Behind the Iron Curtain

This story is about Dr. Clyde Meadows, who was pastor of King Street Church for 33 years, from 1928-1961.  He then served as Bishop in our United Brethren denomination.  The day that is described happened 54 years ago this week.

On September 19, 1963, Bishop Clyde W. Meadows made the first of what would become six trips into East Berlin. He went in his role as president of the World’s Christian Endeavor Union. He was accompanied by Arno Pagel, a Christian Endeavor leader from Frankfurt, and a young seminary student from Hamburg.

About 500 Christian Endeavor societies functioned in East Germany. Because of the communist hostility toward Christianity and toward Americans, the trip was shrouded in secrecy and need-to-know precautions.

Around one corner, a car was waiting. The three visitors squeezed into the small car, along with a man and his daughter and a husky young man who shadowed Meadows for the rest of the day. The car drove about 20 miles outside of East Berlin to a group of buildings, which turned out to be an institution for mentally handicapped children. They were ushered into one building, where about 30 Christian Endeavor people, ages 25-35, were waiting. Some had traveled up to 300 miles to hear Meadows speak.

They asked him to preach. Meadows said, “I want to speak from Philippians 2:5-11, to urge you to take courage and assure you that your oppressors will someday have to bow the knee to Jesus Christ.” Nobody in the room had a Bible, but hands shot up throughout the crowd.

Hands shot up all over the room. Arno pointed to one fellow, who stood and recited the entire second chapter of Philippians. Meadows then preached a message which, with interpreting, lasted 30 minutes. They then asked questions about the message. Before long, two hours had passed. Then he was asked to preach another message… and then a third message, with discussion in between each one. They shared a simple meal, and didn’t leave until 7:30 that night.

Back in East Berlin, the car stopped in front of a darkened building, and they went inside. The husky young man took his arm as they walked through a dark entryway and down a pitch-black corridor, up some steps, down another corridor, and into a room where 40 young people waited to see the president of the World’s Christian Endeavor Union.

He preached to them. Then they moved on to another dark building, where he found himself preaching to a group of people in a basement. By then it was 11 p.m.

“Dr. Meadows, can you stand one more?” he was asked.

He responded, “I’m so excited, you could cut off my arm and I wouldn’t notice. Let’s go!”

This turned out to be the largest gathering of all. Nearly 100 people, some of whom he remembered from the first meeting. Meadows was told that they wanted to sing for him. He considered that strange, since it was supposed to be a secret meeting, but figured they knew what they were doing.

The director stood up in front, got everyone’s attention, and then raised his arms and brought the people up just like a choir. Then they “sang” all four stanzas of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Every mouth was going—but without a sound.

Meadows wrote in his autobiography, “I was almost overcome. These people wanted to sing the praises of the Lord, but had to mouth the words lest they betray themselves.”

After the song, he preached for the sixth time that day. Nobody in any of the meetings had a Bible, yet someone always stood to recite whatever chapter he chose.

Around midnight, they crossed back into West Berlin. Meadows then asked about the husky young man who had closely shadowed him throughout the day. Arno said, “That young man pledged the other Christians behind the Iron Curtain that he would make sure you were taken care of and that if anything went wrong, he would try to get you out of the country—even at the cost of his own life. He pledged his life for yours.”

During subsequent trips, conditions were relaxed. During the final trips, the Christians he visited sang aloud, and during his final trip in 1979, he carried a Bible and his visa granted him permission to preach. In 1990, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Christian Endeavor societies of East and West Germany merged.