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When the Crisis is Over, the Hard Work Begins

In the late 70s, one of the odder episodes of the Cold War unfolded when a very large hot air balloon – the biggest ever to fly in Europe up to that point – crash-landed on the Western side of what was then the border between East and West Germany. Here’s how that came be: Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel lived in East Germany (a dictatorship with an infamously repressive secret police force), and felt that they would rather live in the West. But between them and their preferred home stood the apparatus of a repressive state, and more specifically, the vast fortified border it guarded zealously to keep its citizenry trapped in their own country.

So Peter and Guenter devised a plan: they would built their own hot air balloon, and use it to sail through the air, over the border. Everything about that plan was illegal of course, so they had to gather materials and do all their work in secret. It would have to be a very large balloon in order to carry both of them and their families. The first material they tried wasn’t tightly woven enough to hold the air in. So they tried again. They found a new source of stronger cloth and built a flyable balloon…which crashed on their first attempt at a crossing, still in East Germany. Finally, after driving all over the country to buy yet more strong fabric in units small enough for the authorities not to notice, the two men completed their second fully functional balloon.

This one was large enough to carry all eight of its prospective passengers, and seemed up to dangerous task ahead. But then the amateur balloon pilots managed to set the balloon itself on fire very shortly after taking off. The folks dangling below it in a basket then had a choice: give up a second time and try to make a third balloon, or press on at the best possible speed and hope that they might make it into West German territory before their burning craft forced them to the ground. Desperate now, and already sensing that the East German authorities were closing in, they chose the latter course. The two families managed to make it across the border.

It’s a thrilling story of creativity and daring – enough so that it was actually made into a film with John Hurt and Beau Bridges. But I tell it to you now to highlight what came after. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families made new lives in West Germany (and after the Berlin Wall came down, they mostly moved back home to the former East). But these two families who had been through so much together – who had struggled and suffered and endured so much danger and adversity – had a falling out soon after their escape. They began to argue publically over who had played the larger and more crucial role in their ingenious balloon construction, competing for public attention. Their great adventure had a sad epilogue.

It’s one of our great capacities as human beings that a crisis or a dramatic challenge can bring us together, and bring out some of the best in our generosity and creativity. But most of the work of living takes place between such times of intensity. It takes a different kind of effort to sustain goodwill, and openheartedness, in the passing of daily life. In your own household, family, or work environment, perhaps you can see some example of this at work.

Here in our shared spiritual community, we have just recently combined two congregations into one. An urgency, a flurry of effort, and the tackling large challenges now gives way to the long-term work of dwelling together in peace, seeking the truth in love, and helping each other. I am proud of what we have accomplished so far, and optimistic for the future we are moving towards together. Let us be mindful of how this work is changing for us, and seek to remain as open to one another as we were when this process first began.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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