Varis Bitenieks

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I met Martins in Liepaja in 1997 or 1998 at one of the Grobiņa pastors’ district conventions in Liepaja. He didn’t speak Latvian very well then, but he was energetic and someone who understood church life more than just leading worship. This was a big difference from other pastors. I liked it because it was in line with the views I had acquired at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Latvia. Martins and I had several things in common.

We both spoke German and so often shared a circle of acquaintances in theological circles. We both wore black Lutheran gowns, because in fact these are the actual office vestments of the historic Latvian Lutheran Church. We also shared the view that the interests of the local congregation were superior to the interests of the whole church, because the main life of faith takes place in the local congregation where the pastor ministers the Word and Sacraments. This is, in fact, the structure of the church that Martin Luther established. This local church life is of the greatest importance, because there people follow Christ together and by their life of faith are true witnesses of Christ in their environment. The Lutheran Church in our understanding was completely opposite in structure to the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and other churches where there is a pyramidal church structure (a structure that divides people into “top” and “bottom” – clergy and ordinary parishioners) The fact that many churches in Latvia today still have a pyramidal structure, banning women from being pastors, we saw as a “fossil” of the communist era. Latvian society has been taught for so many years to fear Moscow, Siberia, the punishment you will receive if you are not loyal to your superiors, that people are not prepared to discuss and think about their own lives. There are even sayings like this – “He who kowtows low to a high boss is grazing in green pastures!”

Mārtiņš became a bit of a teacher for me. I considered Martins a better person and pastor than me, because he came from a Christian family with generations of pastors. I was not like that. I also thought that Martin was a better pastor than me because he came from Germany, a democratic country that had not suffered from communist ideology. He is therefore freer and more courageous than me, who was born and brought up in the USSR. He therefore had a broader and more positive view of the evangelical church in the world. In his life of faith, he was always ready to trust people much more than I was. He knew many wonderful and supportive Christians in the German church. He knew about all kinds of European pastors’ conferences (Porvo, KEP, GEKE, Evangelische Partnerhilfe, etc.). He also knew about all kinds of social integration projects in the community where he could get funding or co-financing. It was all a “dark picture” for me. They didn’t teach that kind of thing at the University of Applied Sciences then. It was even less known to LELB pastors.

We did a lot together. I can’t describe it all. We were a good tandem. At least I thought so. But there are two events I would like to describe as a way of thanking Martin. The first one for me is from 2005. I was then serving in the LELB Grobiņa parish. I knew the pastor, Maris Sants. He came from my hometown Aizpute. Maris was like an older brother in faith to me. We had several pastoral conversations, which are very necessary for a pastor of a rural parish. Conversations in which you are listened to, understood, heard. I am very sad that Maris was expelled from the LELB. It was unjust. And then there was the gay pride of 2005, where the hatred of the crowd against the marchers was expressed. The leadership of the Latvian Christian churches had a hand in it. After that Pride, the LELB leadership also wanted to expel Juris Cālītis from the ranks of pastors and I realised that I had to defend Juris. I thought about what would happen to LELB if my teacher Juris Cālītis was expelled. I wrote two articles for the newspaper “Diena” and I hoped that other LELB pastors would also support Juris Cālītis. But it didn’t happen and I soon lost my job at LELB. I considered it my duty to defend Juris. You have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of evangelical justice. Juris Cālitis was also soon expelled from the LELB, just like the pastor Māris Sants. I had small children. There were no other Lutheran congregations and churches in Latvia at that time. Mārtiņš Urdze kept in contact with me during those seven years. He called me now and then and offered me to take part in something. Other LELB pastors did not contact me at all, because I was nothing anymore. (See the sentence about “green pastures”)

Martin was the only LELB pastor to do so. He considered me a pastor, even though I did not serve in any church. The German pastors did not forget me during those seven years either. In 2007, Martin arranged for me to go to Italy for the KEP pastors’ conference free of charge. The four days I spent there were very important for me. I got to know Lutheran pastors and pastors from Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, the Elsa Lorraine fraction and many other countries. Those four days in Italy were very important for me. I was in a country whose language I did not know, where I did not know a single person, with no money, but in a wonderful company where I am my own and where one accepts and supports the other. This experience taught me that although you are nothing in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, you can still be a follower of Christ in Latvia. I realised that I had been thinking very narrowly. I saw that the Evangelical Church is much, much bigger than I had always thought. Everything depends on you. For that I am very grateful to Martin! This event was much more important than all the subsequent trials, the organisation of church days, the church meetings, the trip to the USA, the roof project of St John’s Church in Aizpute and much more.

The other event that I think is important is the trip to Lübeck in 2010. Martins had been thinking how he could support people who make something with their own hands. So people with disabilities from Rucava, Nīca, Liepāja and other places made various home-made products: gloves, socks, candles, amber beads and other items. I also brought gloves and socks from my neighbour in Aizpute (Dobel Tante). I was proud to have thought of my neighbour and to support her. So three of us (Gatis, Inese and I) from Liepāja Diakonija took the ferry to the Martins Day market in Lübeck. It was my first time to trade and in German. To attract German buyers we also had Latvian black balsam with us. We didn’t really trade. In total we traded some 320€ over several days. The Germans drank all the black balsam. It did not cover the ferry tickets or other expenses. When we returned to Latvia, Mārtiņš was still trying to make a living here and there with the home-made products he brought back. And then on Christmas Day, my neighbour Dobeltante received 220€ from the Liepāja Diakonija for her produce. I don’t know how Mārtiņš settled it, but my neighbour gave all the money to her 36-year-old grandson. The next year, Martins ordered 200 pairs of socks and gloves for my neighbour. Martin got my neighbour a lot of yarn. All this activity with the haggling, the travelling to Germany, the failures, I think shows best how it was Martin’s work in faith, trusting in Christ’s guidance. Martin knew that this was the way to do it. He knew the main point of this work!

With these two events I wanted to show that Martins… was a man who stood his ground. A man who doesn’t shadow or play a role (consciously). He was a bearer of the Light of Christ to the followers of Jesus in Liepaja. That costs a lot too! The lawsuits that the LELB took against his congregation, the various mouths and warnings and betrayals from friends and non-friends – it was all very unjust and un-Christian. Of all the LELB congregations, only one (and that was the Liepāja Cross congregation) stood against the injustice of women not being allowed to be pastors. Martin and this congregation showed that faith in Christ requires standing up against injustice. Also in the 21st century. There are witnesses of the Christian Church. Martin and his church showed that followers of Christ must show the world (even the whole church with its archbishop at its head!) that there is friendship between the sexes. This was Martin’s way of following Christ.

Yes, in my life too, Martin was for some time the bearer of this Light of Christ. I knew Martin for about 20 years. Two years ago we had a difference of opinion and it broke our friendship. But I don’t want to write anything about that, because Philo of Sparta already said in 4 BC: “Either speak well of the dead or nothing!”

May Martin have peace in the garden of God, where it is said in Scripture: “death shall be no more, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain shall be anymore; for what has been is gone. All things have become new!”

Varis Bitenieks / Valtaiķu un Snēpeles autonomo evaņģēliski luterisko draudžu mācītājs