Most Americans over 40 grew up thinking that half of the Earth looked like these two photos at the top of our story: black and white. Nations were either “Free” or “Communist,” words that meant “Good” or “Evil” to millions of families after World War II.
The top photo shows a woman daring to wave across the Berlin Wall. The second grainy photo shows workers building the Berlin Wall in the 1960s.
THIS IS A WEEK with an amazing convergence of anniversaries and holidays:
TODAY: It’s been 20 years since the Wall fell. (The crumbling took longer than a day, but Nov. 9, 1989, was the day when hammers swung with abandon.) Please, EXPRESS YOURSELF on this theme today—OurValues.org is open and waiting for your comments on The Wall!
TUESDAY: It’s the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, which taught millions of American kids new lessons about global diversity. (We’ve got an entire Sesame Street story aimed at youth groups in Bible Here and Now. Plus, Stephanie Fenton’s Spiritual Season column offers even more cool Sesame links.)
WEDNESDAY: It’s Veterans Day—with so much emotion this year after the tragic news of the past week. (Tuesday, we’ll report on a wonderful antidote—coming from PBS—to the sadness we’re feeling. Wednesday, meet a Quaker writer with an inspiring message about living in troubling times. And, Thursday, we’ll have news about a second documentary on veterans’ issues.
TODAY, we want to celebrate the “Triumph of Spirit” that always is possible in human relations—and that erupted across eastern Europe so unexpectedly 20 years ago!
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to publish excerpts from a nationally award-winning news series I reported from eastern Europe in the spring of 1990. Knight-Ridder newspapers sent me to Europe to explore the crucial role religious groups were playing in touching off peaceful revolutions. When I landed in Romania, for example, the revolution was so recent that there weren’t even any customs officials at the airport! I simply walked into the country in the midst of change.
I traveled widely for many weeks, then returned home and wrote a series of reports bearing news that had been almost completely overlooked in American news media—pointing out that people of faith were at the core of nearly every peaceful revolution. Yes, Americans knew that Pope John Paul II had been active in Poland—but our week-long series of stories from eastern Europe showed Americans how religious leaders were active everywhere across the Communist world.
The front-page series debuted with a dramatic scene from Romania …
BUCHAREST—In Romania, the communist dictator seemed invincible as
he marched across the countryside demolishing whole villages to make way for
his new industrial centers‚that is, until he stubbed his toe on a preacher
who dared to preach against such policies.
Nicolae Ceausescu fell so fast and so hard, the crash was heard round the
On Dec. 15, 1989, Ceausescu’s security police tried to arrest the Rev. Laszlo
Tokes in Timisoara, a city 250 miles from Ceausescu’s capital in Bucharest.
They wanted to exile him to a remote Romanian village.
Unexpectedly, though, Tokes’ congregation massed in the streets and opposed
the police. Within 10 days, nearly all of Timisoara joined them; Bucharest
joined Timisoara; and the dictator’s own army officers joined the people.
On Christmas Eve, 1989, Ceausescu found himself in a hastily organized trial
pitifully whining that the revolution was a plot by foreign agents—one day
before pictures of his execution were broadcast on national television.
Foreign agents almost certainly did not cause the fall of Ceausescu or
communist governments in Czechoslovakia, East Germany or Poland. Most foreign
governments were as surprised as the communist regimes that fell.
In a triumph of spirit that stunned the world, millions of common people
pulled down the pillars of those communist systems, sagging after decades of
dry rot. The nature of that spirit varied as widely as the courses of their
revolutions, but at critical points the catalysts were Christian leaders whose
churches were lean and surprisingly muscular after years of persecution.
The news reports from eastern Europe in late 1989 were almost exclusively of
the political and social side of communism’s historic fall, and often
overlooked were these roles churches played.
I traveled across Transylvania to find Tokes and report his story …
Churches managed to survive four decades of communist attempts to suppress
them, “generally because they preserved eternal values—moral values that
our societies now need very much for the future, ” Tokes said earlier this
month. He was pausing briefly in the midst of several international speaking
tours at his new office in Orodea, about 100 miles north of Timisoara, where
he was recently elected a bishop in the Reformed Church.
“Through these years, the churches’ strength was that they remained the
only organized alternatives left for people to the totalitarian governments, “
Tokes said. And as revolutionary spirits rose, churches—in some cases
almost by default—became agents of change.
Now, in the vacuum left by the communists’ rapid retreat, there is a wild
flowering of religion in forms no one would have dreamed a year ago.
I traveled farther, documenting stories in countries where few American journalists had explored religious activism …
In Czechoslovakia, religion and politics are almost inseparable—partly
because President Vaclav Havel publicly describes the years of communism more
as a spiritual disease than a political problem.
Havel’s most effective campaign poster was a spiritual slogan. A large
photograph of the playwright-turned-politician in a casual black sweater with
one outstretched hand was taped to hundreds of windows, doors and walls in
Prague. The caption read: “Truth and love must conquer lies and hate.”
