Bishop Constanze Hagmaier Remembers Fall of Berlin Wall
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Bishop Constanze Hagmaier
Bishop Constanze Hagmaier
photo by Chris Laughery

Lori Walsh: If you think change in the world is moving at a record pace, think back for a moment to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. On November 9th, the wall that divided West Germany from East Germany no longer served as the barrier it had for decades. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's dismantling, South Dakota Lutherans gather for services of remembrance. Constanze Hagmaier is the Bishop of the South Dakota Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Synod. Bishop Hagmaier is a native of Germany, and she's joining us in the Kirby Family Studio inside SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio with Insight. Bishop, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Bishop Hagmaier: Thank you for having me. It's always a delight to be with you.

Lori Walsh: Now you have such a remarkable personal story that goes along with this, but this is something ELCA Lutherans are celebrating or commemorating across the world.

Bishop Hagmaier: Yeah, really.

Lori Walsh: How come?

Bishop Hagmaier: It's an invitation for us to remember that walls exist. And whether they are real walls still in our world, or they're walls in our mind, in our communities, this is just a good opportunity to just pause and stop and think and move into the future. The ELCA is a denomination that is very present in the world even though we're not people of the world, but we take scriptural foundation. We're very in tune to what goes on around us, so this is one of the things that we pause about and for.

Lori Walsh: So November 9th, 30 years ago, most of us who were alive then and sort of watching things unfold, remember this is the day when those checkpoints just no longer held. What was happening, there was some kind of press conference where they were saying they were going to loosen the travel between the two countries a little bit, and then it just unraveled and there was no stopping it. What can you tell us about that moment and kind of what led up to it? What was happening on either side of this wall that made it just really collapse? From a symbolic standpoint in the sense that people no longer saw it as two days ago you would've gotten shot for climbing over it from the East Germany side, two days later you're dancing on the top of it. What happened?

Bishop Hagmaier: It's just really crazy. It, of course, started in Leipzig with peaceful prayer. And it's really called a peaceful revolution that happened in the church in Leipzig where people prayed. And I think there are lots of pieces that came together. We can go back to June 12th in '87 when Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear that wall down," to what eventually led to this peaceful revolution where people that were previously almost killed by just attempting to climb the wall to now just standing on the wall celebrating.

I remember I was in my later teens. I remember continuously watching the news and they're always 15 or 30 minutes long in the evening and I had the privilege, because I grew up close to the wall, to watch television on both sides of the wall. And so my family would first watch Western broadcasting. And we could see this coming of, there's people crossing the wall. I remember my dad looking at me saying, "That has not happened before." We were all just kind of watching this unfold and nobody was really willing to put a stop to it. While before, that was unheard off.

So as people crossed over Hungary, and there were no travel permits, and my family was a divided family, so my grandmother's brother lived in Eastern Germany and it was extensive for us to travel prior. But all of a sudden, there were people crossing over the borders and everybody was just watching this with amazement. And then later on in the evening, we watched too and we would tune into Eastern German television. And it was a complete different story. They had full control and the only reason those people were allowed to travel was just they're making this exception to travel arrangements. I found myself struggling with making sense of hearing news.

But hearing different news on different sides of the issue. So I still wrestle with this, "How did it all happen?" I just felt like a bystander in awe thinking, "I'm part of this and where do I fit in?"

Lori Walsh: Go back to a little bit younger. Now you're growing up and talk about traveling. What is the notion that there is family, were you close to that family and that wall was sort of the enemy that divided you? Was that family like, "Oh, we don't speak of them," or how do those relationships work?

Bishop Hagmaier: So this would be the brother to my maternal grandmother. He was a carpenter and my grandmother was a housekeeper for a Jewish family during the time of the World War.

Constanze in the garden of her grandmother's brother in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) (Submitted Photo)

So once the wall was built, I remember, of course, that was in '61. I was not born so this dates me now. But I remember my earliest memories, us going to Eastern Germany, traveling in the evening and I always wondered why we would travel in the evening. My dad explained it to us as the long lines at the border. And when we did arrive at the border there were hours that we needed to invest. So we were asked to leave our car and then they really completely dismantled the car to every nut and bolt that was on the car. And they would search the car. And then after what seemed hours, they would put the car back together, and then we would travel in.

