Germans From Russia: An Asset? Returnees Find Transition to German Churches is Difficult

Yoder, Bill. "Germans From Russia: An Asset? Returnees Find Transition to German Churches is Difficult." Lutheran, December 1994, 46.

The Aussiedler worship at an independent Lutheran church in Berlin.
The Aussiedler bring new life to German churches.

On paper the flood of ethnic-German Lutherans into Germany from the former Soviet Union is heartening.

A million arrivals from Eastern Europe have registered themselves Lutherans, estimates the Rev. Siegfried Springer, head of the Evangelical Church Fellowship. Roughly 200,000 German still arrive annually, half of whom are Lutherans.

Springer points out what in a Wolfsburg church, "the pastor would be left with 10 people in the pews if the Aussiedler [Germans from Eastern Europe] stayed away. But now he has 200, and twice as many attend the services held by Aussiedler themselves."

Thomas Winistaedt of Berlin's Evangelical Refugee Counseling Service said, "We regard the Germans from Russia as a great opportunity. Many of our churches are very empty; they can bring us new life."

The move from rural Russia or Kazakhstan to urban Germany is traumatic. The daily Frankfurter Rundschau wrote, "The Aussiedler thought they were returning home. Bu t hey arrived here only to discover that the German culture they had upheld so loyally no longer exists in Germany." Journalist Ralph Gehrke concludes, " This is no return home, but a transfer into another world."

Gabriele Wagner, who directs a church home for recent Aussiedler in East Berlin, reports that homesickness is a major problem, especially for those in mixed [Russian-German] marriages. Alcoholic binges frequently result."

Rocky beginnings

On the congregational level, the beginning years have been rocky. As the Rev. Hiltrud Schneider-Cimbal began her first sermon for an Aussiedler congregation a decade ago, she was shouted down by a male protesting her gender. A colleague reports that on occasion, "someone will hold a speech at the end of a burial service correcting my sermon."

Winistaedt said, "Aussiedler are initially highly uncomfortable in church. They're accustomed to having the en on the right and women on the left and women in scarves." Aussiedler never have sung with organ accompaniment and are scandalized when congregations remain seated during prayer.

Winistaedt distinguishes between generations. "Because their grandparents were so strict, many of the young don't want anything to do with the church," he said. Young emigrants are more Russian than their elders.

Will Lutheran Aussiedler enrich the larger German church, or will they instead create their own? The Evangelical Church in Germany is committed to integrating Aussiedler into existing, longstanding congregations. "We see it as our calling to have local congregation offer rooms to Aussiedler so they can hold services in the fashion to which they accustomed," Springer said. "There are 140 such Lutheran meeting in Germany now, and we desire to create more appreciation for Aussiedler within existing congregation."

Martin Kruse, the former Bishop of Berlin, said last year: We cannot expect refugees "to simply take part in the existing forms of church life. That would be merciless and shortsighted and would force them out of the church."

Indeed many Aussiedler already have joined more intimate Baptist or Mennonite congregations. Others have joined the small Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church allied with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But thanks to the efforts of committed official such as Springer, Aussiedler presence in pietist groups within the larger Evangelical Church will surely remain and grow.

Reprinted with permision of The Lutheran.

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