On New Year’s Day, Havel announced his three major “foreign relations”
initiatives for 1990: Establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and
hosting public visits by the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and by
the pope. By the end of a recent two-day papal tour, Havel had
accomplished all three.
As a maelstrom of discontent began to build in East Germany against
oppression, a deteriorating standard of living and pollution, the Lutheran
churches in the country became the vortex.
Lothar de Maiziere, the new head of the East German government, was also
the vice president of his nation’s federation of Protestant churches until
And in a poignant example of Christian forgiveness, the ailing former East
German communist leader Erich Honecker had to seek asylum from angry citizens
by moving into a spare bedroom in the home of a Lutheran pastor who once had
been persecuted by Honecker’s administration.
In Czechoslovakia, the vibrant soul of the revolution can be seen in people
like Otmar Oliva, a prominent young sculptor and Christian mystic who was
imprisoned from 1981-82 for duplicating copies of human rights publications.
While Oliva was in prison, friends moved his studio to a sprawling house
and garage near the basilica of Velehrad. (photo at right) The church is a shrine to Saints
Cyril and Methodius, 9th Century missionaries who are famous throughout
Eastern Europe for spreading Christianity in the common Slavic tongue.
Oliva, now 38, describes the shrine as “a most holy place” and as “the
center of the world” because it was there that the missionaries’ Eastern
brand of Christianity met Western strains of the faith spreading from Germany.
The shrine became a lightning rod for dissidents after an illegal 1985
religious rally there shocked the government by drawing a crowd of 150,000.
Since then, most of the revolutionary leaders have been guests at Oliva’s
home, sometimes camping in tents beneath fruit trees that dot the hill behind
When he visited the country, the pope celebrated an open-air mass at Velehrad and received a
church bell commemorating Cyril and Methodius, sculpted by Oliva.
After hearing dozens of religious dissidents, including Oliva, tell their
stories, the reports tend to merge into one: The persecution often began with
educational and professional threats, then denials of promotions, followed by
demotions and dismissals. A telephone call or the daily mail might deliver
anonymous threats of violence.
Occasionally, after even a short trip away from home, the police broke in
and searched through intimate possessions, clothing and letters. Police often
hid microphones, then later would ask questions about intimate conversations
they had recorded. Friends would be told slanderous rumors by police
informants. Formal charges and prison might follow. Heavy labor in a factory
or poverty were among the alternatives.
One evening last year in Romania, Laszlo Tokes, his wife and two guests in their home were
threatened by four masked intruders with knives who fought with the pastor and
cut his forehead. Tokes believes the attack was launched by the police.
Some dissidents did die; and in Romania hundreds of citizens were killed
when countless thousands finally took to the streets in December to face
tanks and automatic assault rifles with their bare hands.
The dead are memorialized in dozens of tiny handmade shrines—with
crosses, photos, faded flowers and candles—set up along Wenceslas Square
in Prague, the main streets in Timisoara and Bucharest, and near what is left
of the Berlin Wall.
The life of a dissident was dangerous and painful. However, in the
overwhelming number of cases, it was bearable, dissidents learned.
Over the last several years, that knowledge became their power.
“My life before the revolution had become . . . ” Oliva begins, then
searches his memories until he chooses the unexpected word: “comfortable.
“I mean I had adjusted to it and it made me stronger. It sounds paradoxical
but, under the oppression, we felt that everyday improved our spiritual life.
I think it might be even a bit boring now that we are free.”
Another leader of the Czechoslovak revolution, the Rev. Vaclav Maly, a
Catholic priest, still lives in the tiny apartment with a broken place in the
ceiling light fixture where the police once hid a microphone. He was jailed
for most of 1979 with other dissidents; after that, he was regularly and
Despite it all, said Maly, “The communists helped us. They stripped our
faith of all the superfluous things. They took away church property. Only
someone willing to make a personal sacrifice could make a confession of
faith. Young people entered the church because they understood this
In one of the climactic rallies in late November that helped push the
revolution to victory, Maly and other dissidents addressed a crowd of 500,000
gathered along the Letna Plain, a huge riverfront park on the northern edge of
At one point, a young police officer unexpectedly appeared at the podium
and admitted that he had been among the police who had beaten a group of
student protesters earlier that month. He begged for forgiveness.
Maly then talked about the need for forgiveness, asked the crowd to forgive
the officer, then led his huge audience in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Rita Klimova, a Jewish dissident who became the Czechoslovak ambassador to
the United States in February, agrees that oppression actually has helped the
Catholic Church flourish. “It took the communists to make the citizens of
Prague kneel on the pavement for the Catholic Church.”
This first major news report on religious activism in the eastern European revolutions also raised a question for American religious leaders …
U.S. church leaders in sermons and articles have confessed that these
changes across eastern Europe seem incredible to them. Their churches struggle constantly to seem
relevant to young people—often with limited success.
It is nearly an axiom
that American religious leaders who have a strong sense of social justice seem
perennially disappointed with the lethargy they see in their denominations.
Religion in Eastern Europe today seems to them to be the other side of the
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)