And then I have really very fond memories of visiting my family in Eastern Germany. It was always a great reunion to to just be back. And what we did there was we spend life as anybody that would come back here for Thanksgiving. We would play games together and be together and there wasn't any talk about politics, at least not when the kids were around. I remember going to the stores, what I do remember was waiting in line. I remember waiting in line for the basic things as flour and bread, but I also remember they had the greatest toys that the world had ever seen because they were all handmade.

They were all sewn by local artists and I still have some of them, or many of them because I treasured them. And the time was a treasured time. When we went back the same procedure at the border. The car would be dismantled them and all of that goes into reverse so that we didn't bring goods with, especially people, that weren't allowed to be there. And they were very creative in how they would flee the country.

Traveling from East to West, it was only my grandmother's brother and his wife who were allowed to come because they were retirees and they got travel permits. All other family, I cannot ever recall them younger than those two to ever come to the West and be permitted to come.

Constanze and her mother on the sidewalk during a visit to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) (Submitted Photo)

Lori Walsh: Did you have an appreciation? Did you talk about where you're grateful, where you lived and the freedoms that you experienced? Or was it just part of life that when you travel, like we go to the airport and we go through TSA and we think this is a hassle, but we don't have a sense, especially if you're younger of why this is happening or you're not afraid of it.

Bishop Hagmaier: I think part of what my family wanted to do, or attempted to do without actually speaking and talking about it, was to keep it as normal for the kids as possible.

To not draw any attention to the political strain this would have. Looking back now as an adult, I can most definitely see there was an unbalance, not so much between my grandmother and her brother because there was this common bond of love that was there. But then as it trickled down into the younger generation, the next generation, like my parents and then my grandmother's brother's kids, there was an imbalance and there was a power struggle. I think both families did well in not making that surface, but there were goods that we brought that were not obtainable in the Eastern part of Germany. I remember my dad being stopped for no good reasons by the police and Western currency was something that anybody wanted and could use for their purpose, even in East Germany.

So there was most certainly an economic imbalance. And with that came in ideological imbalance of you embrace the concept of the system that you live in.

And while that didn't matter to me as a young child and now place into pieces that I put back together as I recollect this time of my life. And there was most certainly an ideological imbalance. And I think that maybe was a conversation at the table when only one generation gathered. But then for the sake of my grandparents, and for the sake of the younger generation, I think they both held back when they could.

Constanze playing with her doll house at her childhood home in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Her grandmother's brother made the furniture in the dollhouse for Constanze. (Submitted Photo)

Lori Walsh: You mentioned really the prayer and the peacefulness of this. Were you hearing messages in church? Was that part of your faith, to think about, now we can think about a wall as a metaphor. Were you thinking about the wall as a metaphor as a young teenager? Was it a message that people were preaching?

Bishop Hagmaier: Yeah, we were very much afraid of the cold war. That was definitely reality of, and of course, being in the Western part of Germany, I grew up with allies having occupancy of Western Germany. So I grew up in the British sector of Germany. It was interesting, I never really questioned it just because that's how I grew up. I was born with these allies and they were friends. They were people that you learned how to speak English with because they would be coming to my parents' store and they would be buying goods and I learned English in school, and so that was part of the culture I grew up in. We didn't see a desk take over or making us not have any power on our own. But most it most certainly shaped how we interacted.

And I think as I grew up in the '80s in Germany and the cold war looming over us, there was always the question, there are no weapons that we have to defend while there was the opposing forces of the big brothers of USA and the USDDR. They were there and we were in the middle. And there was a big fear, especially in my generation of what could this play out to be. And then, of course, I grew up with Chernobyl in the backyard.

And so there was a looming fear, not anger, but probably more of a peaceful revolution in churches and the grassroots movement with protests on the street, but more of a nonviolent approach on how can we come to peace and to terms.

Lori Walsh: Because there's no violence, there's no weapon that can defeat this amazing, awe inspiring, destructive power of-

Bishop Hagmaier: And we knew that the weapons would only be helping to enforce more fear. And fear wasn't at the root cause of the movement that we called the peace movement, it was the desire to make peace. And you can't use weapons of mass destruction, or whatever you weapons you want to use to bring about peace.

Lori Walsh: So you turn on the TV November 9th and you see people your age really, because you're a teenager now, scaling on either side, scaling this wall, taking pickaxes and sledgehammers to break off chunks of it, lifting each other over, pouring through, the soldiers who are guarding it finally just walk away, and people get in a circle and-

Bishop Hagmaier: Have this celebration.

Lori Walsh: And have this big party.

Bishop Hagmaier: Yeah, that's what it was.

