This memory was sent to me by my sister, Lois Johnson. Her husband Richard was a close associate of my dad, Dr. Solberg, a teacher of History and Political Science—a pastor and a man who spent his time in Germany from 1949 to 1956 serving the refugees fleeing out of Soviet eastern Europe into Berlin (the free island city in the midst of a Soviet controlled sea) and where it was possible, putting families separated by a cruel Stassi enforced regime, back together again.
My brother-in-law, Richard, has made a project of collecting and organising my mom and dad’s correspondences, family letters, speeches, sermons, historical articles, etc., and here is one of them … written by my mother, June.
He sent this reminiscence because he knew how much I would love to read it. I do know the Marienkirche (a huge church in the Russian-controlled sector of East Berlin in 1949) about which he speaks. I remember it … even as a child of 6 years old … 71 years ago. I thought you guys will resonate with it. It’s a reminder of how others, around the world, viewed us when TOGETHER, we look out for each other, how strong we are in solidarity—and reminding ourselves how much we Americans have been given and how precious it is. For these folks, there was no freedom, but they sure risked themselves and the spirit of Freedom as if they were free. My mother, who wrote this piece and was a part of this story, is gone now, but her understanding of who we are in America is all there. I want to pass it on to you … but let her take you there.
Today I have had an experience which I shall probably never have again in my lifetime. I must tell you and all our church women about it. Perhaps the best way to do that is to relive it with you. First, you must come to Berlin, to the doors of the Marienkirche. Then, before we go inside, we must stop a moment so I can tell you a little about what we shall go into.
This is the Weltgebetstag der Frauen, the World Day of Prayer for Women, and today we pray for peace. Four years ago, such a world prayer day was not observed here in Berlin. Then Mrs. Arthur Siebens, wife of the pastor of the American church of Berlin, arrived. She felt that this worldwide movement should also find a place in this great city. From very humble beginnings, together with only a few German women, she organized the first Weltgebetstag der Frauen. For three years the services grew, and finally this year the German women, who by now had taken over the whole project, asked if it would be possible not only to meet in the small Ernst Moritz Arndt Kirche in the American Sector, but also that a twin service be held in the Marienkirche, the bishop’s church in the East Sector. It seemed too big an undertaking, but the women from the Russian Sector were so insistent that the committee finally decided to attempt such a service. And so, as we enter the doors of the Marienkirche, remember than another identical service is being held in the American Sector.
Perhaps you have noticed as we drove from our home in the American Sector that we saw a sign, “You are now entering the British Sector of Berlin”—and then another, “You are now leaving the British Sector of Berlin.” That meant we were entering the Russian Sector. If we had driven farther north instead, we would have entered another Sector—the French. So far, it is possible for us to enter the Russian Sector (not the Zone, which is outside of Berlin), but not very many Americans do go into this Sector—and very few by car. Because we shall park beside the church, we feel rather safe in taking our car there today. Outside a private dwelling we would not park; it might be too dangerous for the people within.
The Marienkirche is perhaps the largest church in Berlin. It has a very long nave and a deep chancel. Partly destroyed during the war, the church has now been restored and whitewashed within. It is very beautiful.
And yet we cannot go through the doors before you know something more, for coming right out of America, you have not yet felt the fear which is here in the East Sector and in the East Zone. First you should hear the words of a fine young Christian man who said to me the night before, “Fear crowds upon us; it fills our days and our nights, and when you are hungry and cold, and dare not speak, it is hard to keep hope alive in your heart.”
And then you should also know something about the women who lead today’s prayer service. It is too dangerous to name them. All of them have suffered. Most of them have husbands who resisted during Nazi times. All of them today are giving their lives to help their brethren. Two are Vikarinen (women pastor’s assistants); one woman’s husband is in a hospital from overwork and nervous strain; most of them serve in congregations whose churches and parish houses have been completely ruined. There is a Salvation Army woman, a Baptist deaconess, the chairwoman of Frauenhilfswerk (the German W.M.F [Women’s Missionary Federation]), a very well-trained intelligent sociologist, and a British woman in charge of Religious Affairs for the British Sector.
Now you and I enter the little anteroom from the church hall, where we who will take part in leading this service bow our heads and pray for God’s blessings. Then the wonderful organ music begins and we quietly walk up to the front of the church through long aisles, past the packed pews, trying to overcome the emotions which crowd upon us as we see this great old church full to overflowing with 3000 women.
Are you standing beside me? Can you see them, these women, drably dressed, white-faced with tired eyes, many standing because there are not enough places for all of them to sit in this cold, unheated church, and each of them here—to pray? All over the world today, “from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof,” women are gathering in churches—to pray for peace. The service we follow today is a translation of one written by a Japanese woman. The hymns—you have sung them all—are German chorales. The Bible readings are each read by a different woman, and the prayers, too, are led by different women. But always comes the inexpressible joy of knowing we are together—sisters, German, English, American (and in the Ernst Moritz Arndt Kirche—French, Hollandish, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian), praying for peace.
First we pray for forgiveness, for the sins of not caring about our brother, for waiting for peace to come from somewhere else, and not seeking it by having Christ in our own hearts, for trusting in outward might. Then we pray for our churches, our brethren, the poor, the sick, the fearful. Then we pray for our world in its great distress, and through all the prayers we pray for Christ to be our personal Friend and Savior, realizing that He gives peace. Behind us, a blind woman, who has been standing, fumbles to find an empty chair, and we are glad to give her ours and to sit on the cold stone steps of the chancel. Two women choirs sing beautifully, and then it is time for one of the Vikarinnen to give her little meditation.
There in the huge pulpit of Marienkirche stands a small trim woman of about 45 who suffered in the Nazi times, but who shows such strength as she speaks that you are compelled to listen. Do you understand every word? I don’t. Until suddenly I hear her say, “Americanerin,” and I know she is quoting me, and the words come back to me with even greater meaning than when I first said them. She says, “An American woman asked very earnestly a few weeks ago that we here in Germany pray for them. They have such responsibility in the world today, and such might, and they want to be led by the hand of God. Pray for them that they find the way.”
Now we rise to sing “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) and we know in faith that these prayers can be answered.
With His good gifts and spirit…
With us remains the kingdom!”
Tears run down our cheeks.
It’s over. We dare not speak to each other for we are so filled with emotion. But later, in the anteroom again, we are accosted by two women who want to meet the only American woman there. “We are from the zone,” they say—“from ‘Paradise.’ We thank you for being here today. We need peace so much. We will pray for you. Please tell your country women that we are andere Menschen (“another kind of people”) than they think.”
As we thank our dear speaker, she takes our hands gravely and says in excellent English, “Sometimes I think you Americans are more kind than we are, and I want to thank you for that.”
Outside the rain is falling, and the women in thin old shoes start home to cheer-less rooms, black, clammy bread, and no heat. We have brought a friend with us, a woman who has suffered unbelievably during the war years. She sits in the car beside us as we drive her to the Alexander Platz station, and weeps: “Thank you for letting me come with you! It was to be in heaven! To think there are still that many people who pray! There are still good men in the world! Truly, this was for me a holy day. Gott segnet dich! God bless you!”
I wish you could stay here with me for a while, to meet some of our dear friends, courageous, faithful, sometimes despairing, yet ever hopeful. But you must go home to America, warm, free, blessed, and call our women to join these women, praying for peace.