The Crumbling Church:
a father and son struggle to keep their religious community afloat

All photos by Sadia Rao

All photos by Sadia Rao

 

AWE
LONG-READ

 

In Oberbösa, a tiny German village, one religious community is struggling to keep the countryside unified in the face of demographic decline. 

by Sadia Rao

Alexander Altenburg stood in silence outside the gate of Oberbösa’s 720-year-old protestant church. The blue mechanical church clock towered over him. “It’s from 1910,” said Altenburg. The same year, electricity was introduced to Oberbösa, a village of 355 residents in the state of Thuringia in East Germany, but the village chose not to replace the mechanical clock with an electric one.   

Oberbösa’s cobblestone streets are intact. Gable roofs cover all the pastel-coloured houses. Surrounded by farm fields, Oberbösa continues to keep its history alive, much like the original clock. This however does not come without a struggle: rural flight to urban centres is now one of the biggest challenges for German villages. With the youth migrating to big cities, only a few individuals like Altenburg are left behind to preserve a sense of unity with the culture of the German countryside.

The youth in Oberbösa, disenchanted with rural life, reflect the problem of rural flight that plagues many German villages.

For Altenburg and his father, the most important mission is to keep the local church physically unified.

“It’s simply old,” said Altenburg.

The church organ in Oberbösa stands tall on the last floor, in front of the entrance to the clock tower. It is painted in blue, white and gold with striking silver pipes.
Altenburg said, “That is one thing we are very proud of.”

But today, no one plays the instrument. The young pastor of the church instead plays a guitar on a stage close to the crowd.

In the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War left the church destroyed. But it was under the German Democratic Republic that Oberbösa’s Christian heritage suffered the most. Instead of a protestant confirmation, parents started choosing secular confirmation for their teenage sons and daughters.

Altenburg’s father continued the tradition of protestant confirmation. Now, out of the nine teenagers who had a protestant confirmation ceremony in the village in 2008, Altenburg is the only one fighting to keep the church alive.

Altenburg: “My father inspired me.”

The youth in Oberbösa, disenchanted with rural life, reflect the problem of rural flight that plagues many German villages. While the refugee crisis increased Germany’s population in 2015, the country experienced a population decline of 0.41% from 1994 to 2014. In the state of Thuringia, the population declined by almost 14 % from 1994 to 2015. In Oberbösa, the population declined by 17% in the same time-frame.

At the age of 23, Altenburg is a student of electric engineering and the youngest member of the village council. He said: “In the old days, each church had its own pastor.” Today there is only one pastor for approximately fifteen churches in the region, who visits Oberbösa once a month.

During the First World War, the church bells in Oberbösa were melted to create bullets

Pointing at the deep crack between the porch entrance of the Church and the main building, he said: “The groundwater is making the land sink. So the entrance is drifting away.” For now, yellow foam fills the crack as a short-term solution, unifying the porch to the rest of the church. He would need 16,000 euros to permanently fix the damage, but according to him “it will take at least two to three years” to collect that amount of money.

The money collected in the church donation box is not reserved for Oberbösa’s church. Instead, there is a church committee that collects donations from several churches in the region. The committee then proceeds to divide the money between the churches as it sees fit. It gives more money to big churches, which are mostly located in cities. The smallest churches, usually belonging to villages like Oberbösa, receive the least funds. In East Germany, this creates a particularly dire situation for village churches that suffered decay under the German Democratic Republic.

The annual village carnival organized in February is another attempt at keeping alive village traditions. It is a rare moment when the village youth returns to Oberbösa from German cities, albeit for a weekend.

With little to no money, the small village churches are unable to sustain themselves and, as a result, attendance at mass is plummeting. With fewer churchgoers, it is no more in the interest of the church committee to spend funds on these village churches. Without the financial support of the church committee, the small churches cannot renovate their buildings or organize events that would attract more people. The number of churchgoers further depletes.

Altenburg fears that his church will fall into this vicious trap.

The church community in Oberbösa is trying to upgrade the building. They have installed heating under the benches on the ground floor, hoping to attract more people in the winter. Altenburg and his father tried to fix the cracks in the church floor. He said: “We did it with our own hands.”

The church also organizes an annual Christmas play and a summer concert. Altenburg said: “The church choir has people of all ages.” Altenburg hopes to organize more concerts in collaboration with KulturDurst, a cultural initiative in Oberbösa that began in 2007. KulturDurst brings German artists to Oberbösa every summer for book readings and music concerts. It is an artistic project that tries to unify urban Germany with its rural counterparts.

We have to accept that nowadays the church is not the most important institution. First we need schools, hospitals and jobs.

The annual village carnival organized in February is another attempt at keeping village traditions alive. The carnival is a rare moment when the village youth return to Oberbösa from German cities, albeit only for a weekend. But even this weekend trip is unable to save the local economy; the village kiosk, run by an elderly lady, is on the brink of shutting down. The only bar in the village has no bartender.

Oberbösa’s population of 16 to 65 year olds dropped from 284 in 2000 to 221 in 2015. The population of citizens above 65 years of age increased from 84 in 2000 to 96 in 2015. German cities are draining the villages of their youth, income and state funding.

The Blue shield symbol granted by the government to cultural property hangs by the Church door in Oberbösa. It is granted to German heritage sites that need to be protected. But “it’s just a sign. The state does not help us at all,” said Altenburg.

In 2015, the German state spent a large sum - €5.4 billion - on its ambitious project to build a second airport in Berlin, the Brandenburg Airport, which has been under construction since 2006. Altenburg said: “We need 16,000 to save the church. That’s nothing like the billions spent on Brandenburg.”

Oberbösa’s residents are trying to save their cultural heritage and the history of their village. Are their attempts  enough to save Oberbösa? Altenburg said:

“We have to accept that nowadays the church is not the most important institution. First we need schools, hospitals and jobs.”

The German government’s blindness towards these dying villages could fragment the country, deepening the urban-rural divide in Germany. Villages that were a part of the former German Democratic Republic, like Oberbösa, already feel distant from West Germany, whether it’s their accents or job opportunities or the poor state of their heritage buildings.

During the first world war, the church bells in Oberbösa were melted to create bullets. After the war ended, new bells were placed in the church. Inscribed on the rim of the bells is 'Be Content in Hope.' In Altenburg's words:

“You have to have hope. That’s all we have.”

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Sadia is a photographer and documentarymaker from India. She runs her own platform - Yours unapologetically