The realisation dawned on me as I stood with a group of young students outside the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany: their generation, now coming into adulthood, has no living memory of the dramatic events of autumn 1989 leading to the fall of Communism.
What still seems like yesterday to some of us is the stuff of history books for today’s young adults.
These are crucial stories to pass on and to keep alive. Even if we were among those glued to the television set that night in 1989, exactly 19 years ago, as cheering crowds began to mount the Wall and attack it with hammer and chisel, many chapters of the story still remain unknown to most of the world.
Saint Nicholas Church represents one such little-known chapter, when prayer and candles trumped police power. Founded in about 1165 at the junction of two important trade routes, north-south and east-west, the church was named after the patron-saint of merchants. It soon became enveloped by the growing town of Leipzig, about 200 kilometres south of Berlin.
Accumulated architectural styles, including the original Romanesque, as well as Gothic, Baroque and Classical, testify to the layers of history this building has witnessed. That includes the Reformation which came to Leipzig in 1539. Luther is said to have preached here. Johan Sebastian Bach began his career as master and organist of the choir, from 1723 to 1750. Many of his compositions were heard for the first time in this church.
The artist who painted an angel of peace above the altar centuries ago could never have known how prophetic his work would be. In the 1980’s, young people began to hold peace prayer services in the church, with special ten-day gatherings each November. This was part of a growing protest movement in East Germany against the arms race, and for justice and human rights.
Sometimes small, at other times larger crowds attended. People began agitating for the right to emigrate, and the church became the location for the expression of such discontent. Christians and non-Christians alike met each Monday evening to pray, discuss and study the relevance of the Old Testament prophets, or Jesus’ teachings, for current issues.
In the spring of 1989, the peace and prayer gatherings had grown to become a threat to the authorities. Access for cars to the church were blocked, and even the closest motorway exits were subjected to large-scale checks or closed off.
By the autumn of 1989, the movement was reaching its climax. Flowers decorated the church’s windows; candles multiplied throughout the building as silent signs of hope. Throughout all a spirit of peace reigned. The Nicolaikirche continued to be open for all: true worshippers, the discontents, the curious, the Stasi (State Security Police) and their collaborators, all gathering beneath the outstretched arms of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
As crowds continued to gather at the church, some participants demanding the freedom to leave the country, others declaring their commitment to stay, the police began to make arrests.
The authorities tried to pressure the church leaders to cancel the peace prayers. Each Monday more arrests were being made, yet more visitors flocked to the church, overflowing its 2000 seats.
Then on October 7, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), uniformed police assailed defenseless and passive protesters, trucking them away to custody in horse stables. The official press declared that it was high time to put an end to this “counter-revolution, if necessary by armed forces.”
Two days later, a thousand Stasi collaborators were ordered to go to the Nicolaikirche. By early afternoon, 600 of them had taken up positions inside the church. Stasi members attending earlier services had regularly been exposed to the preaching of the gospel of peace, especially messages from the Sermon on the Mount.
On this occasion, after the bishop’s blessing and a renewed call for non-violence, the two-thousand congregants, Stasis collaborators included, filed out of the building to be greeted by ten thous.and peace protestors praying and waiting outside-all holding candles in one hand and protecting their flame with the other.
Waiting soldiers, paramilitaries and police began to move into the crowd seeking provocation, but no-one allowed themselves to respond. Hands full with their candles, the protesters drew the collaborators and police into conversation. A spirit of peace and non-violence reigned and defused the ugly confrontation.
Eventually the government forces were peacefully withdrawn. One of the top communist officials said later on his death-bed, “We had planned everything, We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
Although hundreds of thousands had thronged the streets during the few weeks of the non-violence movement, not a single shop window had been shattered.
Holding on to the promise that it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord”, the leaders of the prayer and peace movement soon saw the communist party collapse and the Berlin Wall itself come tumbling down just one month later.
Prayer services for peace continue weekly at St Nicolas, for the unemployed, for refugees and migrants, and for the world’s crisis areas. Church leaders quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that Christian identity consists only of two things: prayer and just behaviour. Their prayer is that the Nicolaikirche continue to be a house of Jesus, a house of hope, a place of new beginnings.
Till next week,