The prayer meeting that changed the world
By Bob Morwell
This Christmas Eve will mark the 25th anniversary of a historic telecast which linked Decatur Grace UMC with a United Methodist church in the newly-reunited city of Berlin, Germany.
Bishop Woodie White was the preacher for the American portion of the shared worship service. Bishop Ruediger Minor, who was then the Bishop of The United Methodist Church in the area which had previously been the communist German Democratic Republic, preached in Berlin. Minor would go on to become the first Bishop of the Eurasia Conference in the former USSR. The joint worship service was broadcast on the ABC television network in the U.S., as well as a German network, and the Armed Forces Television Network.
Germany had been reunited only a couple of months earlier after a peaceful revolution brought down the infamous Berlin Wall, the year before, paving the way for a national reunification many had assumed impossible only a short time earlier. To this day, many people are unaware of the essential role the church played in that revolution, which was pivotal in bringing down the Soviet Empire.
It began with a prayer service...
In the mid-1980’s, the Cold War had become particularly intense. Both sides were engaged in massive build-ups of their forces, which included a total of nearly 50,000 nuclear weapons --more than enough firepower to extinguish the human race. Both superpowers had deployed intermediate range nuclear missiles, which reduced the warning time of an attack from a half hour to a few minutes. The effect was to tighten the nuclear trip wire to a tension not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the city of Leipzig in East Germany, pastors and members of the St. Nikolai Lutheran Church decided to start a weekly "Friedensgebete" (Peace Prayer) Service, in response to the placement of missiles by both superpowers on their respective chunks of Germany. A few hundred people showed up for the first few services. But, attendance steadily dwindled as the rhetoric of both sides remained hostile and suspicious.
One night, the total attendance was just six. Four laywomen and two pastors, one of whom was aptly named Christian Fuhrer (Christian Leader). It was he who related this story to me, when I visited him at the St. Nikolai Church, a year after the revolution.
One of the women dejectedly suggested that they discontinue the prayer meeting, since attendance was so poor, and their prayers seemed to go unanswered. The other pastor in the group rejected the suggestions, saying that it was not their task to be numerous, but to be faithful. Faithfulness in the face of opposition was a daily reality for the Christian community in that officially atheistic state. They agreed to continue. The average attendance was about a dozen.
Then, something happened which they saw as an answer to prayer. Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union and ushered in sweeping reforms that electrified the whole Soviet Bloc. Tensions began to ease, and hopes for greater freedom began to ignite, even though East Germany was stilled ruled by an old school Stalinist named Erich Honecker, who resisted much of Gorbachev's reformist measures.
The Peace Prayer service began to draw new people. While most were Christians, some tended to be more agnostic. But, they were drawn by the hopefulness of the service. Political activists, both religious and non-religious, began to see the service as a possible launching pad for a protest movement, which called not just for peace, but for freedom.
Some of the more conservative members of the church, resisted taking their prayers into a more "worldly" and political dimension. They were bothered by the "strangers" who were coming to their services. But, despite their objections, the church began to serve as Ground Zero for a protest movement, with marches following each prayer service.
This, of course, roused the attention of the feared secret police, known as the Stasi. The Stasi, at first, dismissed the prayer service. After all, religion was, according to Marxist ideology, an archaic fossil that had no real power in the real world. But, as it grew, they decided to try to discourage the prayer service protests, without being too thuggish about it.
This led to some decidedly comical confrontations. In one march, the protesters held helium balloons. Stasi agents with pins stationed themselves at the end of the route, and ran around popping the balloons. In another instance, the protesters carried candles. Stasi agents ran around, nearly hyperventilating themselves, frantically blowing out the candles held by the bemused marchers. Making the Stasi look ridiculous only empowered the protesters and drew more people to the Peace Prayer service, which soon overflowed into the streets around the church.
In the Fall 1989, Gorbachev came to Berlin and received a tumultuous welcome from the populace, much to the consternation of Honecker. At his orders, the Stasi became more aggressive. They tried to provoke the Leipzig marchers into violence. But, the marchers refused to retaliate.
"It was a miracle," Fuhrer told me. "The young people in these marchers had been indoctrinated all their lives to believe that change only came through violent revolution. But, during the prayer services, we always emphasized the non-violent way of Christ. The prayers set the tone for the protest, and they refused to engage in violence. It was like the hand of God was over them."
On Oct. 9, 1989, shortly after Gorbachev's visit, the prayer service which had once dwindled to six discouraged people, served as the launch point for a demonstration by 70,000 people. A week later, there were 120,000. Inspired by the events in Leipzig, hundreds of thousands of East Germans took up the protest in other cities.
Honecker, in a panic, ordered military and Stasi units to enact "the Chinese solution." Earlier that year, the Chinese army had sent tanks and troops to ruthlessly crush a nascent democracy movement in Tienanmen Square. But, before the German tanks could be deployed, the head of the Stasi, of all people, refused the order and peacefully deposed Honecker. He sensed that the jig was up.
Three weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell.
The United Methodist Church in the U.S. and in East Germany had begun negotiating for a joint Christmas broadcast just before the revolution. The stunning turn of events made it impossible to arrange a service in 1989, which was originally conceived as an electronic leap over the Wall, bringing people divided by politics together in the name of Jesus Christ. Thanks to a small, faithful band of people who prayed against impossible odds, by the time the service was aired, the Wall was gone, Germany was reunited and the Soviet Union had one year left to exist. One country after another shook off the yoke of tyranny.
One year later, on Christmas Day, 1991, the last domino fell and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the document which ended the USSR. That night, a company in Russia which had been the largest producer of Lenin statues, announced that it was changing its product line...to church bells.
One can only wonder how history might have changed...or not changed...if those six disciples of Jesus had decided to abandon their prayers, or if those who attended the prayer services had decided to eject the "strangers" who brought new ideas and activism, which put feet on those prayers. It seems both atheists and Christians can discount the ability of God to use our prayers to change the world.
Fortunately, God refuses to be limited by our theologies, ideologies, or lack of imagination. That is definitely an answer to prayer.
(Rev. Bob Morwell is the pastor of the Carterville UMC in the Cache River District.)