In 1957 the Protestant Church in West Germany was rich and respected once more. I was at that time a blossoming seventeen-year-old. I had an exceptional opportunity to visit the Czech Brethren Church for the first time in June 1957. I was a member of a delegation from the Rhenish Church to the Comenius Faculty in Prague. My mother and seven other church people were actually invited. But my mother took me with her.
I came from a manse in the Rhineland. My grandfather, a well-known evangelist, my mother, one of the first women in the office of pastor, all highly respected and securely paid members of the official Protestant Church. They taught me to trust God’s guidance, to ask forgiveness for my little sins, to hope to see my father again in heaven, my father who died in a Russian prisoner of war camp
And suddenly I, an inexperienced student, found myself in Chodov u Karlových Varů (Schodau by Karlovy Vary) among people who spoke a strange German. Czech farmers who had had lived in Opole in Upper Silesia for 200 years and were expelled after the end of the war in 1945. Repeat emigrants.
Now some had tears in their eyes. They crowded around us. A woman surreptitiously rubbed the fabric of my dress between her fingers. They brought me a china rose. The little church there in the former “Egerland” was full. The local Czech pastor, Ctirad Novák, sat next to me in the pew, he didn’t have to preach today; for the first time in twelve years the words of God were heard, from our delegation, in German from the pulpit.
It was then, in June 1957, that my life took a decisive turn. I learned that people suffered for Christ’s sake. There was no reputation, no money, no honour to being a member of a church. Rather, it brought tears. We travelled as far as Bratislava – and it was a similar story everywhere: modestly dressed men and women talked about their needs as pastors. Where 40 young people had been confirmed in the previous year, only three came this year. Where two wardens used to take care of the church, the pastor had to get up twice on Sunday night in winter to put coal into the stove in the church. Travel to Germany for the Kirchentag? Exit prohibited! Send the child to high school? Locked out! Pastor Novák in Chodov recently reported: menacing men from the State Security kept visiting the manse, even after our visit in 1957. They wanted to know everything about this delegation from the Rhineland: who was behind it?
I wondered how God could be so unjust. We here, as Christians in the West, had everything. Everything. And there an economy of shortages, yes, never-ending persecution, for fifty years. There people had to suffer for Christ’s sake … because Moscow wanted it that way.
This willingness to sacrifice oneself for God, which still animated Bonhoeffer, is missing in the German churches today.
Power killed your Hus, hounded out your Comenius (not other mighty ones, however, not the church secretaries of socialism). But you Bohemian and Moravian Christians have remained loyal to this day. In this we can use your inspiration and your role model.
Because times are about to change. The reputation of the churches in Germany is shrinking rapidly. Wealth is at risk. Where the parishioners squeeze into the pews on Christmas Eve, from January 2nd there will again be frighteningly few. And for these few, the Czech Brethren Church can be a new source of inspiration. Because that church knows how the Spirit of God can stay alive in small groups, even in hidden circles.
The Germans are slowly moving from the national and state church to a denominational church. This path has made almost no one suffer. But here and there a pastor sighs with disappointment when her carefully prepared invitations to parish meetings come to nothing.
The Corona restrictions made us very equal in West and East: are we still allowed to sing in church services? No. Or through masks? No. So, sisters and brothers, how do you do it? Last Sunday the pastor and organist said all the beautiful old chorales solo. And with you?
What do we have to learn from you?
Getting along with little money as a church. Having Bible discussions in small groups. Appreciating one another: everyone in the community. Being happy to be with each other … as far as Corona allows. Above all: helping each other. The pastor greets his people on Sundays and knows that it is Mrs. Weidenpesch’s birthday today and that Mrs. Krämer came home from the hospital yesterday. To study as much as possible with the members of other churches, with the Catholics, with the members of the synagogue community, about what is in Holy Scriptures and what it might actually mean. We few Christians will radiate out into the world. Perhaps then I will find the strength again to take out my robe and preach. And the preaching tabs I put on will be embroidery from Javornik, a present to my mother in 1957.