Lori Walsh: What was going through your mind as a German right then? Like what does this mean for Germany? What does it mean for a generation? What's going to happen tomorrow? What's happening in your mind as you watch those images play out on TV?

Bishop Hagmaier: So the first reaction, all of those teenagers had that saw this unfold was, "We want to be at that party."

Who I'll be at that party, that's where you want to be at. That's the party you want to be at. But then in more a deeper level, and some of my friends just got in the car and they drove. We were in driving distance, so we were just very close.

But then on a deeper level, there was some excitement. There was most certainly disbelief and that wasn't good bad. It was more like, "We are part of history. Right now we're making history and we're part of it." But there was also this moment of, "But what does this mean?" Which is, by the way, very good Lutheran question. But what does that mean? What will take shape?

So there was a little bit of both. There was this great excitement, almost hysteria. And then there was this, "But what does this mean?" This uncertainty, which also comes with a little bit of an anxiety. Change always has both. Change has this joyful exuberance, something new is going to break forth, but we also know that something old that felt comfortable has to give way in order for something new to take place.

Lori Walsh: Hmm (affirmative). And Bishop Hagmaier, there are ways to commemorate this. And let's start by talking about the walls that still exist in our hearts and in the world today because this world because I think it would be foolish not to mention how important the concept of a wall has been in this country, the United States of America, for the past few years. A wall is a metaphor for so many things, including the wall along the Southern border of the United States. So we're going to talk about some walls now.

Bishop Hagmaier: Yes, we can talk about some walls. Walls exist, whether they are tangible like the Berlin wall was. They are part of who we are. But I think what's most important for us to keep in mind while we have those tangible walls is the walls that we keep building up in our minds and how they separate us from our neighbor.

It's a very biblical concept. The Bible is full off walls that have been erected and then later on been torn down. But most of those walls that Jesus encountered were walls that we had to build up, the people off his time had built up in their thought and belief system out of fear to protect and to preserve what they held dear in their own life and their own values and their own concepts, and what made them feel safe because we all want to be safe.

Literally, we all like home because it keeps us safe and it has walls to enclose us. But then we need to also put doors in our walls, and entry points and windows where we can look out and where we can see the world. Even though we're safe, we see a world out there that might not be so safe.

And so there are walls all around us in our heads and in our hearts. And as you spoke, on our own borders. And for certain amount, they will keep us safe. But on the others side, we can't forget that there is life beyond these walls. And I think walls exist. My first place of ministry here in South Dakota was in Waubay, South Dakota, and we were in close proximity, of course, to reservation land there. And many of you know, we have a foster son who is a native American and it has taught me so much about the walls that exists on either side of our very own culture right here in South Dakota. The walls that we build up to keep ourselves safe and the walls that our brothers and native brothers and sisters keep up to keep them safe.

And the question always is, "Where do we find entry points into each other's life?" Do we really need a wall to build trust with each other? Or are there other entry points where we can learn from each other? Because walls are erected out of fear, and fear is never a good adviser.

God and Jesus himself say "fear not" when they sent messengers to us. The messengers always say, "fear not," but of course we're always afraid because we know something new is going to break through. And so, yeah, that's one of the walls I think of in our own state, is between our native American siblings and our non-native siblings. How are we breaking those walls down? And then we're a state of many cultures. We're not just talking about the native American culture. We have Hispanic worshiping communities that are afraid sometimes of what does all this mean. And our call is to be with our neighbor. That's our call as Lutheran Christians, is always to be concerned about does this mean for my neighbor. And my call to serve my neighbor before I serve myself.

So this is an invitation for us to think about walls and what do they mean and how are we able to break them down. Not through accusing and being defaming of my neighbor, but by the invitation of having a caring conversation. Because someone who is afraid... My daughter, when she is afraid will not listen to me. The only time she will listen to me is when I speak into her context of fear. "Why are you afraid?" And when she found words to verbalize why she is afraid, I gained an entry point into speaking into her fear. So we need to listen to each other. And my hope is that this worship opportunity on Saturday, both on the East and the West side of our state, that's sometimes divides itself just by a river.

Lori Walsh: Right. That we even call it that.

Bishop Hagmaier: Yes.

Lori Walsh: Is an indication of some of the walls that exist, that we call it East river and West river. That that's part of our daily language.

Bishop Hagmaier: And how we're so different when you travel from East to West and West to East.

Lori Walsh: It's a river.

Bishop Hagmaier: It's a river. Yeah, it's only a river. We can cross it.

