Lutheran fortress

With a view of Jerusalem and environs, Augusta Victoria tower is formidable in its Teutonic architecture.

lutheran church 88 (photo credit: )
lutheran church 88
(photo credit: )
Coming up to Jerusalem on Jericho Road, as pilgrims surmount the Ascent of Adumim, their first view of the holy city is the Mount of Olives, topped by three towers - the middle of which is Augusta Victoria, a Lutheran church marking the place where Jesus, according to tradition, ascended into heaven. Commanding a view of Jerusalem and environs, as well as much of the West Bank, Dead Sea and Jordan, Augusta Victoria tower is formidable in its Teutonic architecture. Michael Wohlrab, chaplain at the adjoining Church of the Ascension, laughs: "Maybe they were inspired by Martin Luther's song, 'A Mighty Fortress is my God.'" The bell tower, finished in 1910, stands on the highest point in Jerusalem. Beneath the structure, however, lies a ministry with a very human touch. The same northern Europeans who built the Augusta Victoria lookout surveyed the Holy Land and its needs, developing orphanages, hospitals, retirement homes, retreat centers and schools. Sometimes these workers were pastors or employees of a Lutheran institution, but many times they were simply devout men and women who were determined to help. Kirsten, an Augusta Victoria volunteer from Germany, is a good example. She and friends worked to turn a room across from the Church of the Ascension into a coffee shop whose profits help fund the children's dialysis center at Augusta Victoria Hospital. The Lutheran World Federation-run hospital, a 200-bed institution next to the church, provides the only dialysis center for West Bank residents. It also offers a variety of medical services to the Palestinian community, mostly on a charitable basis. Lutheran origins in Jerusalem parallel those of the Anglicans. In the 1840s Egypt occupied the area, but was eventually ousted by a joint British, Prussian and Turkish force. King Fredrick Wilhelm IV of Prussia was eager to use his newfound influence to establish a Protestant foothold in the Middle East. The king favored "that the Church of England establish a Bishopric at Jerusalem." Toward that goal, his emissary met with British foreign minister Palmerston and Queen Victoria. The governing Turks agreed. Michael Solomon Alexander, a former rabbi, was consecrated to the new post in November 1841, and sailed for Jaffa the following month. The joint Anglican-Lutheran bishopric lasted 50 years, and a number of institutions - Christ Church and Talitha Kumi among them - were founded. The cooperative diocese was satisfactory until political and theological differences led to an independent Lutheran church in Israel. Politically, a stronger Prussia led to ecclesiastical autonomy, while theologically the Lutheran church favored social ministry and the Anglicans stressed conversions, according to Lutheran historians. Still, during those 50 years, the cooperative venture yielded crucial ministries and churches. In the 1840s the denominations combined diplomatic efforts to overcome French and Russian (representing Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) impediments to a Protestant church in Israel. Christ Church inside Jaffa Gate resulted. In 1851 an orphanage and girls' school, Talitha Kumi, was founded. By the end of that decade, 32 Arab, Armenian and Jewish girls lived there. During the 1860s that number reached 140 as Talitha Kumi moved out of the Old City - one of the first buildings to do so. Part of the new structure stands at the corner of King George Avenue and Rehov Ben-Yehuda - a national monument to 19th-century architecture. Due to tensions with the British in two World Wars and restrictions on German teachers, the school was moved to Lod and eventually to Beit Jala, where it currently enrolls about 900 co-ed students and includes a guest home for visitors and a vocational school. The idea for a church on the grounds of the muristan where medieval churches were erected was conceived during the time of the shared diocese, but came to fruition after the division. Kaiser Wilhelm provided funds for the Church of the Redeemer in the late 1880s. In the next decade, he and his wife, Augusta Victoria (for whom the Mount of Olives structure is named), became the first Western rulers to visit Jerusalem - the (specially widened) Jaffa Gate indicating the breadth of his royal procession. The tower of the resulting Church of the Redeemer commands the best view from within the Old City, as thousands of tourists who walk up its 177 steps and almost 50-meter-high watchtower can attest. The church houses about 800 worshipers weekly, meeting