On Freedom's Shore
I wish I might have known my grandfather Leer, but he died before I was born. I can see him, though—a short, stout German farm boy, plowing the gently, rolling fields of his father’s land in Russia’s southern Ukraine.
It was good land, rich black soil. Valentine Leer stopped the horses and squatted on his heels to rub the dirt between his fingers. It was still moist from the winter rains. The best growing land in Russia, he smiled proudly to himself. And his father’s farm was the best kept, the most productive.
Straightening up, he looked out across the upturned furrows behind him to his little village nestled in the poplars among the low hills. Kassel, just fifty miles north of Odessa on the Black Sea, had been home to his people ever since they left Germany, maybe fifty years ago in the early 1800s. They had come in response to the Czar’s call for more thrifty, hardworking German farmers, with the modern methods of Western Europe, to settle these thousands of fertile acres.
Valentine loved the little village which his people had named after their hometown in Germany. He could see the Lutheran church where he helped with the younger boys, the school, and his whitewashed mud cottage in the cherry orchard under the great endless blue of the sky. Someday he would have his own cottage, and he knew who would share it with him—at least, he hoped he knew!
Putting up the horses for the night, Valentine strode toward the welcoming lamp light, hungry for a bowl of his mother’s Borsch. Or maybe there would be Kase Knepf or Strudel tonight. Whatever it was, he knew there would be plenty.
But when he came in, the kitchen was empty. From the next room, he heard his father’s angry voice.
“But, officer, I have already paid my taxes down at Odessa.”
“I did not make the law. I just follow my orders. Fifty more rubles to the Czar this year. After all, there is a war going on.”
There had been a war going on as long as Valentine could remember.
“I cannot pay it now,” his father said. “I do not have the money.”
“If you do not have it in by Monday night, you either go to jail, or we take five desiatine (roughly 1.1 hectares or 2.47 U.S. acres) of your land.”
There was a scraping of chairs and boots, and the front door closed.
Valentine saw his father sink heavily into a chair. His mother sat in the corner wiping her eyes. He waited for his father to speak.
“Ach, so. Another freedom gone.”
“But I do not understand, Father.”
“You are young, my son. Tonight you have seen two of the promises in Catherine the Great’s manifesto broken.
First, the taxes. She promised us freedom from taxation. But year by year they have become heavier until I can hardly pay them. And then this Russian officer! We Germans were to have our own government, with an administrative board appointed by the Czar. One of our own officers should be collecting the taxes. But now the only question is: Where do I get the money? If I do not get it, I will lose the land.”
For the first time, Valentine realized the heavy burden his father carried. He ate his supper silently, wishing there was some way he could help. Scarcely had they finished their meal when Conrad Schmidt, their neighbor to the east, came in. He looked so old and beaten that Valentine’s father exclaimed, “Conrad, what is wrong?”
“They have taken my land,” he almost whispered. “You know I did not have much. My wife has been sick and I had a poor harvest last year. There were other expenses and I could not pay the taxes. So they have taken the land.”
“If I were younger,” Conrad continued slowly, “yes, if I were younger and my wife strong, you know what I would do? I would go to America!”
Valentine slipped out the back door. He had to think. What was happening to the German colony? How could the Russians take their land away from them? It was not right.
He looked up to see Herr Wall, their Lutheran school teacher, swinging briskly down the road, bulging satchel in hand. Herr Wall was always hurrying. “Where are you going?” Valentine called.
“To America,” he answered. Then he stopped and laughed. “Ach, lieber, Valentine. You look surprised! Yes, but it is true. The Russian officers brought me orders from the Czar to turn over our Lutheran school to the Ministry of Education. We were to be free to control our own school, but now it is to be taught and controlled by the Russians!”
“But, America, Herr Wall,” Valentine protested. “What do you know about America? It is so far away.”
“But it is free, my lad. No one will take my school away from me in America. Yes, I am going. I will write and tell you all about it.”
During the following years, Valentine thought often about Herr Wall and America. As he became responsible for more of the duties and problems of the farm, and built the little cottage to which he brought his bride, Fredricka Hieb, he treasured the occasional letter which came from his teacher.
But there was much to keep him busy at home and in the community. As Valentine and his bride walked slowly home over the muddy road one spring evening, avoiding the deep ruts left by the farm wagons, they talked about the Baptist preacher who had recently come to their village.
“You know, Fredricka, I feel that this teaching is more like what I have studied in the Bible myself. I believe I must accept it and be baptized.” He saw her face whiten in the dusk. “But Valentine, you know it is forbidden to change your religion. You know how the Orthodox Church and the government are working together to clamp down on Protestants. I just know you will be put in jail!”
“When something is right to do,” he answered, “then the only thing is to go ahead and do it.”
In spite of Fredricka’s fears, he was baptized. That was when his life of active service really began: a word of comfort to a downhearted Russian peasant here, a pamphlet on the love of God to an educated Russian officer there, and guidance and help to the new little Baptist Church in the German community.
But Fredricka had been right. It was not long before these activities brought him persecution. During the next few years he began to feel that he knew the interior of the Velva jail, five miles away, almost as well as his own home. When he returned from jail, discouraged, he could always find comfort in his children, Karl and Carolina.
“Father!” called little Karl, running out through the lean-to one night. “There is a big, big man in the house!”
Valentine dropped the plow and hurried in. What could it be this time? Surely not more taxes.
Fredricka stood at the kitchen door, tears in her eyes. “It was an officer, Valentine,” she choked. “He is taking a census for … for military service. Sometime this year you will have to go!”
