This past Saturday, BMPC singers, family members, and friends returned from a whirlwind 12-day study and music tour to former East Germany, land of Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoffer, J.S. Bach, Georg Frederick Händel, Franz Liszt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to name just a few.
These were a few of the names in the front of our minds when we departed on June 30. What most of us did not know, was that the Reverend Christian Führer, one of the leading figures and organizers of the 1989 Monday demonstrations in East Germany, which finally led to the German reunification and the end of the GDR in 1990, had passed away that very day. We had no idea that on the following Sunday, between singing in the morning service at the Peterskirche and a concert in front of Bach’s tomb in the Thomaskirche, Reverend Führer’s funeral would take place at the Nikolaikirche, just a few blocks away from us.
Reverend Führer was but one person. Described by the NY Times as “the pastor in the denim vest,” he organized prayer meetings for peace in Leipzig that grew into mass demonstrations in 1989. These demonstrations inspired East Germans to take to the streets to demand their right to freedom. By October 9, 1989, the number of protesters grew to 70,000. One month later the Berlin Wall collapsed. Martin Luther was but one person. Yet he challenged a powerful religious institution and launched the Reformation in 1517. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was but one man, but he dared to challenge the Nazis. Having perished in a concentration camp just two weeks before the end of the war, he continues to inspire through a legacy of deeply moving spiritual reflections.
Each of these men was called by God to a higher purpose.
Mission tours are often thought of as opportunities to help people in other lands. While that is certainly often the case, more often than not, a different kind of transformation takes place. When we open ourselves to genuine encounters with people in other lands and to learning of their struggles and their victories over those struggles, we are the ones who are transformed. I think I can safely speak for those who have traveled on previous choir tours—Northern Ireland, Russia, Brazil, Cuba, South Africa, the former GDR—in these travels we have been humbled and inspired by what we have experienced.
I left eastern Germany with a sense of awe at what has been accomplished since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. In only 25 years, this region has been transformed. New roads, a state of the art public transportation system, huge solar and wind energy farms, and countless buildings destroyed in WWII, left in ruins during Communist rule, are now rebuilt or in the process of being rebuilt. I met person after person who, having lived during those dark pre-1989 times, held an optimistic, energetic, and excited view of life that sadly seems rare in America these days.
I came away from this tour wondering about America, and the past 25 years. How is that we in America cannot find a way to educate our children? Why can’t we find a way to improve Philadelphia’s 28% rate of poverty (Pew Trusts: “Philadelphia 2013: The State of the City”)? What is our role in addressing global climate change?
Certainly Germany’s issues in 1989 weren’t our issues in 1989. But what can we learn from our German friends? What can we at BMPC do to bring light into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our region? What part can each individual citizen play? How are we called by God to a higher purpose? This is what I learned in Germany.