Foothold of faith in Europe

For decades, the Berlin Wall stood as the symbol of Communist domination of Eastern Europe. It seemed impenetrable, impersonal and immovable.

But when the time was right - when political attitudes had changed - the wall came down.And rising out of the dust was the Church, which over the years had quietly, almost imperceptibly, established a reputation of integrity and had gained a foothold of faith in Eastern bloc countries, explained Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy.

Using anecdotes and observations, he focused on the changes that took place in the Central European countries of Czechoslovakia, former East Germany, Hungary, Romania and Poland from 1986 to the present.

"We were living in Vienna during this period of time," said Elder Neuenschwander, who served as the president of the Austria Vienna East Mission from 1987-1991, and then served in the Europe area presidencies from 1991 to 1996.

"Every night the leading news stories on television contained reports of the raucous welcome given to citizens of [the former East Germany] as they crossed into Austria from Hungary.

"The roads in and out of Vienna that momentous summer of 1989 were clogged with Hungarians who were now able to travel freely," he said, explaining how some went to Austria and stayed, while others went to visit and then returned home.

"It was a common sight to see washing machines, refrigerators or other appliances tied to the tops of their little cars making their way to Hungary.

"New life was dawning everywhere in Central Europe. Just two weeks after the Berlin Wall opened in November 1989, Czechs and Slovaks, by the thousands, came to Vienna. Special parking lots were set up outside the city to handle the hundreds of buses pouring into the city. There was a festive atmosphere throughout the city.

"From the perspective of time," Elder Neuenschwander said, "I have learned that no event in this world can take the Lord by surprise. It is we who are most often not aware of His preparations, and who react with surprise when events seem to overtake us."

Elder Neuenschwander drew a comparison from what took place in Central Europe with an explanation of how the Lord dealt with Sidney Rigdon.

"I have heard thy prayers, and prepared thee for a greater work . . . Thou are blessed, for thou shalt do great things . . . and thou knewest it not." (D&C 35:3-4.)

From the close of World War II, the people of Eastern Europe sought political and religious freedom, but "the hegemony [dominance] of a single political party made these expressions both difficult and dangerous. . . . Below the surface, fear and dissatisfaction broiled throughout Eastern Europe," he said.

On May 1, 1989, Hungarians began cutting barbed wire fences along the Austrian border. By September, more than 100,000 citizens of former East Germany had migrated through Czechoslovakia, into Hungary, and finally through the open fences into Austria. On the 9th and 10th of November the Berlin Wall was opened and residents of the divided country wandered back and forth without incident.

But just as the political events of 1989 did not occur without years of preparation, neither did the introduction of the gospel into Eastern Europe.

"The gospel was no stranger to this part of the world," he said. "The establishment of the gospel in Eastern Europe, like any area of the world, was a team effort."

Through the years visits by General Authorities, the work of mission presidents, missionaries, businessmen, academicians and others in conjunction with the work of the Church's legal counsel and the Genealogical Department (now Family History Department) paved the road.

The last six months of 1989 and the first few months of 1990 were full of "emotion and expectation," Elder Neuenschwander said. "This was truly an unforgettable period of time in which to be involved in the work of the Lord. The Austria Vienna East mission began with 34 missionaries in 1987 in an area that covered from the Mediterranean Sea to Russia. In just a decade, 21 missions would be created in that area.

"But, all that transpired followed naturally that which had already occurred and led to what was yet to happen," Elder Neuenschwander said.

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