Prayer Meetings in Leipzig
by Martin Marty
Originally published on July 7, 2014 in Sightings
“Christian Führer, 71, East German Pastor Whose Prayer Meetings Inspired Protests” was the headline for a July 3, New York Times obituary.
In 1983, when the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall still symbolized the reality of non-freedom, including for Christians, I visited Johann Sebastian Bach’s native city of Leipzig in the then German Democratic Republic also known as East Germany. While there, I was invited to the home of a professor’s wife and daughter. In that drab and dingy world, the hostess opened her door and pointed: “Komm herein! This is this year’s flowers and wine on the table, and you are this year’s guests.” Her apartment was debugged, so she could speak freely, as did her daughter who had to choose between being a confirmand or getting into a university.
Meanwhile, in the same East German city, a young pastor (ordained 1968) was praying his way to becoming a leader. His last name, Führer, means “leader” in German—his mission changed the world. The story is well remembered, though the pastor’s name did not become a household word in our part of the world.
Impelled, he made clear, by Jesus and the gospel of peace, and inspired by other leaders with names like Bonhoeffer, King, and Gandhi, he believed in, preached, and practiced the way of peace. Führer worked with young people who were hungry for freedom and who would pray and march their way toward its realization.
During 1987-88 he and his colleagues organized peace marches at and from Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church. The movement grew from a few participants to 320,000 pray-ers willing to brave the clubs of police officers though the officers were powerless to stop the marches. Some, it was said, practiced self-restraint in admiration for the courageous young folk.
Führer, clad in jeans and leather, did not look like a pastor in the official, but scrutinized and suspect Lutheran church. Still, his “forces” are usually credited with having the most significant role in bringing down the Communist regime in East Germany and in contributing to the fall of the Wall. The pastor, true to his calling, insisted on non-violence and convinced his followers to be utterly peaceful. “We were ready for anything but candles and prayer,” the police acknowledged.
Führer stuck to his message. “What I saw [at the biggest demonstration] still gives me shivers,” he said years later. “And if anything deserves the word ‘miracle’ at all, then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions. We succeeded in bringing about a revolution, which achieved Germany’s unity… It was a peaceful revolution after so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started.”
After the political change Führer devoted his years to helping victims of the drastic economic changes that came with freedom. He knew that “brutal competition and the lust for money [were] destroying our sense of community. Almost everyone [felt] a level of fear or depression or insecurity.” When cuts in welfare programs in 2004 hurt millions of Germans, he went back to demonstrating.
While Americans last week were remembering the birth of political liberties that came with Independence in 1776, many were concerned about the “level of fear or depression or insecurity” in their better-off world. And some in the churches, partnering with “worldlings,” as Bonhoeffer urged them to do and as Führer did, appraised the 25-year-ago revolution in East Germany. The “pastor whose prayer meetings inspired protests” was remembered and cited: “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.”
Churches everywhere continue to represent “inviting, open spaces.”
Sources and Further Reading:
Eddy, Melissa. “Christian Führer, 71, East German Pastor Whose Prayer Meetings Inspired Protests.” New York Times, July 3, 2014.
Eddy, Melissa. “Christian Führer, East German Whose Prayers Inspired Protests, Dies at 71.” International New York Times, July 1, 2014, Europe. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/02/world/europe/rev-christian-fuhrer-east….
Henry, David. “Christian Fuehrer dies at 71; rallied East Germans against injustice.” L.A. Times, July 1, 2014, Local / Obituaries. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-christian-fuehrer-20140702….
Führer, Christian. “The Rev. Christian Fuhrer Extended Interviews” (translated into English). PBS, November 6, 2009, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/06/november-6-2009-the….
Potter, Deborah. “The church that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.” USA Today, November 5, 2009, Religious & Ethics NewsWeekly.http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-11-05-church-berlin-wa….
Wikipedia. “Führer, Christian.” Accessed July 6, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Führer.
Photo: Pastor Christian Führer (Dec. 2, 2009)
Photo Credit: Marco Schulze / Creative Commons