East Berlin in the late 1980s faced a difficult time of Communist rule.
I was living in West Berlin at the time, and my focus was on Baptist work and collaboration in East Europe.
Christians and churches were not favored. To be a declared believer or member of a registered congregation was a strong statement of defiance.
Being a Christian limited chances of advancement in the workplace, and it probably meant your kids would not be allowed to study in the university system.
The state controlled everything, including all resources it distributed. The Eastern Bloc was struggling economically, and public resistance grew as everyday necessities grew scarce.
The Eastern Bloc’s wealth had been spent on military might – mostly in competition with the United States and NATO allies.
I had close friendships with people in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and East Germany, but most of my work was with East German Baptists.
Unrest increased in Poland initially, but it grew steadily in other countries of the USSR. Mikael Gorbachev came to power in Moscow and began speaking of glasnost (openness).
Soon, people across the entire region were impatient with the overbearing central government and agitation began for more freedoms.
Protests unfolded differently in each country. The Poles were the pioneers, but Hungarians and other republics began to experience more resistance.
East Germans had a perfectly constructed “safety wall” to protect them from their brothers and sisters in West Germany. The wall divided cousins from cousins, but it was not successful in blocking television broadcasts about change in the wider region and even in East Germany itself.
East German believers in Dresden and Leipzig began prayer meetings for change in churches. The goal was more freedom. Soon, this prayer initiative spread to East Berlin.
The churches, which were normally seldom visited, provided a neutral platform for peaceful assembly. News on bits of paper was posted on the walls regarding missing people – feared to be captives of the police.
This was a powerful aspect of the gatherings due to the absolute government control of any newspapers or TV news.
Speakers would encourage the gathered crowds to pray and move their feet in protest against the oppressive system.
The method of protest chosen was to march out of the church with a lighted candle into the streets outside. This public protest was not approved and, therefore, illegal.
The candles were lit in protest against brutality and oppression. The authorities reacted brutally, and marchers were beaten, attack dogs were unleashed on the protesters and eventually water cannons and other methods were used to subdue the defiant protesters.
The result? Remarkably, as more people were beaten, arrested and thrown into jail, their loved ones and friends began attending the prayer meetings and listening for information.
The young were the biggest group gathering and marching, but that soon involved all age groups as the crackdowns grew in intensity.
Occasionally, I would drive over to East Berlin and attend such gatherings with an East Berlin Baptist pastor. The Lutheran Church, which hosted the gathering, was a large cathedral-like building and could hold several thousand people. It was jammed.
The protest movement continued to snowball until it reached an astonishing one million plus in East Berlin the Saturday before Nov. 9, 1989. That was the night when the East German Parliament declared that citizens would be allowed to travel to the West.
I was returning to my family after a week at the East German Baptist Seminary near the Polish border when I heard the announcement on German radio. I was still on the East Berlin side of the wall.
I continued slowly in a line of vehicles approaching Checkpoint Charlie, the entry to West Berlin. Documents were inspected, a sword was slid into the gas tank, luggage was removed to check against people smuggling.
But something was weird. Border guards were nervous and barely bothered to complete the normal procedure. They too had heard of the announcement, and the entire system was beginning to unravel.
Soon, thousands of East Germans passed through the Berlin wall and began to explore West Berlin. Protests deemed “useless” by many of the older generation and “toothless” by many of the young had unpredictably caused the corrupt system to surrender. Goliath had fallen.
Gorbachev in Russia played a role by refusing to send in tanks, but the peaceful army of determined citizens was the decisive force for radical change.
Years after this, I’d often shake my head and wonder when I would wake up and realize it was all a dream.
The combination of courageous believers standing up peacefully to corruption and evil is a powerful force. Any church or group of believers can protest for justice and change peacefully. God will provide the power.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the U.N. International Day of Non-Violence (Oct. 2). The previous articles in the series are:
Resolving Conflict Through Nonviolent Means | Anthony Taylor
For Judaism, Why Nonviolence Doesn’t Work All the Time | Jack Moline