A Legacy of An Unlikely Friendship

Legacy Matters!

In New York City in 1930, times were tough.  Money and jobs were scarce. Trust in institutions was stressed beyond breaking.  Friendships, particularly for men, were not formed easily, and the Depression was in full cycle. 

However, one man would befriend a stranger on a dark, wet night in Queens that would eventually lead to millions of lives being saved. Hard to believe? Indeed.

In February 1906, a young German woman, a schoolteacher and granddaughter to a well-known European painter, gave birth to twins. The baby boy and girl were the sixth and seventh children, out of eight, for Paula and her husband Karl, an up and coming psychiatrist. 

When the twins were twelve, they lost a brother in the Great War -- World War 1.  Little did they know that within two more decades, most of their siblings and future spouses would be murdered.

The older twin, by less than 4 minutes, was a boy.  He loved his family and his homeland. He also loved to learn.  He was often spotted in town with a book to his face or in deep conversation with local teachers and clergy. He achieved high grades as a student, eventually earning multiple degrees, including his Doctorate in 1927 from the University of Berlin.

Still considering what to do with his life and his studies at 24 years old, the boy traveled to the United States for the first time in 1930 for post-graduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Although he found the American seminary not up to his educational standards, he persevered. He once said of the seminary, “there is no theology here.”

It was there however, in New York, in 1930, that he began a life-changing, life-long friendship that would impact him until his own murder, 15 years later. On that first encounter in Queens with classmate, Frank Fisher, a black fellow-seminarian, the boy from Europe knew things would finally be different. Frank would eventually introduce him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. That is where the friendship and change began.

At church in Harlem, Frank and his new friend taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of which the boy eventually took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preach the Gospel of Social Justice, and became sensitive not only to social injustices experienced by minorities, but also the ineptitude of the church to bring about integration.

It was here, with Frank by his side, the young German theologian, and eventual spy, began to see things "from below,” from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled -- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.

He once observed, "here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God...the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision."  Later, he publicly referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he "turned from phraseology to reality.”

That reality would benefit not only him, but also the entire world just a few years later. For at that time an evil was mounting and moving in his homeland that would change the face of the globe.  That evil was Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Apart from his theological writings, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler's euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years.

Later he was transferred to a Nazi concentration camp. After being accused of being associated with the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was quickly tried, along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Bonhoeffer's life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality, who lived as he preached—and his murder for opposition to Nazism—exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Bonhoeffer is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death, April 9. In 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which does not enumerate saints, officially recognized Bonheoffer as a "modern-day martyr." He was the first martyr to be so recognized who lived after the Reformation, and is one of only two as of 2017.

As for Frank Fisher, well, his friendship lasted until his friend’s death, although there is no evidence that the two ever saw each other after Bonheoffer left America. It’s a small reminder about the impact we each have in someone’s life.  A single, seemingly unexpected friendship can have an impact that can change the world. 

So, whom are you engaged with today?  Who are your friends? Who is mentoring you? Be aware of friendships, new and old, that can continue to build and create transformational communities.

And that is why, Legacy Matters...


Featurette No. 4  (c) www.legacyletters.xyz

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