The Protestant Rome Luther City Revisits the Reformation


Part 2: A Hard Sell

Just meters away from Dorgerloh’s pious ivory tower, the same “break in tradition” he bemoans can be seen firsthand. Entering the “House of History,” it become quite clear just how foreign the EKD’s religious development plans are for many people here. In this museum, you can smell and taste East German history. It's an exhibit of daily life in the Honecker's republic made up of floral wallpaper, asymmetrical tables, homemade shelves and handkerchiefs worn by the Pioneers, the country’s socialist youth organization. It’s a life without spirituality, without a cross and without a church. Instead, there's plenty of cheap schnapps and photos of army officers drinking.

A former East German leads tour groups through a replica of an old grocery store set up on the museum’s first floor. He shows “under the counter” goods true to the originals, rare goods such as ketchup or red wine from Bulgaria, which were hidden out of public view. The exhibit could have also included West German books, as East German citizens, thirsty for knowledge, stole them from the Leipzig Book Fair to help make sure that they could keep up with conversations when they had visitors from the West. Another "hidden good" could have also been the pins worn by members of the Young Congregation, the Protestant Church’s youth group, which was persecuted by the East German government.

Many of his colleagues were "traumatized" by this history, says Christian Beuchel, the museum's director. They can all tell tales of people who asked if Mary was Jesus’ wife or of teachers who told their students that faith was "unscientific." Even after the fall of the communist government, it took a lot of courage for clergy member to enter classrooms because they felt like they were entering enemy territory.

A Unique Sense of Mission

Armin Pra, 44, is lucky that his knowledge of East Germany is almost completely secondhand. He comes from Hesse, a western German state, but he has been a minister in an area around Wittenberg since 1993. His bright red truck speeds through Wittenberg, a city whose reality bears little relation to the EKD’s grand plans. In Pra’s opinion, many of those plans are mostly just for show. He finds the idea that the Castle Church should be taken into church ownership absurd. People will think that a church belongs to the church anyway, he says, not to mention the future costs. Then he laughs and steps on the gas.

While studying theology, Pra focused on missiology, the study of missions. "I’m certainly in the right place here,” he says. Pra oversees 15 congregations, 13 churches and 20 pieces of property. Although his job is to look after the buildings’ condition, it’s actually the people who are much more important to him. And here, especially, he’s much in demand. “Hardly anything works on its own anymore,” Pra laments. He drives slowly over the cobblestones, and then he brings the truck to a halt. He's arrived in Straach, a village a few miles outside of Wittenberg. It’s a town where everything is gone: There’s no rail connection, no post office, no school, no shops. Even the ATM has been removed. “But we’re still here,” says Pra, “and we can’t just give up on a place like this.”

Pra’s mission concept is one that makes do without any sort of target-group analysis. In fact, it consists mostly just of being there. He says a few words at the firemen’s festival, organizes puppet shows or stops by the fishing club. He arranges social evenings for the congregations instead of the church services that only frustrate him, when no one shows up. And then, at some point, Pra suggest, people will come up to him during these events and ask questions, such as what values they should raise their children with and what counts. “Giving answers then,” he says, "is what mission is really about.”

Pra relates stories of his various small successes. There are the teachers who placed orders for whole sets of Bibles and an organization that worked to preserve the village church. Many of the group’s members didn’t actually belong to the congregation, but all were committed to saving “their church” because it had become a part of their local identity. Later, some even had their children baptized in the church they’d helped to save, although they themselves had never been baptized. It seems to be one way to start healing the wounds left by two dictatorships in a row.

Martin Luther is everywhere in Wittenberg.

Martin Luther is everywhere in Wittenberg.

And aside from the mission campaign, there’s something else new happening at the edge of Wittenberg: Highly visible letters on the side of a communist-era apartment block read “Protestant Elementary School.” Grit Förster, 45, is the school's director. She first trained as a teacher in East Germany and only “came to religion” as an adult. In 2001, when dedicated parents first brought the Protestant school to life, Förster had 13 students. “They were parents for whom passing on values was especially important,” she says.

At first, Förster was the only teacher; she was “responsible for everything from textbooks to trash cans.” The school’s existence initially caused some smirks, and the doors had hardly opened when officials came by to carry out an inspection. But, since then, the school has been accredited, and now 12 teachers teach 147 students.

Förster can explain quite simply what is Christian about her school: “What’s Protestant about it,” she says, “is being together.” That sounds fairly banal, but everyone who lives here understands what she means.

Yet, in an area where a lack of religious commitment has become something of a commitment in its own right, Förster’s school is an exception. And that applies even for the Protestant movement’s most sacred locations.

A Proud Resistance

A woman with a friendly smile sells the admission tickets for the Luther House, the former monastery where Martin Luther would go on to live with his family. She can explain Luther’s history well -- but not his present. He has no meaning for her except, of course, for his relevance to her job. She says she’s 40 years old and an atheist. But then she adds, “You know, the socialist education.” Anyway, she suggests, atheists are the most tolerant. There are so many people, Catholics and Protestants both, wanting to convert them.

Sure, she’s been working here a few years, she admits, but will she become religious? No, she says, that’s just not going to happen.


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