From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
LWI 2009-043 FEATURE: The Strength to Survive - Kazakh Lutheran Congregations
Thu, 30 Jul 2009 19:34:13 +0200
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FEATURE: The Strength to Survive - Kazakh Lutheran Congregations
LWF General Secretary Noko Touched by Lutherans’ Experiences
ASTANA, Kazakhstan/GENEVA, 30 July 2009 (LWI) - In the last 70
years, the Lutheran church in Kazakhstan has been through
devastating times, yet it survived. As recently as 20 years ago,
it was a strong community, united in a heartbreaking history of
forced removal; today it comprises small, depleted congregations.
Two traumatic events mark the church's history.
Engraved in the memories of many and still held alive by the
survivors’ oral history, is the 1941 forced deportation of
half-a-million ethnic Germans from the then Volga Republic, most
of who were Lutherans. They were originally German settlers
invited to the area during the 18th century Russian empire reign
by Katharina the Great. Former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin
banished them to the Russian steppe in the middle of a Siberian
winter - at below zero degrees, without any food or housing.
And then 50 years later, after rebuilding their lives and
communities, independence in 1991 led to the mass emigration of
many ethnic Germans to Germany, leaving another deep mark.
Communities were eradicated, emptying the once overflowing
churches within a few years. Eighteen years after the onset of
the emigration wave to Germany, the Evangelical Lutheran Church
in the Republic of Kazakhstan (ELCRK) today has only about 50
congregations compared to 228 in 1993.
"It was a very bad time when a lot of people immigrated to
Germany. I say thanks to God that our congregation survived,"
recalls Rubin Sternberg, chairperson of the Lutheran synod in
The painful history of the Kazakh church left a profound
impression on Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko, general-secretary of the
Lutheran World Federation (LWF), during several visits to ELCRK
congregations in 2003 and 2006. In early July this year, Noko
spent three days in Astana and Pavlodar listening to and meeting
with dedicated pastors from the scattered congregations. "You may
be a small church but I bring you greetings from 68 million
Lutherans worldwide," said Noko to his audience, including one
pastor who had travelled 1,000 kilometers on the single journey
from his parish in eastern Kazakhstan, for the meeting with the
LWF leader in Astana.
Speaking to the pastors Noko said, "I think that Lutherans
outside Kazakhstan need to hear from you. How you remained true
to the Word. Many would not have coped, and yet you survived. You
have demonstrated to the world that the Church belonging to Jesus
Christ can carry on."
The road from Astana to Pavlodar over the Kazakh steppe is long,
straight and bumpy. Bishop Yuri Novgorodov's driver often changes
to the opposite side of the road to avoid deep potholes. "Kazakh
Autobahn [highway]," the bishop smilingly tells his visitors. The
monotonous grass landscape, where sheep graze in the distance
with their shepherds on horseback, is interrupted by roadside
graves - a stark reminder of the road's danger.
It had taken 19 hours to cover the 900 kilometer return journey
from Astana to Pavlodar, routine for the bishop and pastors in
this huge country. Novgorodov has been bishop of the ELCRK since
Ms Klara Valejeva, 75, is a congregation member of the small
church in Pavlodar, in the northeast. She was a child when the
Volga Germans were exiled without any advance warning. She
recalls, they had no time to pack their belongings, and her
father died when they fled. She had to work from the age of
seven, together with her four siblings. When asked why she did
not go to school, she answers shyly, "We didn't have the right
clothes." From the age of 12 she worked as a housekeeper,
marrying at 19. Widowed today, she lives in Pavlodar with her
daughter and visits the local church regularly - it is her social
life and link with the past. She says she never had any desire to
go to Germany, this is her home.
Ms Alla Shirokhowa, 40, is fluent in German. She grew up in
Novousenka, a German village in northern Kazakhstan, where
everything was in abundance. After Sunday service in Astana,
Shirokhowa reminisces about the beauty of the town and the
comfortable lifestyle they had. "We were rich," she says. Today
almost all of the Germans from that village live in Germany.
A qualified German and English teacher, she moved from
Novousenka to Astana, where she taught German at the Lutheran
Seminary before the institution's closure. Today her husband only
manages to get small jobs, while she does translation work. With
three children, including one at college, she worries constantly
about money. Rents are extremely high in the new high-rise
buildings springing up all over the new capital, Astana, and work
is getting scarcer, if one does not speak Kazakh.
Shirokhowa's face brightens up when she talks about the time
when worshippers overflowed into the courtyard for the Sunday
service in the Astana congregation. Only a handful of people
attend worship today.
In church, the older ethnic German women still dress in black
skirts and white shirts, covering their heads in small triangular
scarves. After the service they started to sing hymns in German.
On this warm summer Sunday morning, their beautiful voices carry
an air of melancholy, of yearning for days long past; pining for
friends and family, now far away.
Because of the huge emigration wave, services today are held in
Russian. By changing the language of worship, the church has
evolved from a traditional German church, preserving German
traditions and language to a multi-ethnic church. "From a
mono-ethnic church, we developed into a multi-ethnic church. That
is our only chance for the future. In this way we have a lot of
chances especially in the cities, but our resources in manpower
and finances are limited," said Novgorodov.
Under Stalin, Lutherans were not allowed to practice their faith
openly, thus some Lutheran church buildings in Kazakhstan
resemble houses. The country's population of around 16 million
people comprises less than two percent Protestants, while Muslims
count for more than half the population. In the post-Soviet Union
period, an increasing number of people are turning to religion in
this multi-ethnic country.
Shirokhowa's request to immigrate to Germany, where her mother
and three siblings live, was turned down. In 2008, her daughter
was denied a visa to visit relatives in Germany. She speaks of
the family's difficult experience between the hope of emigrating
and the darker moments of despair, before they were finally
turned down. “It was six terrible years when we waited - a life
out of a suitcase," she says, lamenting that her children do not
know their family.
She says she is more and more worried about her future as a
confessing Christian in Kazakhstan. "In recent times, one
sometimes is really afraid, because it is a Muslim country. And,
Some 450 kilometers away from the capital, Shirokhowa's
half-brother Stanislaw Mikula, a Lutheran lay preacher, like
almost all the pastors left in this vast country, leads the
second parish in Pavlodar. He started this congregation nine
years ago, with a regular Sunday attendance of around 25 people.
During the week he works as a tractor driver, setting aside
Sundays for preaching in his small church. He has permission to
immigrate to Germany, but intends to stay with his young family
because he is deeply committed to his parish and sees it as his
mission in life.
After this three-day visit with the ELCRK, the LWF general
secretary promises Novgorodov and his pastors that he will
continue to speak up for the Kazakh church. "The reason I'm doing
it is because I can't imagine how the Lutherans survived through
this time. The faith you had and have in difficult circumstances,
with little finances and resources, including the distances you
have to travel. The Lutheran church in Kazakhstan is part of my
soul," Noko pledged. (1,311 words)
>(By LWI correspondent Anli Serfontein)
This article is in the LWI features' series focusing on the
topic "Give Us Today Our Daily Bread," the theme of the LWF
Eleventh Assembly, which will be held from 20–27 July 2010 in
>* * *
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