02.10.2017

Waiting on Santa Claus

A comparison between the Orthodox and Lutherans in Russia

Commentary

Gvardeysk/Tapiau, Kaliningrad Region – Sometimes I sit on one of the benches still retaining a seat in front of Kaliningrad/Königberg’s aging, 1999-built Evangelical-Lutheran “Church of the Resurrection” (Auferstehungskirche) and gaze skyward at its impressive façade. That awakens both happy and sad memories. At the turn of the new millennium, Kaliningrad’s Lutheran services were still visited by hundreds who brought along their kids and half the household. One wanted to be part of the action.

Today, the Auferstehungskirche is mostly empty; its one-time parishioners and staff are now beyond the Jordan or in Germany. Sunday worship services still attract 50 to 80 mostly elderly persons. Visitors from the West only show up occasionally. The once-cherished reception desk is no longer staffed. Yet those who appear on weekdays, push the doorbell and state their wishes, will usually still be granted entrance. The Lutheran congregations supported by Hans-Ulrich Karalus (1923-2009) in Lomonosovka/Mauern, Fritz Schlifski in Domnovo/Domnau, Ute Bäsmann in Druzhba/Allenburg und Alfred Scherlies in Zelenograd/Cranz no longer exist. The region once sported 50+ congregations and preaching stations; an insider believes only five of them will survive in the longer term. The region still has three full-time Lutheran clergy – the trend is downward.

Did something go wrong? Yes and no. The former East Prussians from Germany – and their supporting church agencies – hadn’t bothered to pay attention to the findings of recent missiological study. Especially during the first two decades after the opening in 1991, one thought rarely about sustainability and local feelings of ownership. Most projects came about without local initiative. The guests from Germany aspired to much more than their spanking-new local congregations were capable of delivering.

The Germans found only a few reliable local partners. Ethnic-German Russians wanted above all to continue their trek westward – it was after all their primary reason for having moved to the once-closed zone in the first place. Yet the well-intentioned helpers from Germany tried best to ignore the circumstances and hoped against hope to get their new friends to reconsider. More than a little money evaporated into thin air; rather than responding with gratitude, people responded with exit visas.

Thinking in terms of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the guests from Germany were seeing with their hearts, not with their heads. Atlantis had reappeared from the deep. Due to a nearly unbelievable change of course in Russian foreign policy, a homeland regarded to be gone eternally was suddenly back in full view. “I love Eastern Prussia even without owning it” was a frequent and memorable quote from its former inhabitants in the 1990s.

The modest quality of construction in the Russian enclave has led to more than a few wisecracks. One leading example is Kaliningrad’s “Auferstehungskirche”. Russian (and Lithuanian) construction firms went about their work there with checkbooks on the brain - not with their hearts. But when the matter at hand is “their thing”, Russians can also conjure up breathtaking structures. Have a look at St. Petersburg or Moscow’s “Cathedral of Christ the Saviour” completed in 2000.

In Greater Russia, the conservative evangelicals of North America proceeded in a different fashion. They wanted mission success stories and planned to exit as soon as the “five-year-window” of opportunity had expired. After all, the unreached peoples and Muslims were waiting. (Yet there were exceptions.) A connection to the country and Mother Earth were absent; the US-Americans were most concerned about numbers. In Russian “Northeastern Prussia” though one tended to think in historical terms – the heart mattered more than marketing and strategies.

I would claim that the Germans‘ transgressions against missiological findings are pardonable. The annexation of the German East by Russians, Poles and Lithuanians in 1945 had resulted in trauma, just like the prior German attack on the USSR. Sadly, the new understanding which ensued may be endangered now, but the West’s humanitarian deeds in the enclave since 1991 did result in reconciliation. The meeting of human spirits brought some genuine reconciliation.

What will remain?
Following the turbulences of the past quarter century, a home for the elderly as well as three historic, restored churches in Turgenyevo/Gross-Legitten, Gusev/Gumbinnen und Gvardeiskoye/Mühlhausen (where Luther’s daughter Margarete von Kunheim was buried) remain in Lutheran hands. That massages the spirits of those internally connected to Eastern Prussia. Yet measured in human terms, the efforts of Germany’s Lutherans were inefficient. The “bang for the buck” remained modest. The work was heavily inefficient, though not in vain. Jesus too wasted his love on others without bothering to tally the costs.

A Lutheran community very much dependent upon the love and care of foreign friends remains sizzling on the backburner. Numbering in the neighbourhood of 500 souls, more than a few of its members are too old or too poor to consider emigration. But deeds of love did bring light into the lives of impoverished citizens of Russia. Someone who visits the mostly elderly women in the Gusev parish (the heart-and-soul of that community), will still be heaped with stories of gratitude: “It was the Germans who kept us alive during the crises of the 1990’s”, they claim. Many deeds remain unforgotten – they strengthen faith in both God and humankind.

I am nevertheless dismayed to see a mighty Russian Orthodox church reaching for the skies right across the street from Kaliningrad’s „Auferstehungskirche“. The matter began with a small wooden chapel. It’s become a practice in modern-day Russia for the Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchy to erect little chapels close to larger Protestant structures. They  intend to make a statement regarding actual ownership. Granted: The churches erected by German Crusaders in heathen Baltic lands during the medieval period were also intended as material statements of ownership. Now the Russians are copying us. Apparently, this new church will end up taller and wider than its Lutheran neighbour.

Does the dwindling remainder of ethnic Germans still pose any kind of threat to the world of Russian culture? Could one not instead have agreed upon a common, partial usage of the under-utilized “Auferstehungskirche”?

Their thing – the queues around the Church of Christ the Saviour
During July 2017, queues of as many as 25.000 persons waited up to six hours around Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour to catch a glimpse of the golden sarcophagus containing a rib of Saint Nicholas of Myrna. This bestower of presents (he lived roughly 280 to 350 AD) is venerated equally by both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. The temporary removal of this genuine Santa Claus to Moscow and St. Petersburg was hammered out in meetings between Patriarch Kirill and the Pope in Havana in February 2016.

This for Protestants curious fascination is further increased by the assumption that a large percentage of those waiting believers would be equally eager to stand in line down the road at Lenin’s Mausoleum. There has been considerable convergence between the Russia’s Orthodox and communist traditions – communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov is known to also be a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Are these mystically-oriented Russians, who are neither Pentecostals nor Charismatics, simply hoping to wrest a miracle from the all-mighty Creator in another fashion? A Russian friend claims no one would bother to show up if the rib were buried in a regular cemetery plot. And if both queues contain a similar audience – why not reduce Lenin to a single rib and deposit his other remains in the Kremlin Wall as has been done with others before him? That could even be judged a compromise, for the Moscow Patriarchy is officially against the continued display of Lenin’s body. Of course, such a step would have heavily religious overtones – surely too much for a once-atheistic party.

Yet one should not overstate the attraction of Nicholas and Lenin for the Russian nation. Budget-priced vacation offerings at Russian travel bureaus would undoubtedly result in even longer lines. Not even in Russia is the church the most popular of all public institutions.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Gvardeysk, 1 October
2017

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-14, 1.309 words.