PLZEN, Czech Republic – Larry and Melissa Lewis stood in Plzen’s town square and watched the woman walk right toward them. Just as they thought she might speak, she brushed past to take hold of the iron gate.
She reached out, paused briefly at a row of golden angels and turned to walk away. The angel she had touched had no face, worn down from years of being touched by passersby.
The Lewises, who serve as Christian workers in the Czech Republic, said they see this all the time, and it’s a sign that Eastern Europe is a lot more open to spiritual things than most people think.
A passerby pauses to touch a worn-down angel on the iron gate of a church in Plzen, Czech Republic. For centuries, Czechs – though largely self-proclaimed atheists – have touched statues to offer up wishes or prayers.
“Legend has it that in 1500 the executioner was not allowed into the church,” Larry Lewis said. “His unholiness kept him out of the building, but he could stand in the front and pray. Each Sunday he would come and kneel by the fence.”
When the executioner finished praying, he would pull himself up by grabbing the angel knob. Because of that gesture, whatever he touched was considered lucky, Larry Lewis said. Citizens of the town began to come to touch the angel and make a wish.
Melissa Lewis said it’s a telling tradition.
“I sat at the square yesterday waiting for a friend and watched a never-ending stream of people who stopped to touch the angel and make a wish or [say] a prayer,” she said. “It really made me realize that in a country that claims to be atheistic, there are a lot of people who are searching.”
And, she said, they do not know what an atheist is. When they touch, they pray to something or someone, but it’s hard to know much about what they are thinking, she said.
“Czechs embody a heritage of detached emotions. They have emotion but do not show it. Even with family members, they keep it inside,” Melissa Lewis said.
The Lewises attribute this behavior to a history filled with religious persecution and war. The Czechs have continually been conquered and oppressed, they said.
“Czechs are coming from ground zero. They do not know about Adam and Eve,” Melissa Lewis said. “As a whole they do not believe in God and they are afraid to talk about what they believe.”
A woman once told Melissa Lewis, “I don’t believe God exists, but I pray to him. Do you think that makes him mad?”
“It is a contradiction,” Melissa Lewis said of the woman’s tradition.
Larry Lewis said the attitudes stem from communism. “Under communism, you were looked down on if you attended church,” he said. “All important things were taken away, so they held on to the peripheral.”
Czechs need a Savior, but they reach out to superstition, he said.
And it doesn’t just happen in Plzen. In Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, a constant line of people waits to touch a famous statue on the Charles Bridge.
When actions become ritual, Melissa Lewis said, it’s hard to get them to change.
“Breaking with past traditions is no easy task,” she said. “Explaining the folly of such customs is even harder. Statue rubbing is a part of who they are. This custom is imbedded in their hearts.”
She said the life of her friend Milena* showed her just how much that tradition can linger.
“Milena came to faith and was baptized in May, yet she still has a tendency to go back to the angel,” Melissa Lewis said. “She has a true understanding of who God is. She knows He died for her.”
But Milena has a lingering belief that touching the angel is the same as praying to the Father, Melissa Lewis said. “My prayer is that Milena and the Czech people would learn they do not have to touch an angel. They can reach out to God from anywhere and know He is there.”
Larry and Melissa Lewis said they have been trying to peel away the layers of false belief as they share that Jesus is a real deity who can hear, see and know them intimately. They tell Czechs that no matter how many times you call on Jesus’ name, it will not be erased over time like the angel’s head.
Czechs have responded and come to faith because of the Lewises’ witness. They ask for prayer as they seek to etch the story of Jesus on the hearts and minds of the people of the Czech Republic.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kate Ryan is a writer for the International Mission Board in Europe.)