Sunday, December 14, 2008

Before We Met, I Had Lost God (Germany)

It was early August 1992. I had been a missionary in the Germany Dresden Mission for about one year. My companion that day and I were wandering the streets of the Market area of downtown Leipzig, a city of 500,000 unemployed, some agnostic, some atheistic, all communist former East Germans and 300 members of the Church. I had been in this city for about two or three weeks. I was lost much of the time and still relied heavily on my map to get around town.

In addition to always feeling lost, I was annoyed by the size of the city and manner of the people. I had just come from six months in small, rural towns where people would talk to you even if they weren’t interested in the gospel. People in this city were rude by comparison.

It was a bright, hot, humid day. I was hot and sweaty. I was not interested in being there, not in that city, not at that time. Street contacting was the furthest thing from my mind.

As I walked along the throngs of people I saw a smartly dressed elderly man walking briskly the other direction. I felt like I should approach him. He had the appearance of someone who had somewhere to be. Someplace important. I was envious. I didn’t feel at the moment like I had anyplace to be. What better way to prop up my ego than by interrupting him? Surely he would be annoyed by being stopped by a young American impostor and chew me out and I could continue on my merry, mad-at-the-world way, knowing I had at least been rude back.

So I did. I stopped him. I launched into my quick spiel, essentially daring him to brush us off. And, as expected, he interrupted me.

“Boys,” he said arrogantly in fluent, albeit accented English, “I don’t have time today, but here is my phone number. I’ll be gone on vacation for a month. Call me in September.” With that, he scribbled a number on a scrap of paper, shoved it into my hand, and continued on his way. The whole exchange lasted mere seconds. He had barely broken stride.

Meanwhile I dumbly stood there on the spot, feeling sheepish that I had not accomplished my objective of stopping him, annoyed that he had spoken to me in English when I had spoken to him in perfectly good German, and offended that he thought I would believe his spiel about calling him in a month. This was worse than being told to go back to America or to go to Hell or being lectured about the injustices of God. He had lied to me! The nerve of that guy! That was it! His fate was sealed. I would hold onto that stupid scrap of paper with his “phone number” and I would call it in September and I would prove what a liar he was.

A month went by. I kept the little paper in my bag for a week or two, then stuffed it into my wallet, then nearly forgot about it.

Then one day in September I rediscovered it. I was standing at the tram stop at the end of our street waiting for the streetcar with my companion. We were set to go knocking door-to-door somewhere in that big nasty city that I still hated. My hand fumbled around in my pocket for my wallet, in order to retrieve my month transit pass when I noticed the dog-eared paper with the phone number. Having a few minutes before the streetcar arrived, I ducked into a nearby phone booth and tried the number.

To my surprise this same man answered the phone. I stammered a moment before recovering and re-introducing myself. After a moment or two of stubborn exchange, I trying to nail down an appointment with him in German, he trying to weasel out of it in English, he finally agreed to an appointment. Slightly flabbergasted that he had been true to his word during our initial exchange on the street, I was now unsure what to expect from him. Would he keep the appointment?

He did. The first visit to his apartment was nothing exceptional. After explaining to us how he had learned English in a POW camp in Nebraska or Oklahoma during World War II, he droned on to us about the injustices of God. It was typical East German commie talk. How could he allow this to happen! How could he allow that to happen! Where was the church when the Russians took over? Where was the church the past forty years?

We managed to squeeze in a first discussion, at least it counted for statistical purposes, although I didn’t feel like we accomplished much spiritually. Maybe he flinched once during the telling of the First Vision. Maybe not. But he did commit to reading from the Book of Mormon, and he did invite us back.

When we came back a week later, it was as though this were a different man. He had read in the Book of Mormon. He liked what he read. He wanted to read more. He wanted to know more. Over the ensuing weeks and months, he read the Book of Mormon, got a confirmation of the truth of it as well as of everything else we taught him, and committed to be baptized.

During those same weeks and months, I learned a little about him. Before and after World War II he had been very active in the Lutheran Church in Leipzig. He had sung in the Choir at the Thomaskirche for decades. After returning from World War II, he married and he and his wife had raised a son with Down’s Syndrome.

During the forty years of Iron Curtain regime, he had become disenchanted with his church and with God for the passive nature the church took toward governmental oppression, for the struggle of his son to lead a productive life, and for the loss of his once dear wife to despair and alcohol. He ultimately abandoned the church and his beliefs.

Also during those months, something happened with me. I learned my way around that big city. I met and taught many other terrific people. I stayed in that city I hated for seven months. At the end of the seven months, it was no longer the City I Hated. It had become the City I Loved More Than Any Other.

At the end of my mission, in May 1993, my father ventured over to Germany to bring me home. We spent a week touring some of my areas, and I made sure that the lone Sunday we would have was spent in Leipzig.

That Sunday was a bright, crisp, cool spring morning. My father and I waited for the tram at a transfer stop. This stop was situated in a grassy, tree-filled park next to a lazily winding river. The early morning sunlight filtered in through the leaves, casting golden rays across the grass, causing the water in the river to sparkle, penetrating the thin fog rising a few feet above the dewed grass. As the streetcar that would take us to church approached and slowed, I noticed it had only one other passenger.

As we climbed aboard, I recognized a smartly dressed elderly gentleman as he strode toward us. He looked as if he had somewhere to be. Someplace important. As he stopped in front of us, a wide smile on his face, he said hello to me. I smiled back, astonished at the happy coincidence, and introduced my companion to him as my father.

He then turned to my father, and in fluent, though accented English, greeted him with, “I am so happy to meet you. I want you to know that your son stopped me on the street one day. Before we met, I had lost God. Because he talked to me, I have found God again. Thank you for sending him here. Thank you.”

My father was speechless. I felt like I was in a dream. This man was obviously ecstatic to see us. At that moment, I don’t know who was happier: me, my father, or this newly converted gentleman. But I have a suspicion that our happiness pales in comparison to the joy the Savior must have felt knowing that a few more of his children had found their way to Him.

Written by "A Married Mormon Man"

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