For many years, our Synod has partnered with the Leipzig District of Saxony, Germany. It’s a wonderful relationship, with deep and strong connections. Pastor Paul Rogers has been our pointman, our visionary, our leader in this endeavor. A year ago, he stepped down from this post and the synod asked me to service coordinator this partnership. So now I spend some of my time recruiting individuals and church groups from the M.A.S. to participate.
As I talk with folks from our synod about Leipzig, I regularly work into the conversation that they should be careful about getting involved: this partnership could very well change their lives. We focus our trips, not so much on sightseeing, but on relationships—opportunities to connect and to share our lives, our stories. This takes trust and time. It takes openness to express an increasing closeness and a willingness to grow even closer. Such connections can be life-changing. One memorable moment last summer typifies this.
A couple of Leipzigers—both pastors—and I were chatting in the square outside the St. Nicholai Church. Our group was to gather at the peace pillar that so wonderfully defines that area. As we waited for our friends to assemble, I asked Horst, “What was life like for you during the time of the GDR [German Democratic Republic—what we Americans used to call “East Germany”]? Horst said, “Bill, it was like this…” And he told me a joke. It’s a joke from the 1980’s, a political joke. And its punch line is a bit off color to Americans (but not nearly so impolite to Germans), so if you are easily offended, skip the next paragraph.
So, now back Pastor Horst’s story:
Ronald Reagan from the USA, Mikael Gorbachev from the USSR, and Erich Honecker from the GDR all die and go to heaven. St. Peter meets them at the gate and recognizes them as leaders of their countries. The Apostle says, “Greetings gentlemen, I have a special treat for you. See that pool over there? If you jump off the diving board, the water will turn into the beverage of your choice before you land in it. So, go ahead, jump off the diving board, say the name of your favorite drink in midair and enjoy.’ Reagan goes first. He hits the end of the board and catapults upward, yells “Scotch!” and lands into a pool of 16 year old single malt. Then Gorby stands on the board and looks at the pool of scotch left by Ronnie and heads down the board; in midair he yells, “Vodka!” and does a swan dive. Finally, Hoenocker, as a good German, heads down the board, excited to yell, “Beer!” Unfortunately, he slips as he is about to take off, stubs his toe, and says meekly as he tumbles toward the pool, [I leave this in German] “Ach Scheisse.”
We laughed. We talked some more. And things got serious: “How things have changed,” said the third pastor, Wolfgang, “If anyone from the government would have overheard that joke and seen our laughter, we could all be arrested and sent to jail for disrespecting the people’s president” (Volkspraesident). And the joke teller added, “And you know, it wasn’t just the government. If someone on the street would’ve overheard us (or thought they’d overheard us) and filed a report, we could’ve been arrested. We could not trust anyone but our closest friends and family. That’s what the Stazi [the state secret police] wanted—to keep us guessing, to keep us from trusting one another.”
The poignancy of that moment was profound: Three old men, born and reared worlds apart—Cold War kids taught by our governments not to trust the other. At that moment, though, we were brothers in Christ standing together in the shadow of a monument to peace swapping stories, grateful for God’s grace, proud to be partners.
The moment had snuck up on us. I suppose we weren’t cautious enough. And for that, I’m thankful—such conversations, don’t you know, can change a person’s life…