Soft strains of unaccompanied hymns waft quietly through the Lutheran church in Omsk, Siberia. Twenty or so elderly women sing from hymnals printed in the Gothic script and vernacular of imperial Germany. These babushki (grandmothers) play a distinctive role, baptizing and burying in Siberia and Central Asia, where the need for Lutheran church leaders remains great.
For more than half a century, Russian-German laywomen have kept the church alive, serving in ministerial roles, worshiping and teaching according to German prayer and hymn-based piety of 100 years ago. Yet many know little German outside of a liturgical worship service. They are culturally, linguistically Russian.
Welcome to the world's geographically largest Lutheran church, the 4,000-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and the Far East (ELCUSFE). Its bishop, German national Otto Schaude, said the church is working to increase the numbers of ordained clergy to help lead and grow congregations.
The ELCA is helping provide lay and clergy theological training through the 20,000-member Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC), an umbrella group for the ELCUSFE and the Russian- and German-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church in European Russia (ELCER).
ELCER Bishop Dietrich Brauer is the acting ELC archbishop. The ELC and its bishops' council, led by Kyrgyzstan Bishop Alfred Eichholz, connect the ELCUSFE and ELCER with five other churches in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Georgia.
"The challenge is emigration and migration away from the church," said Arden Haug, ELCA regional representative for Europe. "The Lutheran church in Kazakhstan was once one of the largest churches. Then entire families disappeared, not for negative reasons, but because they were trying to find a new beginning. For years they'd been ostracized for being German, for being Lutheran."
Today the ELCA provides partial support for the work of one of its own, Bradn Buerkle, who is serving in Siberia as a parish pastor and leadership trainer. The ELCA also offers evangelism resources in the Russian language and $15,000 toward the work of ELCUSFE pastors.
How did ethnic Germans come to live in, and later leave, Russia and its former territories?
In the 1760s, Russian ruler Catherine the Great, who had been a German princess, encouraged and invited German-speakers to settle in Russia's more remote areas, Haug said. More than 150 years later, during World War II, "Adolf Hitler attacked Russia, and [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin forced these German immigrants to move into Central Asia and Siberia," he added. "The men were often incarcerated in labor camps, leaving the women to lead the congregations."
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