.

We have also been asked to thank you on behalf of the partner church, the Evangelische Kirche Berlin- Brandenburg- schlesische Oberlausitz (EKBO), where we have served, for sharing us with them during these vital years of rebuilding the churches in eastern Germany.  We felt fortunate to be there and to witness the process of change over these 15 years and feel thankful that we have been able to contribute something to their recovery process. 

This is our 4th time of returning to the US after serving in the former communist East Germany, and since it is our last time to do itineration for the Global Ministries, it is of particular meaning for us to reflect, with the guidance of the holy spirit, on these last 15 years being a part of, observing and learning from the churches in the former Communist East Germany. 

When we arrived there on January 1, 1993, we found the churches in the east in a great uproar.  First of all, when the wall fell, the society changed drastically around the church and everyone was trying to grasp what this meant and where this was heading.  The church in the GDR (the former East Germany) had played a vital part in the peaceful revolution that brought about the fall of the wall.  There would be gatherings in churches where the revolution would be discussed and the people streamed out of them with candles lit – into the streets, responding to the lessons that were taught on non-violent conflict resolution.

But after the wall – what was their role?  What kind of a society was this being created around them?  Things were too new and happening too fast to keep up!  And then they had to figure out all the new technologies practically overnight that we in the west had had the opportunity to gradually adjust to.  It didn’t help that the church in West Germany had, in some people’s minds, simply taken over their eastern church and the pastors had to learn all the new laws and regulations placed upon them by their wealthy and powerful brothers and sisters in the west.

Add to that 52 years of State Atheism, with discrimination against church members and the revelations of who specifically had been spying for the secret police all those years.  The wounds were deep and the level of mistrust was high.  How can a church recover from so much and become the missionary- minded serving body of Christ when she had suffered so much?

Well, we were graced to be a help and a witness to the power of God in rather dark times.  Steve and I worked specifically with 2 congregations over 9 years, bringing to bear some of the relative strengths of our North American churches.  We were in the Ahrensfelde Church on the periphery of eastern Berlin for three years and 6 years in the Gertraud-Marien Church in Frankfurt (Oder). 

Working together with the other pastors and other members of the churches, we helped expand and deepen fellowship within the congregations, by, for example, introducing weekly coffee and tea fellowship times after Sunday worship, monthly Sunday luncheons, developing and leading youth and young adults’ groups and assisting small congregational groups as they assumed responsibility for particular worship services. 

We assisted in the development of lay leadership, by encouraging and enabling parishioners from different generations, through various means, to become more involved and take responsibility in the life of the church.  In part through our encouragement, many of the young adults whom we had reached and with whom we had developed relationships, ended up committing themselves to participating in the decision-making bodies of their congregations and/or joining project-oriented committees and teams, for example. 

We helped create a greater “culture of appreciation”, in order to openly express gratitude, positively reinforce the efforts active members had already undertaken and to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.  We helped the congregations pursue mission by, for instance, developing a mission statement, preaching sermons with clear connections to contemporary life, motivating and equipping people to share their faith experiences and views with others, and supporting those who felt compelled to make innovative contributions to worship. 

So in answer to the question asked before, “How can a church recover from so much and become the missionary- minded serving body of Christ when she had suffered so much?”  We can only witness to the experience that because the fellowship of the saints is what it is, and the power of God so great, we all managed not only to overcome, but to thrive!  In fact, some of what our congregations managed to do in that time became models for other congregations and for booklets on Mission, published by the partner church, the EKBO.

From November 2002 until this past summer, we worked with our partner church on different levels.  And we were fortunate to find that some of our ideas that we had used at the congregational level assisted the greater body of Christ through my work with the Ecumenical Council of Berlin-Brandenburg.  The Ecumenical Council provides a forum, in which the 29 member denominations can engage effectively in dialogue and develop projects together. 

It also is a platform, from which the 29 denominations can speak in unison, offering a Christian perspective on national and international developments and events.  During my five-and-a-half years in the central office of the council, one of my central tasks was the writing of all of the verbatims for the two highest decision-making bodies of the council.  I also felt quite honoured to have been able to make some contributions to Germany’s first national Ecumenical Church Assembly in 2003, and to the  Ecumenical City Church Festival, which took place in the heart of Berlin in 2006. 

Another highlight of my time at the council was my two-year stint as coordinator of the council’s Commission on Ecumenical Missionary Cooperation.  During that time, the commission produced a small book, in which the ecumenical council sought to express the commonly held basic beliefs of the member denominations “in a nutshell”, so to speak, and in a language which even the unchurched could understand. 

Lisa and I were also witness to the ministry of the German church to us, as we struggled with the repercussions of 9/11/2001.  On that day, we were together with the General Superintendent Dr. Rolf Wischnath, the General Minister and President of the UCC,  John Thomas, and Dr. Peter Makari and others, presenting Dr. Wischnath with a Peace award, as the hijacked planes were flown into their targets in New York City and Washington D.C..  When it was revealed to us what was happening in the United States, the aforementioned individuals and we were invited to the local TV and radio station and interviewed.

Although our German partner, Dr. Wischnath, had other engagements, he dropped everything to be with us during this time.  He stayed with us and prayed with us.  And that was just the beginning of the care and concern that our brothers and sisters in Christ within the German Church offered to us over the days, and then weeks and years of struggling to understand the causes and the effects of the various actions and reactions to the terrorist attacks.

