Protestant congress in Wittenberg

A non-believer's day at the Protestant Kirchentag congress in Wittenberg

Kicking off the summer celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, more than 100,000 people turn out for the Kirchentag service in Luther's home town. Resident DW agnostic Jefferson Chase was among them.

Deutschland Kirchentag in Wittenberg (J. Chase)

Less than one week after the terror attack in Manchester, security is tight as thousands of the faithful - and I - line up at Berlin's Südkreuz station for the shuttle trains to Wittenberg, officially known as Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Such is the anticipated demand that the German rail company Deutsche Bahn is running trains every 10 minutes between the German capital and the city where 500 years ago Luther is reputed to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the All Saints' Church, commonly known as the "Schlosskirche."

My train, however, is half-empty - much to my relief on a day where temperatures above 30 C (86 F) are predicted. The seat across from me is occupied by a friendly fellow named Ulf Schwäbe, a pastor from the eastern German state of Saxony who tries to explain what the Kirchentag - the biennal congress for Protestants in Germany - is about in general, and this anniversary event in particular. 

Watch video 07:49

Wittenberg: In the Footsteps of Martin Luther

There are several reasons, he tells me, why he's going to Wittenberg. Mutual prayer, a picnic where Christians break bread with one another, speeches and sermons by religious VIPs, singing and, perhaps most importantly, conversations.

"I think as a journalist you can probably understand that if I have conversations with other people, I myself grow," he says. "If I confront their questions, I develop as a person."

The other people in the compartment  break into song: "Morning Has Broken," "We Shall Overcome," and what I presume are hymns. That goes on all the way to Wittenberg. Ulf tells me that if I open myself to the Kirchentag, I'll get the most out of it. I promise to try.

Kirchentagsbesucher am Bahnhof Suedkreuz in Berlin warten am Samstag 27 05 017 auf die Sonderzuege (Imago)

Many visitors to the event travelled from the Südkreuz station

Christian equipment

Wittenberg is a lovely town - but unfortunately the Kirchentag is taking place on festival grounds a 40-minute hike up a two-lane highway. One of the things you apparently need to be a good Christian is a pair of comfortable walking shoes. And a backpack. Everyone except me seems to have one. I've never seen so many backpacks in my entire life.

Deutschland Kirchentag in Wittenberg (J. Chase)

Kirchentag visitors needed good footwear

Trudging along with the faithful, I have the chance to reflect on the absurdity of this situation. I'm not religious. I'm not above saying the odd prayer to some mythical deity, if I'm rooting for my favorite football team in a tight match, but I have no idea whom I'm addressing. It's not just that I don't believe in God. I never think about Him, Her or whatever. 

With these most likely blasphemous thoughts in my head, I enter the fairground and mingle with some 120,000 worshippers slowly being baked in the midday heat. A massive brass band plays a piece based on the songs of Luther. A Coptic priest tells a story about Christian children massacred by IS. One of the emcees plays a kitschy folk song and tries to get the crowd to sing along. Helicopters hover overhead. The police are conspicuously present. A security officer issues brief instructions about what to do in an emergency.

God is good, good, good

At noon the main service begins. The overarching theme, as far as I understand it, is that God is everywhere and loves humankind, for which humankind should be grateful. Quotations from scripture alternate with regular interludes of song. Those who don't know the words can read them from giant video screens. The huge crowd follows the proceedings raptly. I'm impressed at how quiet such a large group of people can be.

36. Evangelischer Kirchentag Wittenberg (Reuters/F. Bensch)

The congress began on Wednesday and ended on Sunday

The masses recite a prayer, and helpers go around collecting money for charities to help rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. The brass band plays a feel-good number that reminds me of "Up With People." The chorus goes: "God is with me. That is good. That is good. That is good."

A guest clergyman, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, delivers the main sermon. It's in English, but I can't say I understand much more than during the German portions of the ceremony that preceded it. The message is gloomy. The world is full of problems, and human beings are weak. The only hope is faith in God. He concludes by citing Martin Luther King - "I have a dream," of course. I've heard these words cited too many times in my life to find them moving any more.

The ceremony continues in German, and the talk turns to the other Martin Luther, but I've stopped listening. I feel as though I'm letting Ulf down, but the sun is merciless, and my brain has started to hurt. God's words are going in one ear and out the other. I retreat to the press tent.

Wittenberg Martin Luther (DW/J. Stange)

Martin Luther and the Reformation were the focus of the Kirchentag this year

Courage, inspiration and responsibility

After the service I venture outside again. If I can't appreciate the ceremony myself, the least I can do, I figure, is ask members of flock what they thought about it.

"It was great," one older man tells me. "It really give me the courage to face the changes to come."

"I was very impressed with the bishop from South Africa, who reminded us that we all have a responsibility to Africa and to other countries," a young volunteer says.

Deutschland Kirchentag in Wittenberg (Copyright: Jefferson Chase)

Tens of thousands attended the closing service

"It was a really nice experience," says another man. "I come from Wittenberg myself, and it was nice to see so many people here. It was also very inspiring to hear how much we Christians of various denominations have in common."

No epiphany - but perhaps an insight

As the faithful unpack their picnics, I start the long march back to Wittenberg train station. I certainly haven't had a religious epiphany, although I think I may have picked up a sunburn. And if I never hear "We Shall Overcome again," it will be too soon. But maybe I do understand what draws people to events like this a tiny bit better.

Much of the ceremony appeared in my eyes a bit childish, and maybe that's part of the point. If I'm honest, singing hymns and reciting prayers on a gigantic field is no more irrational than, say, screaming your lungs out because you want a football team to win a match or a trophy. They're both brief vacations from adulthood and all the banal everyday responsibility that brings - as ways of feeling connected to something greater than oneself.

What would Ulf think of those thoughts? I'll probably never know. He's not among the backpack-bearing pilgrims shuffling onto the train station platform, and I doubt very much that our paths will ever cross again.

Watch video 01:09

Kirchentag congress ends with festive atmosphere

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