The joyful kind unfolded one unforgettable night 20 years ago.
The Berlin Wall fell Nov. 9, 1989, without a shot being fired. As Germans on both sides of the wall gleefully tore it down over the ensuing days, communist rule in Eastern Europe began to crumble (see it as it happened at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnYXbJ_bcLc). Within a few years the Soviet empire collapsed and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. Thus ended more than 70 years of tyranny that killed millions of people, oppressed hundreds of millions and regularly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation.
Today’s children grow up in the shadow of international terrorism. But they don’t have to crouch under their schoolroom desks during air-raid drills like many of us did back in the 1950s and ’60s — as if that would have protected us from an atomic blast. They don’t have to wonder if the world will end tomorrow in a mushroom cloud of “mutually assured destruction.”
The fall of the wall came with a suddenness that surprised even the people who expected it. Despite the pressure for change coming from all sides — even from Soviet reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev — the East German state was prepared to fight a long, twilight struggle against freedom. It probably would have crushed any attempt by its people to force political change.
“We were ready for everything,” a top East German government leader admitted after the fall. “Everything except candles and prayers.”
Candles and prayers — offered up with incredible courage in peaceful public demonstrations by East German Christians and others who joined them — sparked the fire that eventually consumed the tyranny in their land. True, larger political, social and economic forces set the stage for change. But the believers who put their lives on the line in those last fearful days of communist rule helped turn fragile possibility into reality. Their bravery inspired others throughout Eastern Europe to do the same.
The years since have seen many waves of change sweep the former Soviet empire. The early days of euphoria and freedom gave way to economic struggle and chaos, particularly in Russia. Some nations have solidified democratic institutions; others have moved back toward authoritarian rule.
Missionaries and Western evangelicals flooded into Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. At first they found a warm welcome from people hungry for truth. Later, some governments began to limit access. Orthodox church leaders in the region began resisting what they called “cults” and “sects” encroaching upon their territory. Secularism and the headlong pursuit of long-denied material luxuries competed to squelch the call to spiritual things.
And a deeper darkness continues to haunt the region.
“This area is defined by the lingering shadow of communism — the oppression of spirit and repression of freedoms that robbed people of their identity and dignity,” writes an IMB (International Mission Board) worker based in Eastern Europe. “The residual effect of this passing regime now permeates society as a sense of hopelessness. A cavernous void exists in the very soul of the people that longs to be filled — a void left by an atheistic system that imprisoned its inhabitants in demeaning commonality. Though the population had longed for political freedom, it arrived with a sense of disillusionment.
“The road back to true freedom will require more than a new government. It requires hope.”
Case in point: The three out of every four Russians who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction — or have a family member who does — need hope. Some are finding it in Jesus Christ.
Russian Baptists have opened 80 rehabilitation centers over the past 10 years to help addicts. The home- or apartment-based centers typically house eight to 10 people. They receive practical help and encouragement along with the hope of new life in Christ (see a short video about the ministry at
About half of the recent church growth in one part of Siberia “has come from people in recovery or related to recovery,” reports IMB missionary Andy Leininger. “We are seeing God at work in some powerful ways and want to reach the millions in Russia who are slaves to addiction.”
The mass movements to Christ that many evangelicals envisioned when the Berlin Wall came down haven’t occurred — yet. But the hope Eastern Europeans seek can be found only in the Gospel of grace.
Candles and prayers lit the fire that brought down the wall. They will yet bring true freedom to the millions still struggling to emerge from its shadow.