What three major events impacted your life?
That was Elijah’s homework question for me the other day. It got me thinking.
9/11 was definitely top of the list as well as the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. These events destroyed any sense of naiveté about humanity’s capacity for cruelty. The killings in Rwanda felt very close because we were in seminary in Tanzania not long after and the stories of normal life turning into slaughter were chilling.
But, the one that was fun to talk about was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I got to tell him all about going to Germany as an exchange student when I was a junior and being one of the last classes to go through Checkpoint Charlie. I was obsessed with McDonald’s toys and I can still remember the East German guard going through my huge white purse. He first pulled out all these strange toys I insisted on carrying with me and then my rubber chicken key chain. He held that up and smiled, but that was about the only smile.
Since this was long before 9/11, we hadn’t experienced much security before so this all felt really intimidating and then East Berlin was so gray and quiet. That’s all I remember. There were lots of gray buildings, except there were some buildings that were mostly destroyed and had a giant painted drop cloth over them. Our money was worth a lot in East Berlin, but there was nothing to buy. One of the highlights from our last trip to Germany two years ago was getting to explore the history of the GDR and study how something that looks so reasonable on paper destroyed the human spirit. The constant suspicion and intimidation exhausted people. The alcohol consumption in the GDR was eight times higher than in West Germany. We never imagined standing in line at Checkpoint Charlie in 1988 that within a year the wall would come down. There were many things that led up to that day in November, but the peaceful protests are close to my heart. The pastor of a church in Leipzig held regular Monday prayers for peace until Oct. 9, when the numbers were too great for the church. As the Deutsche Welle reported:
Around 6,000 to 8,000 people were crammed in to the churches in central Leipzig, and a total of 70,000 people had gathered in the city. Everyone was holding a candle, a symbol of non-violence — you need to hold a candle with both hands to keep it from going out, which makes it impossible to throw stones.
This was four months after Tiananmen Square massacre and I think we all held our breath wondering if tanks would roll into Leipzig and Berlin. I had a T-shirt around this time with the quote, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” It was one of my favorites, but I don’t think any of us imagined that candles would help bring down the wall.
Yes, my life was impacted by the tragedy of terrorism and genocide, but it has also been impacted by the power of hope and non-violence. Tyrannies and empires do not last forever, but I’m willing to stake my life and my strength on the hope that love and peace do.
• Tari Stage-Harvey is the pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.