Sunday, 18 March 2012

Living Legends - the Winklers

Germany has a new president today.  Joachim Gauck is a pastor from the former East Germany.  Himself the son of a pastor - he did not join the "Free German Youth" (the communist youth party that every young East German was supposed to join) and so theology was the only option for him to study at university.  My mother did not even have that option.  Having not joined the FDJ (as its initials are in German) she was shunted to trade-school and saw her FDJ member classmate go to grammar school and then on to university.  But my mother kept the freedom of her heart - which brought her out of the 'Workers Paradise' of the 'German Democratic Republic' and into a life that eventually led her to follow the Prince of Peace to India.  Her generation was hemmed in by the Berlin wall that came up a few years later to stop the heamorraghing of young people to the West. Joachim Gauck stayed on - and seems to have kept his integrity intact. Today he is president of a united Germany.  Not bad for a pastor.

Dr. Maria and Rev. Stefan Winkler
Speaking of pastors - one of the finest of the lot is the inimitable Stefan Winkler and his amazing wife Dr. Maria Winkler.  Living legends - no less.

It was our great privilege to have this amazing couple with us in January.  The Winklers were one of the only people on the planet to know both Sheba and I before we were married.  Their daughters Irene, Heike and Karuna had studied with us at Woodstock with Irene and I joining for our last 2 years of highschool.  They knew Sheba from a 1.5 month period where she volunteered at the Prem Sewa Hospital in Utraula.  They were thrilled when they found out we were marrying.

But we did not 'know' them well. We did not have access to the treasure trove of stories that they had to tell.  That all changed for us over the magical days Uncle Stefan and Auntie Maria spent with us here in Thane.

You just cannot get through a conversation with Stefan Winkler without laughter. If you don't laugh, he will. A barking, infectious laugh - usually brought on by a funny story.  Always lifting your spirits.  Maria Winkler has her own quiet humour - and to see these two saints - so beautifully in love over all these years - so intimate in their life together - so caring for others near and far - was a treasure for us.

Maria Winkler was born in what is today Poland.  After the Second World War her mother and siblings were refugees in what was then the Soviet Occupation Zone - which morphed into the 'German Democratic Republic.'  Maria's father was a pastor who was part of the confessing church - the small group of clerics who dared to stand up against Hitler.  We were told that at one point Maria's father stopped baptising infants as he became convinced that this was not in keeping with scripture.  A prominent member of the Confessing church was asked to correspond with him and help him out of this stance. That man was the famous Dietrich  Bonhoeffer - who died in a Nazi concentration camp just before the end of the war.  The correspondence between the two men has been published as part of the collected correspondence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the course of the war Maria's father was captured by the allies and taken to Britain till 1948.  After he was released he was in the 'West' and the rest of the family was in the 'East.'  In 1953 Maria, her mother and her siblings ended up leaving the former Eastern Germany for the West - refugees again - but reunited with their loving Godly father. They held on to their faith amidst the chaos and blessed others.   Among those they blessed was a young Stefan Winkler who had come to know them shortly after deciding to follow Christ as a disciple.

Stefan Winkler comes from a prominent family of artists. As a young man he trained as a sculptor and was expected to take over his father's studio in Munich.  His grandfather was a famous orientalist painter - an exhibition in Salzburg of German Orientalist painters had a whole room of his paintings.  Stefan's mother grew up partly in Egypt - where Stefan's grandfather had first come to help document the discovery of the Tutankhamun trove.  Among the people Stefan's father grew up with were prominent Nazis.  Eventually he was adjutant to one of Hitler's inner circle.

For a man like this to marry the daughter of a pastor who had opposed Hitler is a miracle.  But that is what this life is made of.

As a young man Stefan Winkler was searching for peace.  At one point in time - while serving in the navy - he was out in a forest and cried out to God as he knew him.  This cry marked a turning point in Stefan's life - one where he took Jesus seriously.  As the search continued he walked around the churches in the northern city of Kiel. He wanted God to talk to him. To call him by name.

"One Sunday I was outside a church - wanting to go in but not knowing if I should.  I was hoping God would call me. Then I heard my name. 'Stefan, Stefan.'  I was so happy. God had heard my cry.  Then I saw a small boy come round the corner, and his name called again 'Stefan' by a lady from a window above me."

Cut to loud guffaws by Stefan Winkler - telling the story of his pilgrimage to grace.  "Eventually God found me and I gave myself fully to follow Jesus' said Stefan.  I was so sure that I wanted to follow him and serve him in anyway possible that I went to Britain to attend a Bible college."

"One day I was told by the Holy Spirit that I would find out which country I would be serving in. It was revealed to me that the man who would speak in church that morning would be from the country I would serve in.  I prayed that it would not be a German as I did not want to go back to Germany.  I was curious to know who was speaking.  And when the time came for the guest speaker to be announced... who should be there but a brother from Kerala!  So I knew that I would be serving in India!"

What followed were 38 years of service in India along with his amazing wife Dr. Maria.  They served at the Prem Sewa hospital in Utraula for many a year - and then handed over the work to the next generation while pioneering a work on the Indo-Nepal border in the border town of Rupaidia.   "After you leave the Indian checkpost, and just before you get into Nepal, you see a house.  That was where we lived. The last house in India!" said Stefan.

The years of service were many and had many hardships and disappointments - but through it all, we see so much joy in the faces of Uncle Stefan and Auntie Maria.  They have raised three amazing daughters - the elder two both doctors and the younger one serving with people with mental disabilities.  All love Jesus passionately and have provided the elder Winklers with 3 lovely 'sons' ('sons-in-grace' instead of 'sons-in-law') and a host of amazing grandchildren.

There are stories upon stories - which we would challenge Irene, Heike and Karuna to capture and document. There is at least one book to be written about their amazing parents!

The Winklers also have a flood of foster children - having run a home for boys - mainly ones whose parents were suffering from leprosy. During their recent visit to India (for which they took 3 months to travel too and fro meeting people) they repeatedly were hosted by some of the 'boys' who have now transitioned to men.  It was such a joy to the Winklers to see these men having families of their own and proudly sharing what God has done in their lives.

We shared this joy. The joy of seeing in the Winklers a life well lived.  They could have easily made a name for themselves in Germany. He with his artistic talents and pedigree - she with her medical skills. But instead they chose to live out their lives in a forgotten corner of India - with little outward success to mark their labours.  But as we heard the stories spill out - as we saw the joy that animates their loving faces - as we continued to see the evidence of a life of learning (Dr. Maria taking notes during our simple training session that she sat in on) - we came away with awe that such people actually walk the face of this earth.

Sheba and I always knew about the Winklers.  Earlier this year we had the privilege of knowing a bit about them.  They stand apart as role-models - people who have allowed the love of God to flow through them and touch so many.  Including the Thane Eichers!

Thank you Stefan and Maria for who you are! 

1 comment:

  1. Andie - thanks this is so interesting!

    Thanks for taking the time to write such interesting things on this blog! I understand that you and Sheba are so busy but it is a blessing to have people like you around. You do not waste your talent! God Bless you all.