In 1982, Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany, decided to start a Prayers for Peace service in the church. At the time, the communist government of East Germany highly discouraged religious activity. So when the prayer services began, fewer than 12 people showed up. Undeterred by numbers, Pastor Fuhrer continued to hold the service every Monday evening.
Then in 1985, he placed a sign outside the church that said, Offen fur alle (Open to all). The sign attracted the attention of young people, Christians and atheists. Prayer attendance went from a handful to thousands almost overnight. When the service ended, the people would head out into the streets to peacefully protest the Wall and oppression.
The government decided to barricade the streets leading up to St. Nicholas Church. But the people still gathered. Next they made arrests. Still the people gathered. Then the police tried to beat, intimidate and threaten family members of the church. One mother lost custody of her children for being engaged in extremist activity. Still the people gathered. They prayed for peace and walked the streets.
Everything came to a head in October 1989. Soldiers, in full riot gear, gathered outside the church. As the prayer service ended, 8,000 people headed out for a confrontation fully expecting to be beaten. However, the soldiers dropped their shields and let the people walk by in peace. Officers would later say, “We were prepared for everything except prayers and candles.”
When I first heard about the story, I was told at the center of the Prayers for Peace was a cross. The cross was not standing upright, but laying on the ground. During the service, the people would come forward and place their foreheads on the cross as a profession of faith. It physically, spiritually and emotionally connected to Christ and to the German people.
Today, Paul invites us to consider the cross. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” We cannot look at the cross without also looking at our neighbor. Paul reminds us there is a sign posted on the cross that reads, “Offen fur alle.” Yet, it’s not the cross that needs to be opened up, but our own hearts. Pray for peace and work for understanding. (Philippians 2: 1-11)