LINCOLN – One Sunday in December shirt sleeves, the faithful ascend the steps of the High Church in the Lincoln Lowlands.
Evangelical Lutheran Friedens shines in the sun.
The bulb of its steeple matches the sky, blue like a robin’s egg; above, a wooden cross extends towards the sky, beckoning the faithful.
The church’s annual German worship service is about to begin, recalling the early 20th century days of corner grocery stores and summer kitchens and newcomers to modest clapboard houses, folding their children into America’s messy melting pot.
Today “Silent Night” becomes “Stille Nacht” and “O, Christmas Tree” becomes “O Tannenbaum” and the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Vater unser im Himmel”.
And people – from near and far – happily fill the benches.
Many will come for nostalgia. To honor the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who grew up in this enclave of Germans from Russia, a few blocks south of downtown Lincoln.
Some will come because their German teacher told them to. Or because they love the language. Or feel drawn to tradition.
âIt’s the ancestral connection,â says Kathy Tichota. “I just feel this presence of my family from the past.”
That day, Tichota and her family put on their masks and picked up their ballots, pages filled with lyrics from Christmas carols printed in two languages.
The great guest preacher with the Bavarian name recites the opening litany.
âIm Namen Gottes, des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes,â said the Right Reverend Michael Melchizedek.
Bud Christenson, the white-haired pastor of the church with the Norwegian surname, repeats the words: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
For the next hour, under the painted tin ceiling, the day disappears and the past resuscitates in a cadence transported from the Volga to Ellis Island to the Heartland. The harsh vowels and the hint of the familiar. Bitten and wet. Und and geboren.
In the early years, Friedens’ burgeoning congregation worshiped in German. The men on one side in suspenders and Sunday suits, the women on the other in stockings and scarves.
Friedens stuck to the customs of its founders – the workers who carried the church’s pillars from the railroad tracks to the road in 1907; the women who cooked and sang – all the while working hard to integrate into a new country.
Service in English at 10 a.m. every Sunday, followed by service in German at 11 a.m.
In 1965, the last Sunday service in German disappeared from the church at 6 and D, but the congregation was not ready to let go.
So, year after year, at the dawn of Christmas, they come together. Church members and former church members, language enthusiasts and language learners.
Students, like Paul Masin de Ponca, seated in the back row with a trio of friends, listening to readings, singing Christmas carols. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman was sent by his German language teacher, Frau Jensen.
âIt was interesting,â he says. âI didn’t really understand much. “
Neither did Donna Chapin, who came to the service for the first time with her husband, Jack.
“But it’s a joy to know that this is happening because I don’t want to forget my German heritage, for better or for worse.”
It takes a village to prepare the church.
Friedens is a small village now; 50 to 60 worshipers on a good Sunday.
During its early decades, as emigrants flooded Lincoln, large crowds came to praise God here every Sunday, walking from their neighboring homes, seated side by side in the sanctuary and balcony.
By the turn of the 20th century, there were at least six Lincoln churches filled with Germans from Russia, said Pam Wurst, retired reference librarian at the American Historical Society of Germans in Russia. Four in the Southern Russian Fund, where Friedens sits, two in the Northern Fund, near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Germans who came to America from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s spread across the Midwest, the Great Plains, and spilled onto the West Coast.
They had spent generations in Russia thanks to Catherine the Great, a princess of German blood.
There they had their own villages, lands and churches. They kept their language.
In the late 1800s, Catherine’s grandson resumed his promises. They should pay taxes. The men were to serve in the Russian army. Children should go to Russian school, learn the language. Their churches were threatened.
âMost German men don’t like being told what to do,â Wurst said. “So they started to settle their families here.”
The railroad paid a lot for the ride, dropping them off in towns across Nebraska, from Sutton to Scottsbluff. In Lincoln, an early immigrant and grocer named HJ Amen sponsored villagers to settle here.
And the population has increased. In 1914, one in three babies born in Lincoln had German-Russian parents.
And these Germans from the lowlands went to church.
