Leipzig, Germany: A 1989 Thanksgiving that changed the world with prayer
LEIPZIG, GERMANY: On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the city.
Perhaps the date, or the text of the speech, have little memorable meaning for most of us, except for eleven words. Words that were an ultimatum to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, when President Regan exclaimed,
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Two and a half years later, the Berlin Wall did indeed come down.
Several months after that, East Germans and West Germans were once again unified. Reagan’s words of 1987 are 32-years old in June of 2019.
But this story runs deeper than Reagan’s words and the destruction of a barrier that separated families for more than a quarter of a century.
Located at the confluence of three rivers and dating to the year 1015, the narrative takes place in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig is about 135-miles south of Berlin. During the millennium that has passed since the founding of the city, two churches have played significant roles in the legacy of the country, including the fall of communism in 1989.
For 27-years, composer Johann Sebastian Bach worked as Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig.
In that day and time, it was not uncommon for musicians to be associated with multiple churches in a community, and Bach was no exception, also serving as Director of Music in two other churches in town.
Thomaskirche already had a rich and colorful history even without the considerable influence of Bach. There is no doubt, however, that his reputation gave the church even greater notoriety for future musical events.
The Church of St. Thomas choir has been in existence since 1254.
During Bach’s time there were 54 singers in the chorale, but today it features the voices of 80 boys. Today, the Thomas choir is world-famous, singing music particularly dedicated to Bach in weekly performances of motets and cantatas, as well as during regular Sunday services.
It was at Thomas Church in May of 1539 that Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig. Some 250 years later, in 1789, Mozart played the organ there. In the centuries that followed both Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner also performed at the church.
Today, a statue of Bach stands at the side of the building.
St. Nicholas Church
Though the Church of St. Thomas was Bach’s primary venue in Leipzig, he was also choirmaster at St. Nicholas Church during the same period of 1723 to 1750. Oddly enough, St. Nicholas is nearly a hundred years older than St. Thomas dating to ll65.
When it was built, the church was situated at the intersection of two important north-south, east-west trade routes which had played an important role in Leipzig’s past. But it is the modern significance of St. Nicholas that brought history together.
Over the altar in St. Nicholas Church is a painting of an angel.
When the ancestors of the church painted it, they had no idea that such a simple idea would one day become so important. The angel represents peace.
Gathering to Pray for Peace
Each November in the early 1980s, young people from all over the region would gather for ten days to pray for peace. There were huge demonstrations all over East Germany as people protested against the arms race, but the gatherings in Leipzig were regarded as little more than non-violent prayer meetings.
During those days, the only places where issues could be openly discussed in East Germany were at meetings held in churches, and St. Nicholas Church was one of those places.
Soon a group of youth from St. Nicholas Church decided to increase the meetings by having prayer services every Monday evening. At first, attendance was small, but gradually more and more people came to demand justice and respect for human rights.
Many of the participants were non-Christians, but due to East German laws, they had no other place to gather. And so the meetings continued week after week, with young people sharing their hopes for peace and freedom.
During their discussions, the group studied the words of the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.
As time went on, they collectively came to understood two things; that people should discuss urgent problems with each other and that they also needed to meditate and pray to God for support and guidance.
Slowly the movement became stronger.
As the multitudes grew, the church was decorated daily with flowers, and at night the sanctuary was filled with the light of hundreds of flickering candles.
Government apprehensions were growing. The creeping pace of the protests had reached a stage where it was impossible to halt the proceedings. From May of 1989, all access roads to St. Nicholas Church were blocked and checked by police. Authorities attempted to exert pressure to cancel the weekly peace vigils, but the prayers continued.
Monday after Monday the meetings went on even though many people were detained or arrested. Soon the gatherings became so large, it was impossible for everyone to get into the church.
And still they came.
Finally, one night in October, the militia battered defenseless people in the streets, but the innocent victims remained passive, refusing to fight back.
Hundreds of protesters were taken away in trucks. Many were locked in stables, but the people still prayed. Inside St. Nicholas Church more than 2,000 people crowded together in defiance with thousands more in the streets.
When the prayers for peace ended, the bishop gave his blessing along with an urgent call for non-violence
As the people filed out of the church, they discovered thousands of fellow East Germans standing in the square, waiting and holding candles in their hands.
To hold a candle outdoors you must use two hands. One hand holds the candle while the other keeps it from going out. In order to keep a candle lit, it is not possible to have a stick or a club or a stone.
When police arrived and surrounded the crowd, they didn’t know what to do because they no longer had a desire to challenge the peaceful protesters with candles in their hands.
The people had no desire for confrontation either. It was a peace vigil, and they were unarmed.
Soon the police began to mingle and talk with the people in the crowd. Eventually, they withdrew.
As one officer said when he departed,
“We were prepared for everything. Everything, that is, except candlelight.”
The non-violent movement lasted only a few weeks more before the wall came down in Berlin.
In Leipzig, not a single shop window was broken. It all happened exactly 450 years after Martin Luther introduced the Reformation to Leipzig.
Today, an insignificant, almost obscure, little sign welcomes visitors outside the front door of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig.
A sign that is powerful in its simplicity for those who know the history behind the story.
It is a sign of Thanksgiving which changed the course of history in November just thirty years ago.
The sign features just three words in German and three words in English.
A sign that simply reads, “Open For All.”
This Thanksgiving, share this story with your gathering, or online, and take a moment to Pray for Peace around the world. It is a powerful action to take. And the results are life-altering.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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