In Lithuania, the word for Easter is an import—"Velykos," or "important day," taken from Byelorussian. Here and there the grassy landscape of the nation slopes, but for the most part the rivers weave slowly, almost reluctantly, through the flatlands. Water in motion, according to local folklore, is a spiritual gift. Easter is even more important if it rains. Churchgoers will walk bareheaded, as if to receive an ancient blessing.
Last September, on the bright morning of my final day in the city of Klaipeda, I rose early for a farewell walk along the shoreline of western Lithuania. Ferries carried workers and a few late-season tourists to the sand dunes and low brush of the Curonian Spit, about six hundred meters off shore. Dozens of huge vessels, mostly from Scandinavia and Germany, were docked or unloading their imported goods at the harbor piers: Klaipeda is the major commercial port among the Baltic republics. The Lithuanian economy, once stagnant under Soviet control, is livelier now, often jamming the old, narrow cobblestone streets of the capital Vilnius with new cars. At noon, I would give my closing presentation to the faculty of LCC International University. Housed in an office complex originally designed to serve a hospital, LCC International University is a post-Soviet experiment: its attractions are its Christian mission, its English-language instruction, and its entrepreneurial bent. While I was there, the university unveiled its new name, exchanging Lithuania Christian College for LCC International, in large measure to capture its multi-national community. The student body president was Macedonian; two new basketball recruits had just arrived from Senegal. The Christian faculty, mostly American Protestants on short, self-funded assignments, taught students from Estonia and Lithuania, Ireland and Ukraine, and many other places, including the fiercely poor neighbor of Belarus.
I was invited there as a consultant, primarily to help the institution think about how to fuse some of the best aspects of American Christian colleges with Eastern European conventions. Consider it this way: How would a school like Gordon, with its longstanding concern with faith and learning, meld with the highly technical demands of the Lithuanian ministry of education, with its more prescriptive rules for faculty priorities? More than that, I began to wonder how a Baltic institution could meet the expectations of its American donors, so full of hope for boosting evangelism and economic freedom, and still preserve the sinewy faith and courage of its Christian communities, with their heritage of resistance and sacrifice. In America, evangelicals can often glibly reconcile prosperity and piety, though there is no certainty that this habit will thrive in Eastern Europe, where the gap between the commercial opportunities of the young and their parents' austere lives and storm-hardened faith is far greater than on our side of the Atlantic. When I finished my talk, the dean, Marlene Wall, gave me some traditional linen coasters and a small wooden cross, two light strips of bamboo linked with twine. "Keep the cross," I was told later by one faculty member, "for when you return to visit Jurgaiciai."
Jurgaiciai Mound is the formal name of the famous "Hill of Crosses" in northern Lithuania, just miles south of Latvia. Centuries ago this hill was the site of resistance to foreign intruders. In 1831, and three decades later, Czarists slaughtered insurgents here. For long sections of its history, the nation of Lithuania virtually disappeared, absorbed at different stages by the Czarists, Poles, Germans and the Soviets. In the old German quarter of Klaipeda, Hitler gave one of his more infamous speeches from the balcony of the opera house. Today, in the square below, street vendors sell necklaces and bracelets made of amber stones, fragments of oxidized tree resin from old forests buried millions of years ago under the expanding Baltic Sea. According to the pre-Christian myth, the soft amber washed ashore after an angry deity struck a large amber palace below the sea with thunder. Faith and folk legend still mix at times in western Lithuania: it is not uncommon to see amber rosary beads or hear old stories about crosses cut out of magical oak trees.
There are no historic churches in Klaipeda. World War II leveled them. The greatest religious site in the nation is an outpost of folk resistance and faith that has few rivals. Shortly after the war, the friends and relatives of dissidents transported to Siberian gulags began placing crosses at Jurgaiciai Mound in honor of the exiled and the dead. Soon, despite the threat of arrest, Christians began literally overloading the hillside with all forms of crosses—metal castings, crude oak carvings, amber crucifixes, and elegant Orthodox designs. Some of the work was hasty, merely pencils or sticks tied together. Others, such as wooden statues of the thorn-crowned Man of Sorrows, were truly art. Layers of crosses covered virtually every square foot, a defiant hosanna in a secular state. To suppress this display of faith, Soviet authorities burned the wood crosses and bulldozed the grounds in 1961, but that merely inflamed the resistance, enough to warrant at least three more attempts to raze the scene, now filled with the crushed embers and cinder dust of the scorched cruciforms. By the time of Lithuanian independence in 1989, 40,000 crosses covered the site. At present, after nearly two more decades of pilgrims, there are half a million.
Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, I thought about my trip to Lithuania, especially in the gray morning when I watched the rain-soaked branches outside our home. This year, perhaps, I will actually follow Christian tradition and save the palm leaves given out at church, let them dry, and burn them to make the gray dust for next year's Ash Wednesday. It will be such an easy ritual for me, the ashes prompting some introspection but without political hazard. I have set the palm leaves beside the bamboo cross on the shelf above our fireplace. On Easter, they will also help me think again of Lithuania, where a few LCC faculty as well as some students from places like Ireland and Belarus may well join the thousands of believers who will gather on Jurgaiciai Mound for a service at dawn. It will be a free and sunlit scene, mixed up now, as in all free nations, with sightseers and vendors crowding in on Easter ceremonies with their own aims. But it is a reminder that there are still places in recent memory and in fearful corners of the world, away from the UNICEF sites and tourist temples, where people risk their lives to lay the path for Jesus, even under charges of sedition or shrouds of darkness.
If it is a good day, it will rain, the spring grasses matted to the ashen soil.