Will Aussiedler Change the Face of the German Church?
On paper the flood of ethnic German Lutherans into Germany from the former Soviet Union is heartening. Rev. Siegfried Springer, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany's "Church Fellowship", estimates that a million arrivals from Eastern Europe have registered themselves as Lutherans. Roughly 200,000 Germans are still arriving annually, half of whom are Lutherans. "Of course," he adds, "not nearly all those who label themselves 'Lutherans' are also believers."
Springer points out that in a Wolfsburg church, "the pastor would be left with ten 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 Winistädt of Berlin's "Evangelical Refugee Counseling Service" states: "We regard the Germans from Russia as a great opportunity. Many of our churches are very empty; they can bring us new life." A recent survey reported that 23 of Germany's 50 largest worship services consist of Aussiedler. In southern Germany, nearly every congregation is confronted with the Aussiedler issue.
The move from rural Russia or Kazakhstan to urban Germany is traumatic. The Aussiedlers' manual job skills are not geared to Western Europe; few married women or men over 55 can expect to ever find gainful employment.
The daily "Frankfurter Rundschau" wrote: "The Aussiedler thought they were returning home. But they arrived here only to discover that the German culture they had upheld so loyally no longer exists in Germany." The 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." The trauma was brought home to Germans in January when an Aussiedler in Osnabrück stabbed his five children to death before turning the weapon on himself.
On the congregational level, the beginning years have been rocky. As Rev. Hiltrud Schneider-Cimbal began her first sermon for an Aussiedler audience 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."
Thomas Winistädt reports that "Aussiedler are initially highly uncomfortable in church. They're accustomed to having the men on the right and women on the left and women in scarves." Aussiedler have never sung with organ accompaniment and are scandalized when congregations remain seated during prayer.
A Lutheran brochure lists topics that remain unpopular for Aussiedler: "ecology, responsibility for the Third World, respect for minorities and German concentration camps." According to Pastor Springer, "the ecumenical movement, women's ordination, homosexuality, prayer postures and political sermons" remain major issues.
A Berlin social worker cites "atmosphere and content", in what order, as the primary causes for the lack of Aussiedler presence in congregations. Thomas Winistädt complains: "Unfortunately, too few pastors are attempting to combine the two traditions."
Winistädt distinguishes between generations. According to him, young emigrants are more secular and Russian than their elders. "Because their grandparents were so strict, many of the young don't want anything to do with church. In one case, the church youth picked up Aussiedler youth and began introductions by emptying a bottle of sect together. That gave them a completely different perspective on the church, and the Aussiedler have joined this youth group. It takes great sensitivity to be able to please both the young and the old."
Will Lutheran Aussiedler enrich the larger German church, or will they instead create their own? Aussiedler have remained virtually powerless within the larger church. Despite long years of service under the most trying circumstances, Aussiedler pastors are not educationally qualified to be ordained in the German church. Slight changes are forthcoming: The Aussiedler Johannes Gudi has received a mandate from the church of Baden to hold official church-sanctioned services and administer the sacraments for Aussiedler. Yet Rev. Gudi remains a simple church employee; he is not an ordained-for-life member of the clergy.
Nevertheless, the Evangelical Church in Germany, in contrast to smaller denominations, is committed to integrating Aussiedler into existing long-standing congregations. Pastor Springer explains: "We see it as our calling to have local congregations offer rooms to Aussiedler so they can hold services in the fashion to which they are accustomed. There are 140 such Lutheran meetings in Germany now, and we desire to create more appreciation for Aussiedler within existing congregations."
Martin Kruse, the former Bishop of Berlin, stated last year: We cannot expect refugees "to simply take part in the existing forms of church life. That would be merciless and short-sighted and would force them out of the church." Indeed, many Aussiedler have already joined more intimate Baptist or Mennonite congregations. Others have joined the small "Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church" (SELK) which is allied with the Missouri Synod. But thanks to the efforts of committed officials such as Rev. Springer, Aussiedler presence in pietist groups within the larger Evangelical Church will surely remain and grow.
Dr. Bill Yoder
Evanston/USA, July 25, 1994
Written for “The Lutheran” magazine in Chicago, 842 words
Note from November 2020: Siegfried Springer (1930–2019) was Bishop of the Lutheran church in European Russia from 1992 to 2007. Born in the Caucasus, he fled westward from Ukraine with his mother in 1944.