Friday, June 13, 2014

Leipzig, Germany: Where candlelight brought down a wall

LEIPZIG, GERMANY  June 13, 2014 – Travelers to Germany in 2014, especially Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig may encounter a variety of celebrations honoring the 25th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of the country

From October 9 through 12 the “Festival of Lights” will be a highlight in Leipzig, but it is the story behind the festival that must be told.

Many European cities have grand musical traditions. Leipzig is no exception for it is the city of Johan Sebastian Bach.

Bach was choirmaster at the historic Thomaskirche (Church of St. Thomas) for 27 years. Even without his considerable influence, Thomaskirche would have had a rich legacy, but Bach’s reputation made the church even more notable.

It was at the Thomaskirche in May, 1539 that Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig

Some 250 years later, in 1789, Mozart played the church organ there, and in centuries that followed both Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner also performed at the church.

 The church choir has been in existence since 1254.  During Bach's time there were 54 singers in the chorale. Today the world famous Thomaschoir features the voices of 80 boys singing music particularly dedicated to Bach in weekly performances of motets and cantatas, as well as during regular Sunday services.
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, St. Nicholas Church was situated at the intersection of two important north-south, east-west trade routes which not only played an important role in Leipzig’s past, but was also critical to the events that reunited Germany in 1989.

Walking through the front door of the Church of St. Nicholas a small, almost insignificant, sign stands outside with just three words written on it.  They simply say, "Open For All.”

Each November during the early 1980s, young people from all over the region would gather at St. Nicholas Church for ten days of prayer for peace. 

There had been large demonstrations all over East Germany protesting the arms race in those days, but the gatherings in Leipzig were regarded as little more than non-violent prayer vigils.  The only places where issues could be openly discussed in Germany were at meetings held in churches, and the Church of St. Nicholas was one of those sites.
Soon a youth group from the church decided to increase the meetings by having prayer services every Monday evening. At first there were only a handful of attendees, but before long more people came to demand justice and respect for human rights. 

Many who participated were non-Christians, but with no other place to gather they regularly attended the meetings. They studied the words of the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, and eventually they 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 gathered strength.  Each day the church was decorated with flowers. Each night it was filled with the light of hundreds of glowing candles. 

After a while the government took notice and became concerned. From May of 1989 all access roads to Nicholas Church were blocked by police checkpoints. 

Authorities exerted pressure to cancel the peace gatherings, but the prayers continued.  Monday after Monday the meetings were held even though many were detained or arrested.  Soon it became impossible for everyone to get into the church because the numbers were so great.  Yet, still they came. 

In October, the militia battered defenseless East Germans in the streets, but they remained passive, refusing to fight back. 

Hundreds were taken away in trucks.  Many others were locked up in stables, but the people still prayed. 

In early October, St. Nicholas Church was filled with more than 2,000 people inside with thousands more out in the streets.  When the prayers ended, the bishop gave his blessing and made an urgent appeal to the congregation for non-violence. 

As people departed the church, they were greeted by thousands of fellow East Germans standing in the square, standing with candles in their hands. 

To carry a candle outdoors requires two hands.  One holds the candle while the other prevents it from going out.  In order to keep a candle burning it is not possible to carry a stick or a club or a stone. 

It was a miracle.  When police arrived and surrounded the crowd, they didn't know what to do. They were bewildered and quickly lost their incentive to fight.  For the protesters  this was a peace vigil, and they were armed only with candles. 

Soon the police began mingling and talking with the people. Eventually they withdrew.  As one officer said, “We were prepared for everything.  Everything, that is, except candlelight.”

The non-violent peace movement lasted just a few weeks more before the government collapsed.

Not long after, about two hours northeast of Leipzig in Berlin, the notorious wall went crumbling to the ground.. 

In Leipzig, not a single shop window was ever broken during the demonstrations.

Ironically, it all happened exactly 450 years after Martin Luther introduced the Reformation to Leipzig
Leipzig is well worth a visit to experience its two famous churches where Bach was so prolific; the Church of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Church

And as you leave St. Nicholas, be sure to look for thar little sign that says "Open For All” for there is power in those three tiny  words.