“Sie bekommen keine Chancen, also nutzen Sie sie!”
The old man sitting across from me finished the sentence with a quiet chuckle.
“That’s an old GDR joke,” he explained, referring to the former communist nation of East Germany.
While I had not previously met Jürgen Runge, I already knew quite a bit about my new acquaintance.
Back in 1953, he had been a chemistry student in the East German university town of Halle. But tests and lab practicals were the least of his worries.
He had also been the president of a protestant student congregation, and in that year the group’s pastor was arrested by the government’s secret police force. Runge, along with the other students that came to the pastor’s gatherings to listen and ask questions feared that they too might soon be thrown in jail.
I knew Runge’s story because I wrote my undergraduate history thesis on the East German government’s persecution of Christian student organizations, specifically focusing on the aforementioned congregation in Halle. In the course of my research, I had read some of Runge’s own writings about that time, and had even mentioned him in my thesis.
And now, at 87 years old, he was talking to me in person.
Runge never was arrested because of his role in the student congregation as he had feared. And after an imprisonment lasting several months, his pastor was released and returned to lead the group once more. But Runge’s Christian beliefs and his participation in church organizations cost him throughout his life. He went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry, but like many people of faith in the GDR, was relegated to jobs that were well below his qualifications. His children’s educational opportunities, like the children of many Christians, were stymied by the state.
Nevertheless, he continued as a church lay leader. Elected president of the regional protestant synod in 1984, he helped guide the church through the tumult of the late ‘80s, followed by German reunification in 1990.
By any measure, a review of Runge’s story in his old age reveals a life of consequence and meaning. But it was a story he told me about his younger years that, in the days following our conversation, has stayed with me the most.
As a youth, Runge had hardly any connection to church or faith.
His family wasn’t religious and didn’t go to church. But Runge says he started going as a teenager out of curiosity.
“Something that’s been around that long must have something to it,” he remembers thinking.
So he started going, and then got involved at his university’s campus ministry.
And he stayed. But it wasn’t the sermons, music, or activities that drew him in. It was that inside the church, unlike almost everywhere else in that authoritarian state, people could actually speak their minds. They could ask real questions. Not just about faith, but about morality, government, current events, or their hopes and fears. And, again, unlike almost everywhere else, they were accepted. Even if their opinions didn’t match the party orthodoxy (or church orthodoxy, for that matter).
Everyone was welcome. No matter who they were or what they believed.
And so, because of the persecuted East German church’s openness and acceptance, Jürgen Runge would serve it and its people for most of his life. Despite the hardships, opportunities, and worries that it would cost him.
Which reminds me of the previously mentioned joke that he told me offhand during our interview.
He wasn’t given any chances. In fact, a government that hoped for the death of faith actively tried to take away any chances he might have.
But he certainly did use them.
Note: Last week, I traveled to Halle to interview Dr. Runge and his contemporary, retired pastor and church superintendent Günter Buchenau. I wrote here about Runge because of my previous exposure to his story, but both men have spent most of their lives weathering storms of persecution and frustration while working to serve and support the church in East Germany. Like Dr. Runge, Pastor Buchenau did not grow up in a Christian family, but came to faith as a young man. He had also been impressed by the church’s welcoming, open environment. I’m deeply grateful to both men for assisting me in my research.