Berlin: Courage Under Fire

LORD, LOOK ON THEIR THREATS,

AND GRANT TO YOUR SERVANTS THAT WITH ALL

BOLDNESS THEY MAY SPEAK YOUR WORD.

— ACTS 4:29

Of all the nations on the continent of Europe, Germany has probably welcomed Billy Graham with the greatest enthusiasm. The crusades there in 1960 were no exception. After a week in Essen, capital of the Ruhr district and home of the famed Krupp iron and steel works, with 25,000 present on opening night, the team moved on to Hamburg.1

    The Hamburg week opened with a beautiful dedicatory service in ancient St. Michal's Cathedral, conducted by Bishop Holstein. On the first night the specially erected crusade tent was hopelessly overcrowded; there were more people standing around it than were seated inside. A Die Welt reporter described the scene inside the crusade tent:

The 35,000 are so quiet that one can hear his neighbor breathe. And then something happens which had not been expected in Hamburg. Suddenly the free space between the platform and the front row is filled to capacity. Many men are there, many young men. What is happening inside of them — in their hearts? But this is indeed no one's business. It is said there were 4,000 who had come to the front. In no city, it is

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said, were there so many. It happened in Hamburg. Does one know his city? Does one know his neighbor?

    The most unusual meeting in Hamburg took place late at night at the entrance to the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's notorious underground section. Ten thousand standees gathered to hear a Billy Graham sermon drawn from theater marquee titles. Beggars, pimps, prostitutes, bar girls, ex-convicts, assorted toughs all stood listening as Billy told them, "All of you are searching for something. In Hamburg the nights are long, but much longer is the night if there is sin in your heart."

    The Graham team's last stop was Berlin, the island capital then surrounded by Communist territory on all side. They arrived less than a year before Nikita Khrushchev ordered the erection of the infamous Berlin Wall. That week in Berlin may rank as the greatest external test of Billy's long ministry. In my opinion it brought to the surface bravery and hidden strength of character in the evangelist in the face of extreme danger and showed the world for all time what God will do for a man of prayer. It also brought our the finest qualities of courage in the Christian citizenry of free Germany.

    The people of Berlin had heard Billy before. Because of his emphatic way of speaking, they had affectionately nicknamed him "Gottes Machinengewehr" (God's machine gun). The crusade committee had designed and erected a huge elongated tent and pitched it on the Square of the Republic, just 300 yards from the East German border. A West Berlin newspaper published a clever cartoon that had an East German guard commenting on Billy's preaching tent: "If every machine gun on our side had a tent over it, the whole Republic would look like a camping ground!" The tent capacity was 20,000 seats, and when the Berlin meetings began, it proved too small.

    The East Berlin police responded to Billy Graham's arrival by giving him "twenty-four hours in which to get out of town." The Communist newspaper Neues Deutschland described Billy as a "religious charlatan" and declared that he had been seen in Paris escorting a blonde described as "one Beverly Shea!" The lord mayor of East Berlin labeled Billy "a representative of the Cold War by order of

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NATO." Crusade Chairman Wilhelm Brauer promptly sent the lord mayor a German edition of Billy's Peace with God.

    The East German government warned that all kinds of reprisals would follow this "crude provocation" and demanded that the tent be moved. Mayor Willi Brandt refused. Billy Graham's reaction was to preach his first sermon in the crowded tent on John 3:16 and to read greetings to the German Christians from the president of the Evangelical Baptist Union of Moscow, USSR! Wisely, he refused to attack communism directly.

    East German tanks and water cannons soon rolled up to the Brandenburg Gate, pointed threateningly at the tent. At least one tank fired a shot during an afternoon Bible class taught by Roy Gustafson of the Graham team. West Berlin officials quickly dispatched a fire truck, special details, and police dogs to the crusade tent.

    At the Brandenburg Gate scores of "vopos" (Volks polizei or people's police) harassed the hundreds of East Berliners seeking to come through the gate each night to attend the meetings, and police managed to bar many. (Most of the 1000-voice choir came from East Berlin). At other entrances to West Berlin, people were pulled off subways, frisked, harassed, and ridiculed. The "vopos" ripped crusade posters from the walls of the subway and elevated train stations controlled by East Berlin.

    Yet night after night, in spite of everything, the people came from east and west in forty-degree weather, and for one glorious week the Gospel was proclaimed in the Square of the Republic, just 300 yards from the fateful boundary between two worlds.

    Billy told the East Berlin people who came forward at his meetings to give their pastor's names, but not to give their own addresses to the counselors, lest they should be persecuted in the follow-up.

    One morning 25,000 teenagers gathered in the great square, the tent proving too small. They heard a summons to make a personal decision on moral and spiritual issues. Such a ministry was new on the German religious scene.

    For a change, the German pastors one evening requested the omission of the traditional invitation music. They wanted to see

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whether the response would be as great without the emotional impact of the choir singing "Just As I Am." That night more people came forward than the night before!

    The final Sunday afternoon service was held outdoors on a warm October day in front of a burned-out shell that had been the Reichstag (capitol) building before Hitler set fire to it. It stood just a stone's throw from the East Berlin border at the Brandenburg Gate, where hundreds of "vopos" stood ready. "Vopos" also patrolled the railroad track that divided the Soviet from the Western sector, and hundreds of East Berliners, unable to cross, stood along the track and listened over a wire fence to the brass band of 150 instruments and Billy's gospel message by public address.

    What a sight! Ninety thousand Germans gathered before the Reichstag that closing Sunday afternoon, and most of them stood through the entire service. Beyond the Brandenburg Gate on the Unter den Linden Boulevard, others who were barred from attending strained to catch the message of God's Word over the speakers.

    Billy Graham told the great crowd in words translated by Peter Schneider:

If Germany opens its heart and mind to Christ, it could once again lead the whole world spiritually. We stand at the center of history in front of this historic Reichstag. My plea to you today is that you come to a strong belief in the Bible as the Word of God. Martin Luther was reading this book when God spoke to him. You come back to this book, begin to read it, study it, and God will speak to you, and through you perhaps history can again be changed. Young people of this generation cannot remember much about the war. They are searching for something to believe in — to follow. Let that leader be Christ.   

    When the call came for a decision, the space at the front of the podium in the large square could not accommodate all who wished to respond. Counselors had to mingle with the throng to reach the inquirers.

    The crusade closed with 90,000 voices singing Martin Luther's

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stirring hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). Citizens of the West returned to their homes in the tense island city, humming another popular crusade tune, "Jesus Is Coming." Meanwhile visitors from the East slipped back across the sector boundary, some escaping detection, others being seized for the inevitable interrogation and harassment.

    Not until twenty-nine more years had passed did relief come to East Berlin. Finally in 1989 prayers were answered, the pressure eased, the Wall collapsed, and full, glorious freedom came once again to reunite the brave men and woman and children of East and West Berlin.

_________________

1. I did not accompany the tour to Germany, being then occupied with the premier issue of Decision. This chapter is based on coverage that I wrote for the magazine at the time, obtained from team members who were there, from John Pollock's biography, and from contemporary German and English newspapers. I have also since visited those cities.

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