Friedens could claim 450 members by his 20th birthday in 1927.
âThere were hundreds of kids for Sunday school in that basement,â said longtime member Karen Scribner.
Scribner is busy in her kitchen the night before the special Sunday service. The retired teacher has already filled a Tupperware container with delicate spritz cookies. Now she is topping her kuchen with a rival’s cherries – flour, butter and sugar – the spiral-bound German cookbook that belonged to her parents opens on the table.
Her parents and their parents before them – âhard working people sweeping their sidewalksâ – were devoted to the church and the community it housed.
âI carry this with me,â she said. “I like Friedens to continue.”
She spreads the word every December, sending emails to German teachers and newspapers, radio stations and former visitors to remind them to save the date.
His brother will broadcast the German detention service live.
A team of church ladies will fill the large coffee maker and line a table with foil-wrapped chocolates, cookies and pfeffernusse boxes.
Irene Newhouse and her daughter Abby will also be making German pastries. Honig cookies garnished with sprinkles. And powdered Kipferl that melts like snow on the tongue.
The mother arrived in Lincoln as a hugged baby with her parents and grandparents in 1952; Germans living in Hungary until the government expelled them.
The three generations lived together.
âGrandma stayed at home with me while my parents worked,â she said. “She learned English by watching soap operas.”
But they also spoke German at home, and the church was their foundation.
This annual German religious service is a link with what is always close to her heart.
âIt’s just very emotional. When people sing these German anthems, you can see tears welling up in their eyes.
This year, mother and daughter, dressed in red, are waiting at the entrance to welcome their guests.
The great minister tells the story of the virgin birth and of the prince of peace.
The white-haired pastor answers him.
Freue dich, Welt, dein Konig nahtâ¦
Joy to the world, the Lord has come …
Round trip, round trip, a refrain from the early years.
During those early decades, Friedens’ pastors were all expected to speak German and minister in two languages, preaching from a pulpit perched high on the wall.
World War I accelerated the assimilation of all Germans in Nebraska. Germantown has become Garland, Berlin has become Otoe. The Nebraska Legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching of any subject in a language other than English.
And then came Hitler and World War II.
âMost churches have switched strictly to English,â Wurst said. “They didn’t want to be known as Germans.”
But Friedens Germans were very stubborn.
âMy parents went to the service in English and returned home,â said Kathie Svoboda, whose grandfather oversaw the construction of the church. “They considered themselves to be completely American.”
The girl, now 92, stayed behind and sang in the German choir. Studied German in college. I felt the sentimental attraction.
For decades, children sang “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve and scrambled through the cold December air, hugging brown paper bags weighed down by an apple and an orange, peanuts and candy. Christmas tree.
Paper bags have been replaced with holiday gift bags handed out on the Sunday before Christmas.
An orange or an apple. A Milky Way. Airheads and Tootsie Rolls. Sometimes there are peanuts in the shell, a flashback.
âIt’s tough these days with peanut allergies,â Scribner said.
Friedens is the last of the Russian German churches in the South Bottoms.
It is a church that survived a fire. This mourned the members who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
A church that sent dozens of young men with German blood to fight for the United States in World War II and held funerals for those who never made it home, ringing the steeple once for every year where they were on this earth.
Peace. That’s what Friedens means in German.
They try to live this promise.
As its numbers dwindled and the Volga Germans spread through the city and disappear into its fabric, Friedens opened its doors to small congregations in need of a home.
For almost four years now, members of Cristo Jesus la resurreccion y la vida have been meeting in the church basement on Sunday evenings for services in Spanish. And a Karen congregation meets on Saturdays.
They were to be there as usual on the last Saturday in December, Christmas Day. Sharing a meal and the traditions of their homeland of Burma, where they were persecuted as ethnic minorities and fled to find freedom.
A congregation balancing two worlds. Two languages.
âThe Karen people are new to this country, and so are the people who started Friedens,â Scribner said. âIt means a lot to us to welcome them to this country, as we have been welcomed. “
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