Bridging divides—the lessons a divided city teaches us

Berlin, Germany’s national capital, is the city infamous for the huge concrete wall that for decades divided it into two halves. Chief Apostle Schneider will be in Berlin this coming weekend. The unique history of the city teaches a lesson that can be applied to congregations worldwide.

“Werner, we can’t get across any more.” It is Sunday, 13 August 1961. Priest Simon is on his way to church in his home congregation. Today the congregation’s name is Berlin-Humboldhain. A friend comes running up and says, “The border has been closed.” “

So close yet so far away

An indeed, in the heart of Berlin barbed wire and concrete barricades had been put up overnight to seal off all crossing points between East and West Berlin. People were no longer able to go from one part of the city into the other. Patrolling the border were East German police officers with steel helmets and rifles: “We are creating a new national border here.” These makeshift barricades soon made way for the infamous Berlin Wall, which encircled all of West Berlin.

Priest Simon’s home congregation is only a stone’s throw away. But for him and hundreds of other members it will be inaccessible for decades to come. The church district is divided into East and West, just like the city and the whole country.

A process of reunification

“Heart with heart in love united” rings through the Berlin-Lichtenberg church on 5 January 1992. Chief Apostle Richard Fehr, who has just finished celebrating a divine service, announces the reunification of the two church districts: the districts of East and West Berlin are to be merged two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are to grow together again. The name of the new District Apostle Area is Berlin-Brandenburg.

“The wall shattered and divided; it destroyed a lot,” Werner Simon remembers. But he is still in touch with some of the members in his old home congregation, especially with the young people whose youth leader he had been at the time the wall went up. After the fall of the Berlin wall they met: “By then they had their own families.”

Overcoming differences with understanding

The reunification process, however, was by no means painless. This is something District Apostle Wolfgang Nadolny made clear on the 20th anniversary of the reunification of the two Church districts. “Each section of the city underwent a different development in the thirty years of division. And this was not any different in the Church,” he wrote in a letter addressed to all congregations in January 2012. This did not apply to the doctrine, he said, but concerned the human level and people’s social identity.

“But by focusing on our Saviour Jesus Christ and making an effort to try to understand each other, the District Church has been able to develop nicely with God’s blessing,” the District Apostle says in retrospect.

Tearing down walls and bridging divides

Of course there are still problems now and then. But these he rates as being completely normal interpersonal conflicts. But this is not something that we should resign ourselves to, Wolfgang Nadolny says and, with a view to the city’s unique history, he encourages the brothers and sisters to take action: “Tear down walls and bridge divides.” This is an appeal that not only fits to Berlin, but to all congregations around the world.

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Andreas Rother
Germany, Congregational life