I was raised in a house in West Virginia that had been in my family for generations, but when my father’s business closed we lost our house and moved to Paducah, Ky. I loved our old house, and always assumed I would live there all my life. It was my definition of “home.” I felt homesick for the place I loved.
My senior year at Paducah Tilghman High School I was blessed to belong to the school’s choir, which was chosen to represent Kentucky on a European tour and I was one chosen to go. Our next to last stop on the trip was in East Germany. This was during the time when the Berlin Wall was very much in place. Retired Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky was ambassador, which is why we were allowed to sing there I am sure — especially given so much of our music was classic Christian Choral Music, and an array of “Americana,” neither of which would be smiled on by the communist government in power.
When we rode on our bus through “Checkpoint Charlie,” and were boarded by armed guards, we knew things were very different. At least three of our members had cameras confiscated, and a few had thorough, and intrusive, searches made of their luggage and person. We were terrified.
Wherever we went, men with guns were nearby. The feeling of oppression made it hard for me to breathe. It didn’t help to be told we could be jailed or shot for provocation.
Our performances in East Berlin were well attended, but for the most part seemed to fall flat. There was a striking exception. Toward the end of our program we sang a few Gospel hymns, and particularly African American Spirituals. These were a huge success. The audiences came alive, and would even sing with us, standing and clapping. Some would even weep openly. It took a while to realize what was taking place.
Later we came to understand it was the underlying desire for freedom from oppression found in these spirituals that so touched them.
Though the expression was couched in a language different than their own, that deep belief in God, the God in whom true freedom is found, still rang true. The God of captive and oppressed people longing to be free… The God in whom Americans say “we trust.” These modern slaves of a communist government understood what so many of us did not — a deep faith in a God who could and would deliver from oppression… not belief in a “religion” but a faith in God.
We were glad to leave East Germany and breathe free again. We left from East Berlin to catch a flight in West Berlin for New York. Exhausted by our travels and schedules we were glad to be going home…Every single one of us had been shaken by our short experience under communist rule, and were homesick. Early in the morning, the sun just rising in New York, one of our number saw the Statue of Liberty from our plane. All of us ran from our seats to see it, tears in our eyes. Without cue we began to sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” every American on that plane stood and sang with us it seemed. We were where we belonged.
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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