Group celebrates 25 years of Mormon missionaries crossing divided Germany

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 16 2014 7:58 p.m. MDT

The first missionaries to serve in the German Democratic Republic stand outside the Hamburg mission home in March 1989.

Craig Miles

Although it has been 25 years, Elder Wolfgang Paul still clearly remembers the life-changing phone call.

It was 10:15 p.m. in January 1989. He was sitting in the mission home in Hamburg in the Federal Republic of Germany, where he had been the mission president for six months. On the other end of the line was President Thomas S. Monson, who was then the second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Paul said President Monson got straight to the point. He asked what it would mean for the Paul family to be sent to the German Democratic Republic, commonly referred to as East Germany.

Elder Paul took a deep breath.

At the time, the Berlin Wall was still in place and a socialist government controlled the German Democratic Republic. Although an LDS temple had been dedicated in 1985 in Freiberg within the GDR, the nation was still closed to full-time missionaries.

Elder Paul, a native of Luedenscheid in what was commonly called West Germany, instantly agreed to move his family to further the work of the gospel.

He remembers discussing with President Monson the years it took to reach this point, and how they couldn't afford any mistakes.

President Monson detailed that process in a general conference talk in April 1989, titled "Thanks Be to God." He first visited the German Democratic Republic in 1968 and returned periodically to check on the status of the church. Then in October 1988, President Monson, Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Hans B. Ringger, along with local church leaders, met with government officials to discuss their request for LDS missionaries in the German Democratic Republic.

Miraculously, their request was granted. After 50 years, the nation was finally open to full-time foreign missionaries of the LDS Church.

"The behavior of the members, the living pattern of the members, impressed those leaders very much," said Elder Paul, who went on to serve as an Area Seventy in Eastern Europe. "That was the reason they trusted the church."

Elder Paul and many of his former missionaries and their families are attending a mission reunion in Dresden, Germany, June 13-14 to commemorate this momentous anniversary.

The reunion will consist of a temple session in Freiberg, a visit to the site where the land was dedicated by President Monson in 1975, an evening fireside with current missionaries and local members, and church services on Sunday.

Craig Miles is one of these former-missionaries who plans to attend the reunion with his family. Miles was serving a mission in Hamburg when the German Democratic Republic officially opened, and he was one of the original eight missionaries transferred there in March 1989.

He said although he was excited for the opportunity, he was a little scared.

"I actually remember writing a letter to my parents saying, 'I'm really excited for this opportunity, but I don't know how much I'll be able to communicate or if I'll even come out alive,'" he said.

The eight missionaries first attended a three-day training meeting at the mission home in Hamburg to learn specifically what they could and could not do in the German Democratic Republic.

For the first eight months the missionaries were there, until the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, the government did not allow door-to-door proselytizing or street contacting. Missionaries were allowed only to respond to questions they were asked.

Brian Thueson, one of the first missionaries to receive his mission call directly to the German Democratic Republic, said he remembers the unusual curiosity that the people had with the Western missionaries.

"We actually had initially quite a bit of success speaking to the people, just because they were curious," Thueson said. "There wasn't a lot of Western influence in East Germany. It opened up a lot of doors to us teaching."

Elder Paul feels that the curiosity of the people wasn't just a coincidence. During the dedicatory prayer to set the land apart for missionary work in 1975, President Monson requested that people would develop a curiosity for the gospel.

"Arouse within them a curiosity concerning the Church, and then cause that this curiosity may turn to a desire to know more, and then that this desire to know more will result in conversion to the gospel and that the membership of the Church may stabilize and indeed grow," President Monson said in the prayer, according to the book "The Dawning of a New Beginning."

“When I personally interviewed many who requested to be baptized, I asked them, ‘How did you become acquainted with the church?’” Elder Paul said. “I received many times the answer, ‘Oh, I was just curious.’”

Miles and his companion were the only missionaries in the northern part of the German Democratic Republic, and they were incredibly busy: "We got to the point where we were so busy with people, we actually extended the baptismal (invitation in) the first discussion," he said.

But they still had incredible success. Miles said he and his companion witnessed a baptism every week for six of the eight months that he was in the German Democratic Republic.

"The people were just so hungry for something to believe in," he said. "They did not believe in the things the government was telling them. They didn't have a sense of God. The Spirit, when they felt it, was unique to them."

Elder Paul remembers one missionary telling of an experience giving a blessing to an investigator. After the blessing, the man sat on his chair for minutes, repeating, "My heart is burning. My heart is burning."

"These people who proudly claimed to be atheists, when they felt the Spirit, became like children," Elder Paul said. "Many cried when they said a prayer for the first time."

Although the LDS Church membership in the German Democratic Republic hadn't had access to foreign, full-time missionaries or many church materials after the beginning of World War II, they stayed strong.

"Berlin was such an amazing experience because they had never seen missionaries in their lives," Miles said. "They had only heard about them."

Elder Paul said that the members sacrificed to help with missionary work, "but they did it with joy. They treated the missionaries wonderfully. They provided food for them and they helped them in missionary work."

Thueson remembers one ward mission leader in particular, Brother Wiese, who was always willing to drive the missionaries wherever they needed to go.

Thueson later found out that Wiese, like most people in the German Democratic Republic, had signed up for his car in advance and waited years for it to come off the production line. Most people in this situation were very careful with the amount of miles they put on their cars: "(The members) were so willing to give of their time and their limited resources to help out the missionary work," Thueson said.

Elder Paul said the opening of the German Democratic Republic to the LDS Church was a modern miracle: "I wouldn’t say it was easy, but the church had such a good reputation among the East German leaders,” he said.

According to Elder Paul, the State Secretary for Religious Affairs Kurt Löffler was generous and had a lot of trust in the church. Elder Paul recalled him once saying, “I’m accused that I have a great favor for your church. If I’m honest, I have to admit that.”

Elder Paul said the opening of the German Democratic Republic to the LDS Church was not something ordinary: "When I reflect on it I must say…I have been involved in a modern miracle," he said.

Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: epalmer@deseretnews.com

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