War and Awakening
With the arrogance of teenagers, Peteris and I looked askance at religion.
We reluctantly sat in on services at our house, and that only because
of Father’s authority. But history would give us both a shove. As
the turbulent year 1918 drew to a close, newly-independent Latvia entered
a war of liberation that would last two years. Our family was caught in
a maelstrom: on the one hand, seething popular rage against landowners,
fueled by Moscow-sponsored agitators; on the other, our determination
to plow our fields, own property, and worship our God in peace.
Karlis’ arrest and execution left the three of us—Peteris,
Mother, and me—bereft without the patriarch’s guiding hand.
There was no time to grieve, yet we felt crushed by Satanic forces bubbling
up from the very depths of Hell. I had joined the Latvian army in the
interim, and I have no idea how Peteris, age 16, and Mother managed to
survive the two years following Karlis’ death. Our sister Otilija
lived nearby with her family, but she had her own life to lead. Our older
brothers Janis and Osvalds were still in Russia, and in any case they
had no inclination to return to farm life. Fighting for my country was
a welcome distraction, but when I returned to the farm in 1920, I woke
up to the reality of our situation. Our family life was in shambles. So
it was up to the three of us, Peteris, Mother, and me, to pull our lives
back together. Mother could not provide much leadership. She had clung
to her husband like a vine to an oak tree, counting on his spiritual strength
to pull her across the threshold of the Kingdom.
Father’s murder weighed like a ton of lead on my shoulders, and
the last words I wanted to hear were love and forgiveness. One night,
the Lord stepped in to change my mind with a terrifying nightmare of the
coming doomsday. In this vision, I was carried by a tornado towards a
burning cauldron. I saw no way of escaping judgment. I woke myself up
with a cry of despair, shaking and soaked in perspiration. When I regained
composure, anger had turned into gratitude: there was still time to repent.
For the first time I thanked the Lord with all my being.
God spoke in other ways too. According to my brother Peteris, a group
of traveling evangelists gave us the final shove into God’s arms.
As a Moravian-Herrnhuter, Father had always been friendly to the Baptist
movement, and our farm was frequently used as a stopping point for evangelists
covering the 40 km (25 miles) between two Baptist churches, one in Lidere
and the other in Velena. Unlike our father, however, Peteris and I thought
atheism to be more dignified. Adopting the fashionable skepticism of those
times, we turned a cold shoulder to evangelists.
It was on a Saturday, Peteris told me, one of those sparkling days of
the brief Latvian summer. Four young people, one of them an evangelist,
stopped by our farm. Before setting out on their drive, they told us later,
they had received a vision: by the time they reached their destination,
they would be joined by two more. Probably just a bit of meaningless dreaming,
they thought. But here they were at our gate. Out of old habit, their
two horses pulled into our driveway, so they knocked on the door. But
Mother not only welcomed them, she offered them a room for the night.
Before retiring, the group met in our living room to sing a few Gospel
songs, read from a pocket size New Testament, and pray. With nothing to
lose, Peteris and I forced ourselves to be polite and joined in on the
service. After all, we rationalized, the singing was nice, so much happier
than the Lutheran hymns. I never expected what happened in the course
of the evening. On my knees in prayer, an emotional surge passed through
me, so overwhelming that I could not open my mouth to confess to my lost
state. Meanwhile, the group prayed, one by one. Soon they would rise up,
the service would be over, and I’d miss my chance to join in. So
I forced my lips to move and blurted out what words I could get out: “Lord
Jesus, have mercy on me, a poor, lost sinner!” That was all. I fell
silent after that. But it was enough. A new, strange, wonderful peace
washed over me. The burden under which I had lived since Father’s
death was lifted by the hand of God Himself. My heart now overflowed with
joy and gratitude. Peteris told me later that, hearing my prayer, he was
frightened that I had accepted the Lord and he would be left behind. So
he, too, cried for help and felt heard by God.
Thus the vision the group had received the previous day came to pass.
They were joined by two more, as we followed them to Velena Church on
our bikes next morning. As we left the house, I asked the evangelist when
we would be baptized. He appeared surprised at the question. Back in those
days, Baptists did not rush new members into the fold, waiting to make
sure of their conversion. But Peteris and I had turned overnight into
eager followers who couldn’t wait. Perhaps because of that, they
bent the rules and baptized the two of us a fortnight later.
Much to our surprise, we found out that Mother had already been baptized
in our romantic Gauja River a few months before us. Not knowing how we
would react, she’d kept it a secret. I must add, there is nothing
more delightful than clear river water, clear like the Jordan, for this
ceremony, and in those days Latvian river water sparkled like crystal.
Our older sister Otilija was also baptized in secret, in a lake, on a
lovely starry night. Her father-in-law opposed her conversion, so she
had a difficult time of it. But in time her mother-in-law also adopted
the Baptist faith.
When our turn came, we all descended on the Gatarta creek on a warm, sunny
day. On account of our father’s reputation, a crowd of curious Herrnhuter
Brethren showed up. I have no idea how they got the news, in those days
of no radio or telephone, and few newspapers. They stood on the banks
of the river, craning their necks to get a better view. I was first. There
was one small problem: I had never witnessed baptism by immersion and
had no idea what was expected of me. As the pastor attempted to lower
my body horizontally, face up, into the water, I stepped backwards to
keep my head above water and not get water in my nose. Poor fellow, he
had to raise and lower me three times. On his third attempt, he used his
full body weight to press my head under water, but I could still see my
long blond hair floating up on the surface. Peter was much more cooperative—after
all, he knew by then what to expect. But, despite our lack of knowledge
of proper Baptist ways, they accepted us. We were now sheep of the Baptist
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