at four different congregations - English, Arabic, German and Danish. In the heart of Jerusalem's new city is Caspari Center, founded by the Norwegian church ministry to Israel in 1982. An educational ministry supported largely by a consortium of European Lutheran sponsors, the institution has been eager to involve local workers "to avoid becoming a Lutheran ghetto," according to former director Torleif Elgvin. In 1984 the center began producing Telem, a curriculum for theological training for Israeli believers. Caspari has also produced several books as well as the quarterly journal Mishkan - a forum on the Gospel and the Jewish people. Furthermore, it has provided study tours, lecture series and assistance to congregations planning to produce educational materials. Outside the capital on the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway is Yad Hashmona, a moshav founded by Finnish Lutherans to memorialize eight Jews who had sought refuge in Finland but were handed over to the Nazis. The founders of Yad Hashmona (meaning "Memorial to the Eight") hoped to partially atone for this crime. According to resident Gershom Nerel, who wrote a booklet on the moshav, the founders were Lutheran Finns who, "as believers in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy... wanted to contribute their share to the Zionist movement in Eretz Israel." The moshav maintains a popular guest house visited by Israelis and others who want to enjoy the mountain air and view. Visitors are offered a number of hiking trails. A high-quality carpentry shop and tour center also contribute to the moshav's finances. Offering ministry to about 300 worshipers weekly is Jaffa's Immanuel Lutheran Church, founded in 1904 by German believers. Presently a number of Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns join efforts at this "little pearl" of a church, according to Pastor Jan Mortensen. The building houses two Lutheran congregations meeting on Saturday for Hebrew services and Sunday for English. A number of other congregations use the facility weekly, including Russian, Korean, Romanian and Ghanaian services. "In addition, Holy Land Ministries [a Christian charitable organization that collects food, clothing and money for the poor in Israel] has a storeroom in our basement," Mortensen explains. The church is best known to local residents for its free monthly concerts. In May organist Roman Krasnovsky, former professor of music at Jerusalem's Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, performed there. Haifa's Ebenezer Home for retirees was established in 1976 because "the need arose not only for the aged Holocaust survivors of Beit Eliyahu [a local congregation] to find a home suitable for their needs, but also for Arab believers and other non-Jewish believing residents of the land. The Norwegian Church Ministry to Israel led the project, but enlisted organizations and individuals worldwide to realize that vision. Currently Ebenezer houses more than 25 residents speaking several languages. Lutheran (and other) volunteers serve as cooks, maintenance workers and nurses. Ninety-four-year-old Heinrich Israel Pollock, an escapee from Nazi Germany thanks to the efforts of Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the underground church, is among the residents. "I wasn't born with the name 'Israel,'" says Pollock. "It was given to me by Dr. Goebbels and I decided to keep it," he adds, explaining that the Nazis added "Israel" to Jewish names to ensure that a person would be identified as a Jew. "It's a name of honor - a biblical name!" he boasts. Last summer's Second Lebanon War didn't keep the Ebenezer team from their duties; new residents were enrolled even as missiles fell on Haifa. Residents were coaxed from their rooms, since many preferred to stay there rather than in the shelter. Ascending to the belfry of Jerusalem's Augusta Victoria, Michael Wohlrab explains that the three bells were imported from Germany in the late 19th century. Getting them from Jaffa to Jerusalem cost twice as much as the trip from Hamburg to Jaffa because crews had to widen the road for the truck carrying them. Wohlrab surveys the land belonging to August Victoria and speculates on its most effective use. "Many traditional Jerusalem Christians have moved to nearby villages, but are in danger of losing their Jerusalem status if they don't return. This is a problem because there's little affordable housing in Jerusalem. We're considering developing housing for those families and renting to them." Consistent with Lutheran forerunners, Wohlrab is not content to enjoy the view from the tower, but actively scans the landscape for ministry opportunities.