The Will to Survive
July 2009By Anli Serfontein
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 Kazakhstan.
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 2005.
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 per cent 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, increasingly so."
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.
First published on Lutheran World Information