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Belonging in East Berlin by Neita Geilker

In June of 1987, Don and I traveled by an East German night train from Cologne, West Germany, through East Germany, heading to West (and East) Berlin. The East German police photographed us, took our passports, and, supported by dogs, even waked us in the night to confirm our identity.

In West Berlin, we spent several hours just walking along the Wall, reading the troubling and often beautiful graffiti, and observing the frequent guard stations atop the wall, situated so that each East German guard was visible to the one on either side and poised to shoot if any “inappropriate” behavior occurred either on the ground or the Wall.

And we particularly noticed for sale signs on the property of several large churches. When we used the underground train system, we discovered that it bypassed each stop where it had once entered East Berlin, and barriers were in place to prevent passage. However, East and West Berliners could meet on both sides of a barrier to talk, and West Berliners could pass packages through to family and friends. Apart from these striking exceptions, West Berlin was fascinating: lively and colorful.

On a Saturday, we entered East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. According to a pronouncement Hitler had made a quarter of a century earlier, Berlin was celebrating its 500thh birthday (timed to precede the Protestant Reformation by just a few decades), and the guards were ordered to “be nice.” Having exchanged a prescribed number of East German marks, we entered without difficulty. We enjoyed visiting several sites but were most impressed and amazed at the evidence of religious activity.

We discovered that it was the weekend for a conference of ecumenical churches from all over Europe, and we met some very welcoming folk, one of whom gave me a scarf like they all were wearing, which I still treasure. The words around the scarf say, “And I will be with you always. Evangelical Churches’ Day, ‘87, Berlin.” We were in front of St. Hedwig Cathedral just in time to observe an astonishing sight: leaders of the conference were standing together on the large portico, having concluded a high-level session. They were wearing their ecclesiastical attire—red Cardinal robes, Greek Orthodox robes, and many other religious designations. The crowd greeted them warmly.

 

We also discovered a music service at Marienkirche and marveled at full occupancy. There, we participated with other Christians singing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”— each in his own tongue!

As we departed East Berlin, we contributed to Mariankirche our remaining East German marks. And as we walked back through the checkpoint, we were enveloped with a warm feeling of belonging with those believers—both East Berliners and others from across the continent.
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