Lisa was director of the EKBO’s Decade to Overcome Violence and felt so enriched with the international emphasis on peace initiatives.  She worked as a Chaplain for students from developing countries, who had the same hopes and dreams and goals that the other students had, on being a part of a world that was striving towards justice, regardless of what religious affiliation they had.

15 years after we began our ministry over there, our view of critical presence in that region has now changed.  The situation in eastern Germany’s churches is now comparatively stable.  They have learned how to function in the new society and have become much more mission-minded and, in our opinion, the clergy has generally become more effective and responsive in dealing with the laity. 

One clear example of this can be seen in the actions of Rev. Katharina Falkenhagen.  She is pastor of one of the three largest churches in Frankfurt (Oder), the Church of the Cross.  One day, she came to the area Pastors’ meeting and announced that one of her parishioners had shared with her that he had been having visions of the neighboring church ruin being rebuilt, which many felt, made no sense whatsoever.  We were having difficulty maintaining the churches that still had walls and roofs! 

In spite of the reaction of some of her colleagues, Rev. Falkenhagen said she was going to support her Elder as much as possible, and today, that ruin has been stabilized and reinforced, and it is the location of an active outdoor ministry for the entire community, including outdoor concerts, youth events and worship services.

There are, however,  insights that we, both the North American churches and those within the former Communist “East Block”, can still derive from one another, both today and into the future, through continued intensive ecumenical exchange. 

Precisely because their churches and societies are, in many ways, more similar to our own, there are certain lessons that churches in the industrialized world can best learn through an awareness of each other’s experiences.  Due to the adverse effects of 52 years of state atheism and the recent attainment of a socio-economic level similar to our own, for example, the churches of eastern Germany can impart lessons to us, relating to the life of a church in a minority position in a technologically highly-developed and secularized society.

The nature of the ecumenical relationship entailed in such a learning process is, however, in some ways different from our relationships with ecumenical partners in less developed countries, in which our financial and material assistance play a major role.  Although we in the industrialized world can indeed be enriched through exposure to the spiritual vitality and richness of churches in parts of the world such as Latin America, Asia and Africa, and although we in the more developed nations can also come to a greater appreciation of the material benefits we enjoy, as we seek to share some of our financial and material bounty with people in less developed countries, Lisa and I feel that a cautionary note may be in order. 

If we were to devote too much of our ecumenical attention to people living in less developed countries (or LDCs), we might run the risk of reinforcing widely-held assumptions of U.S. superiority, assumptions which could foster complacency here at home.  We must take care not to allow our exposure to the even more extreme and crushing poverty found in the LDCs to lead us to downplay the plight of the poor within our own borders.  

Intense exposure to and understanding of other strong democracies in our global economy give us not only a greater awareness of social ills that we may have grown accustomed to in our own country and do not shock us anymore, but it also offers varieties of  solutions, when we can no longer see the forest through the trees in this country.  There is still a lot that we can learn from the experiences and the perspectives of the so-called “Old World.”

On another note, we also believe that there is something tremendously wanting in this “country of immigrants”, and that is a deeper connection to history.  Our country often acts as though the world began in 1776, and that any history before that is irrelevant and a distraction – and, at worst – unpatriotic to think about.  This brings with it an unconscious sense of instability and lack of deep cultural roots.  And on top of that, there has been too little emphasis on reconciliation or atonement for the crimes our forefathers committed against both the Native Americans, whom they overran and displaced, and against the Africans, whom we kidnapped and forced to make a considerable contribution to this country’s economic development, through many generations of slave labor.

We, as a country, need to focus on our sins more honestly and call them the sins that they were.  There would not be such racial issues between the European-Americans and African- Americans, if there had been intense, long-term national admissions and discussions, dealing with the crimes of our forefathers.  There would not be such fear in this country, if we knew that we as a nation have dealt justly with each other and the rest of the world. 

Being in Germany has given us insights into the intense efforts that the church and the majority of the populace in that country has taken to understand, atone for and learn from the sins committed during the so-called “Third Reich.”  The Church in the former GDR has made tremendous efforts at examining wounds and attempting to “dress” them.  Both the persecution of Christians, as well as the complicity of some Christians, during the Nazi and Communist dictatorships, have been openly discussed.  As a result, the eastern German churches have become very strong and confident in saying no to things that they can clearly see may jeopardize their integrity.  Take their criticism of and lack of willingness to commit troops to the war in Iraq as one clear witness to the work they have done to learn from their past.

They EKBO was also one of the first churches to commit to working on the World Council of Churches’ Decade To Overcome Violence, which, ironically enough, was started in 2001 – a year of infamy for violence.  The International Opening Worship took place on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 95th birthday, in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. The ruined tower of the original church, which had been destroyed during air raids during WWII, has been left standing, as a reminder of the violence of the past.

So, in conclusion, I would encourage us all to keep track of future developments in the German Churches!  The peaceful fall of the wall is a more recent amazing example of a non-violent revolution, every bit as significant as the successes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. 

I predict that the German Churches, and North American churches such as ours, will be leaders in bringing about non-violent conflict resolutions in the future!

Thank you very much.

Photos from Steve and Lisa Smith’s presentation on Germany