The streets of Leipzig are all marked with candle wax, not bloodstains. Where will the new freedom lead?

I had been to Berlin in 1966, five years after the infamous Wall was erected. Then, a sense of brooding oppression hung over the Communist sector. It was an eerie feeling to stand before the Wall, to look up at the guard towers and know that people had been killed trying to cross to freedom at that spot, and that more would be killed.

Now, 23 years later, my wife, Peggy, and I came to the Wall again. We had arrived by airplane from the United States just hours before; but tired as we were, we drove to the Wall from our hotel, parking as near as we could. It was late afternoon, already dark and dreary in those northern latitudes; a cold, windblown mist was driving at us.

As soon as we opened the car doors we heard it: the repeated clink of metal on metal. It was the sound of hammers and chisels, cutting pieces from the Wall. In the dark, in the biting wind, ordinary German citizens were wielding their tools against the barrier.

We returned the next morning for another look. The weather had turned to brilliant, cold sunlight. At the Potsdamerplatz entrance, we watched people streaming back and forth across the newly opened border passageway. Some were laughing; nearly all were smiling. Even the guards were making merry. It could not have been a more different environment from what I had seen in 1966. East Germans were lining up at a kiosk to receive the 100 marks the West German government offered to all; everyone we spoke with was euphoric, almost giddy with the sense of freedom. “It’s only the result of prayer,” one family said to us, repeating themselves three times in less than a minute.

We saw one man with a full beard, a sack on the ground at his feet, chiseling at the Wall. This man was working on a teardropshaped hole in the rein-forced-concrete wall, a hole perhaps 18 inches long and 8 inches wide. He said he was from East Germany, and he had come to cut pieces from the Wall to give as Christmas presents to his family and friends.

Suddenly, we were startled as the hole in the Wall filled with the stern faces of two East German guards. They asked the man what he was doing. He told them.

“Well, why don’t you take it all?” one of them said with a laugh before they walked away.

The next day we drove into East Germany. Our guide and translator was Reinhold Kerstan, a pastor and friend who had grown up in Berlin. For the next week he led us throughout East Germany, stopping to see pastors or other East German Christians, and asking anyone we met for their thoughts on the amazing changes taking place.

Article continues below

East Germany is by far the worst-polluted country I have ever encountered. In many areas a dense, brown fog clung to the ground, so thick that one could barely see. It seemed to symbolize the country’s troubled present: a man-made mess, choking on its own fumes.

But as we traveled we also encountered the nation’s past, in the shape of beautiful churches and cathedrals. A seminary professor once told me that symbols are the church’s memory, storing up its theological meaning. Viewing the beautiful, carved symbols of Christian faith in the wood and masonry of East Germany’s churches, some of them in the process of careful restoration, I pondered the memory of a Christian Germany that communism had tried to erase. Did the workmen doing their restoration ever pause to wonder what the symbols meant, or why they had been put there with such skill and beauty? The memory of Christian faith, stored in those symbols, is deep in East Germany.

And Christian faith is more than a memory. As we traveled we discovered a living faith that seemed stronger and purer for the struggle it has undergone under the Communist regime. We were told that church attendance is much higher in East Germany than in West Germany. This, although the government has systematically discouraged Christian faith during four generations, indoctrinating schoolchildren in communist theory, restricting Christian worship and witness, discriminating against Christians in jobs and education.

A sixth-year medical student told me, “There was always a certain aura of status when you were a Christian. It showed that you had some guts to stand up for your convictions.”

In Erfurt, I preached through a translator in a Baptist church. Five new members were being baptized—four young people, and a 65-year-old grandmother. Hearing the prayers and the vows that were made in the baptism ceremony, I was struck by the intense dedication that baptism represented. Here it was not simply a ritual; it was a commitment of loyalty to Jesus Christ. No baptism I had attended in the United States had such a sense of seriousness. I found it exhilarating and exciting. While East German Christians are materially poorer than we in the West, it did not seem to me that they were spiritually poorer. Quite the opposite.

When they spoke about the changes in their nation, East Germans were stunned, euphoric. “We cried for joy,” a pastor told me when describing his reaction to the Berlin Wall opening up. “We have watched it again and again, very often the same pictures, the same reports, and we still cry every time. We think it can’t be. We must be dreaming.” People told me they were getting up half an hour earlier every morning, just to read the newspaper. One man said that for the first time in his life he was proud to be a citizen of his country.

Article continues below

When I asked East Germans what they feared, they grew more serious. They mentioned not only the uncertainty of their nation’s political future, but, again and again, their concerns for the impact of the West’s pornography, drugs, and materialism—particularly the impact of these temptations on young people. “Wherever the standard of living is a little bit higher,” one man observed, “people say, ‘Forget about church. We don’t need God. We have a car now. We need to make the most of our vacation time.’ ” These are challenges East German Christians have not had to face.

Yet in the challenges they have faced, they have done remarkable things. I learned about a Monday prayer meeting in a Leipzig church that played a pivotal role in the ferment of the last year. For over a decade, Christians distressed by the state of their society have been meeting in that church to pray for their nation. These “prayers for peace” grew to include hundreds and eventually thousands of people. The church became a safe haven for others concerned with East Germany: environmentalists, intellectuals. During the events of last fall, these prayer meetings grew so large they spilled over into gigantic demonstrations, which led directly to the breakdown of the Communist state.

Some credited the church’s involvement for preventing violence during the revolution. They called it “The Revolution of Candles,” because in all the demonstrations people carried candles as symbols of hope. “I am very happy,” one German man said, “that all of our streets show signs of candle wax, and not marks of blood like in Beijing.”

Church leaders have kept their balance in these heady times. “This time will pass,” one Baptist pastor put it. “Thousands of people are flocking to the church, because the church was really the only place where you could make some political statements. But in the future the churches will go back to their original job of proclaiming the Word, instead of being a political agent. But those Christians who are renewed by Jesus Christ will definitely continue to be active in political life. And that can only be good for the rest of the citizens.”

When I asked what Americans could do for them, many East German Christians told me, “Pray for us.” As one pastor put it, “We are strengthened by the very thought of such unity in Christ.” I, for my part, was strengthened by encountering God’s people, loyal to him and committed to serve him in East Germany.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.