Lori Walsh: Yeah. And we do often.

Bishop Hagmaier: Yes.

Lori Walsh: There is no actual barrier there, we cross it all the time. It's really more of an internal, metaphorical sort of boundary or wall there. The event, before we go on, so Augustana University Chapel of Reconciliation, Saturday November 9th at 10:00 AM. And then Trinity Lutheran church in Rapid City, that's 9:00 AM mountain. Are those two connected? Are those services connected or the independent services just at the same time?

Bishop Hagmaier: So they're happening at the same time. We're playing and toying with the idea of actually live streaming and worshiping together in two different locations. But technology, we're still figuring those things out. So for this, we're have middle ground. We have recorded stories on both sides. So this morning I recorded my story from the Berlin Wall, which on the West side of our state will be aired via video.

But then we have Vicar Jonathan Oldhorse from Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City, our native worshiping community in Rapid, record his story. And then we show it here at Augustana during our worshiping time together. So we're somewhat together, but we're also somewhat separated. So we hope in the future we can do better yet to breaking down those walls of technology. But for now, this is good enough.

Lori Walsh: How much of this starts with prayer? We mentioned at the beginning of our conversation sort of the prayers and the worships. The prayers and the worship that was happening in Germany at the time, how much when we think about our own walls that we sort of construct, how much of that dismantling could happen in your belief through prayer? And how do you begin to pray in a way that leads you in that direction?

Bishop Hagmaier: As long as our prayers are focused again on our neighbors. So for me that means in my personal prayer life that I keep all of the 206 congregations in my prayer. I might not name them each and every day, that would take a long time and I would spend hours in prayer, which sometimes I don't have. But to be mindful of how we pray for our neighbor, to use their words. So what that means is in conversation I have to find out, from Vicar Jonathon Oldhorse, what is your prayer need? What would you like me to pray for? It starts with a conversation, not with me and my assumption of, "I think this is what they need."

Because oftentimes it's not what we think that my prayer partner needs. But by just asking the question, "What would you like me to pray for?" That's how we start our conversation. Because the Woyatan community might have different needs than my worshiping community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Or my Hispanic community here in the heart of Sioux Falls.

All of those worshiping communities have different needs. And my invitation to them is not forgetting that they don't exist alone, but that they also are called to pray for my folks that find themselves in the farm crisis right now, in the middle of a disaster in their life where they might not know how to minister to their neighbor. So to not forget about their siblings that are out there that have struggles too, just very different. And I think once we realize that we all struggle in our own worlds, we become much more mature in our prayer life. And it seems to become the reality that we all depend on the author and giver of life, and that's God.

Lori Walsh: How do you deal with some of that anxiety when those walls start coming down and you see things are moving forward? Maybe they're moving forward quickly in a way that you didn't anticipate. Extend that metaphor from the Berlin Wall of, "This is happening. We're part of this moment," and, "Uh oh, now I feel a tightening that says what's going to happen next? I don't know what to do next." How do you deal with that moment of when God answers as a prayer perhaps and brings a wall down around you?

Bishop Hagmaier: I have to remember for myself, I have to remember to just be in the moment. What better show them this, right?

Lori Walsh: We named it for a reason.

Bishop Hagmaier: To be in the moment, to just see what happens right now and what in this moment can I control. I cannot control the questions that you will be asking me, but I can control how I respond. And as a leader of the South Dakota Senate, I need to be able to respond to all people that I'm called to serve in all of their fears, but to still hold true to the gospel. And that is to care and love my neighbor under all circumstances.

So if somebody speaks into the fear of immigration, into the fear of reservations, whatever their fear is, I need to be present in that moment and give that person the same attention without coming in with an agenda. That's how I see my role. In the midst of walls going up and down and fears no matter what they are, to be present in that moment, to offer wholly who I am and fully who I am to my listener, and then see if there is a door that opens to not come in with an agenda, but to speak into the midst of fear just like the messenger that that God sends, don't be afraid.

Lori Walsh: The worship service at Augustana in Sioux Falls is on Saturday, November 9th at 10:00 AM central and at Trinity Lutheran Church in Rapid City, Saturday November 9th at 9:00 AM mountain. Bishop Hagmaier, thank you so much. It's always a pleasure to have you on the program.

Bishop Hagmaier: Thank you for the opportunity.

Constanze as a child in West Germany. (Submitted Photo)

Bishop Constanze Hagmaier joined In the Moment on November 5, 2019.