Surprises in Lithuania

March 19, 2001

Where do you think the geographical centre of Europe is?

In 1989, the French National Geographic Institute announced the surprising news that Paris was NOT the centre! Instead, they announced, the geographical centre was a point just north of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania!

Another surprising fact I learnt last week visiting ‘the heart of Europe’ was that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to ‘capitulate’ to Christianity – as late as the 14th century. In a nasty postscript to the Crusades in the Holy Land, the Teutonic Knights led more crusades against the pagan Lithuanians to force them into submission to the Cross. Little wonder that many Lithuanians still hold on to pagan practises and beliefs.

Surprise greeted Canadians Randy and Karen Purves when they arrived to pioneer YWAM ministries in Lithuania six years ago. They discovered that the name ‘Purves’ was Lithuanian. Unknown to them when they felt called to this Baltic state, Lithuania was Randy’s ancestral homeland. Despite all the challenges of living in a post-Soviet society, Randy and Karen are doing a great job in networking and laying foundations for Family Ministries, King’s Kids, Mercy Ministries, DTS’s and Kerygma Team ministries.

A surprise was in store for me too as Randy and Karen took me to visit the Hill of Crosses, in the north towards the Latvian border. Under heavy-handed Tsarist rule in the 19th century, a national uprising was brutally repressed. Many rebels were executed and some were secretly buried on hill in the countryside, a site long sacred. Crosses were set up in memory of the rebels. A century ago,100 crosses marked the hill’s horizon.

During mass repressions of the Soviet occupation, Lithuanians suffered greatly. Hundreds of thousands were deported to Siberia from 1941-52, leaving whole villages totally deserted. In 1956 Lithuanians began returning home. They erected new crosses on the hill in gratitude for their return, in memory of their torture and suffering, and as memorials for those who would never return. The hill became a place of prayer for those still suffering. Passionate and openly anti-Soviet inscriptions often adorned the crosses, making the hill an open-air museum, a mirror of human suffering and inhumane oppression.

The Hill of Crosses

In 1961, the authorities came with bulldozers to raze the Hill of Crosses and erase it from human memory. Wooden crosses were burned. Iron crosses became scrap metal. Stone crosses were buried. The hill was declared a forbidden place, a place of “ignorance” and “fanaticism”. The hill was kept under surveillance. But somehow, new crosses kept appearing at night. At first they were small, but then became bigger and bigger. The authorities tried more drastic measures. Projects to flood the area, block the roads, and turn the hill into an inaccessible island, all failed over time. More crosses just kept appearing.

Finally in 1985, the government abandoned their hopeless task. Peace came to the Hill of Crosses. Three years later the revolution was well under way to overthrow the Soviet oppression. And in 1991, independence came at last to Lithuania.

Today this 10-metre high hill is an unimaginable forest of hundreds of thousands of crosses, some even say millions! The Hill of Crosses is truly a powerful declaration of hope in the face of tyranny. Like a giant pin-cushion, it is a monument of folk art with many hand-carved crosses; some miniature, others five metres-high; some intricate and elaborate, others crude and simple; most anonymous, and one large wooden sculpture of Christ crucified, a gift from the Pope.

And now there’s one bearing the inscription “Jeff Fountain, Randy and Karen Purves, March 17, 2001”.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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