Checkpoint Charlie

by: Kyle Fox

If you are a movie or history buff, you're probably familiar with the term Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was a well-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Its location is now a tourist attraction, but 50 years ago, Checkpoint Charlie symbolized the conflict of its time. Numbers vary, but it is estimated that 5,000 people successfully and illegally crossed the Berlin Wall border with an estimated 200 unsuccessful attempts ending in death.

At the young age of 18, one year after the construction of the wall, German bricklayer, Peter Fechter, refused to remain trapped in East Berlin. Peter and his friend, Helmut, hid in a carpenter’s workshop to observe border guards before their sprint through the “Death Strip.” The Death Strip was an area lined with sand between the main wall and a parallel fence to slow refugees and leave a trail of footprints.

Peter and Helmut made it through the Death Strip to the Berlin Wall. Their attempt drew much attention as Eastern guards fired their weapons. As Helmut’s feet landed on the Western side, he heard a gunshot and looked back as his friend Peter fell backwards onto the Death Strip.

Fighting for his life, young Peter Fechter laid on the rocky strip for one full hour. His shouting for help could be heard from both sides of the wall. Hundreds of bystanders, including journalists from around the world, watched and even filmed as a puddle of blood surrounded his body. During this hour, despite onlooker’s nearness, nobody came to his rescue.

The lack of assistance was later attributed to mutual fear. Bystanders on the West were prevented at gunpoint from rescuing him. Time Magazine reported a U.S. Second-Lieutenant received orders from U.S. Command in West Berlin to stand his ground and not to act. Likewise, the leader of the Eastern German border platoon later confessed he was afraid to intervene.

Peter’s demise, wounded and isolated within close proximity to people who could have helped, is symbolic of what I see too often.

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Walls of isolation are not always physical. This wall, however, was erected with barbed wire overnight on August 13, 1961, by the East as a result of fear. The notorious wall not only kept those on the East isolated, it kept those on the West (along with the rest of the world) out.

John 8:44 tells us the devil is the father of lies. His lies, when believed, build walls around our hearts. These walls create loneliness. The devil would love nothing more than for us to be isolated. You and I meet people everyday whose hearts are blockaded by a wall of loneliness. These walls not only keep pain in; they keep people out.

The pain of loneliness often leads to further isolation. However, similar to physical pain, signaling a need for change, the pain of loneliness can prompt someone to a choice—remain trapped or scale the wall.

A University of Chicago study estimates twenty percent of the American population experiences extreme “social pain” (loneliness). That means one out of five people you encounter at school, Starbucks or even church, are experiencing the pain of loneliness. What if they have recently decided to scale the wall? What if they are in the middle of an “escape attempt”? If they are, they're scaling their wall wounded and tired. Will they make it over? Regardless of whether you want it to or not, the outcome might depend on you. One unkind world or lack of any communication at all could serve as a fatal blow hurling them back to the “East” … to the “Death Strip.” Nevertheless, your love and acceptance could help them reach the other side.

What if one person had the courage to approach Peter Fechter as he lay dying at the base of the famous wall? What if he was carried off alive by a world changer after three minutes, instead of carried away lifeless after an hour? What was true for Peter is true for us; the worst form of mistreatment is being treated like no one at all.

Every day we come near people who are hurting and possibly dying on the inside, searching for a way to be released from the pain restraining them from freely living. We carry the direction to community and freedom within our hearts, and that truth will be of little use if we withhold it from longing souls.

To this day, a memorial stands in the exact place of Peter’s death near the former location of Checkpoint Charlie. The monument reads in German: er wollte nor die Freiheit. Translated in English: “He just wanted freedom.”

Someone in your community, school or church is attempting to scale their wall. Refuse to be a bystander. You can pave the way for acceptance and healing. What if the only thing between a person and their miracle is the distance between you and that person? God wants to use you to lead lonely and isolated people into authentic community.

Kyle (@MrKyleFox) pastors students at Gateway Church's NRH campus. He believes you become a world changer when you step out and change one person's world. His heart is to inspire and equip students to reach those who are often overlooked and ignored. He and his wife, Jacqueline serve with Embrace Grace, a ministry equipping churches to support girls with crisis pregnancies (iembracegrace.com).