Valentine picked up baby Carolina and put his arm around his wife. “Come, Karl,” he said, “It is time to go in to worship.” He took the big German family Bible from the shelf and sat down.
“That breaks the last promise, does it not? Exemption from military service. But we must remember, Fredricka, that God has a purpose behind all this. Though we cannot see what it is yet, we can trust Him.”
Valentine remembered the confidence and peace of that worship period the next evening when the heavy door of the little jail in Velva slammed behind him.
“Ivanovitch!” He heard the towering, fur-capped officer bellow. “Take this ... this Baptist and lock him up. I do not know for how long. Forever, for all I care!”
“But officer,” fussed the balding little jailer. “You know this Valentine Leer makes nothing but trouble in here. He is always converting …” The nervous little jailer’s voice trailed off. The door was shut and the officer gone.
“All right, all right, Valentine Leer,” he sighed. “What is it this time?”
Valentine sank down wearily on the hard slat-covered bed and began to unlace his muddy boots.
“This time, Mr. Ivanovitch, your officers on horseback drove me five miles on foot through the mud to you here because I was reading from the Bible to my Russian neighbor. I was reading from the Book of John, you know, the part where our Savior says …”
“You mean you were out making converts for the Baptist Church again. Proselytizing. That is against the law!”
“Yes, you are right. It is against the laws of Russia, and I am sorry for that. I do not like to disobey laws, especially the laws of a country which has been so good to our people in the past. But if God’s laws tell me to preach, and man’s laws say not to, then I must obey God’s laws.”
The jailer slid down beside Valentine, his eyes on the curious faces of the other inmates as he scooted nearer.
“Tell me something, Leer,” he half whispered. “I do not know much about the laws of God, but I would like to know why it is so important for you to do this—to keep preaching this gospel you talk about, always ending up in jail here. Why are you so different from the rest of us anyway?”
Valentine leaned against the wall, closing his eyes for a moment. He was very tired. Being marched five miles through deep mud had not been easy, especially after a hard day’s work in the fields. He wanted to be alone to rest and think—to think about the letter which had come that day from Herr Wall in America. He would really prefer to talk to the jailer later.
Then a picture of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail came to his mind. They had been tired, too, and had been beaten besides, when they sang their triumphant hymns. He turned to the jailer.
“Mr. Ivanovitch, I am glad to tell you why I seem different. It is just a matter of faith. I see you have an icon over there. You have a fine one, my friend; the gold frame is beautiful and the picture of Jesus is lovely. Now when the priest has blessed this icon, you say it is sacred and you pray to it. You have faith in the icon, do you not?”
The jailer nodded.
“Now I have faith, too, but not in a picture made by a man like myself. I have faith in God and His Son, Jesus. I can pray directly to Him. I know that God hears me, that His Spirit is with me always, wherever I am. I do not have to buy an expensive icon, and then a more expensive one, hoping that it will bring me blessings. I talk with the Creator who made the universe, and yet Who loves and cares for me. Is that not wonderful?”
“Look,” he said, “I will read it to you just as our Savior said it.”
He took his German Bible from an inner pocket and slowly translated several sweet promises into Russian. He could see that the other prisoners were straining to hear, and he wished he could read louder so that they would be sure to get the meaning.
“Come now,” he said finally. “I will teach you how to pray directly to your heavenly Father. We will kneel together.”
As he knelt, Valentine rejoiced to see four of the men climb from their bunks and slip to their knees on the floor. “Now I will teach you the prayer our Savior taught His disciples.” And Valentine slowly repeated the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Soon others were joining in with, “Our Father, which art in heaven …” Suddenly they heard the tramp of boots outside and the grating of a big key in the lock. Before the jailer could get to his feet, the heavy door swung open, revealing the overseer of the southern Ukrainian prisons.
The overseer cursed in anger.
“Ivanovitch, you swine; what is going on here? Oh, yes, now I see. It is that Valentine Leer here again. These Baptists,” he roared. “When you have one, you have two. If there are two, there will be four. And now look; we have six, and one of them is my jailer.”
“All right,” he sighed. “Let him go. And do not bring that little Leer into one of my jails again. He makes as many converts inside as he does outside!”
Well, I am free to go home again, Valentine thought, pushing along through the mud. Home to what? A few acres of land which could be taken from him at any time, Russian schools for his children where they would be indoctrinated with the Orthodox belief, military service which might take him from home for many years to fight in wars of conquest he could not conscientiously support, and most important, to a total lack of understanding of what religious freedom should be.
He realized that he had come to the place where he must either give up his spiritual work for others or be prepared for a future which could include not only the Velva jail, but also a Siberian prison.
He had almost memorized the words of Herr Wall’s letter—“There is freedom here in America, Valentine. You can worship or not, as you please. You can change your religion, preach any message you wish—no one hinders you in any way.”
Valentine turned to look at the fields of home. He would miss the rich acres and the mild climate, as well as the Russian people. But when he would plow and plant and preach again, it would be on freedom’s soil.
Sequel: Valentine Leer did come to America. He was a Baptist at that time. In America he met an English speaking man who shared the Ten Commandments with him. That was all it took. The Holy Spirit gave him understanding as he studied for himself.
Valentine Leer raised up twenty-five Seventh-day Adventist churches in North and South Dakota. He also raised $70,000 for the College of Medical Evangelists [now Loma Linda University] to give young people the opportunity he did not have—to learn.
The American branch of the Leer family prospered and grew over the years. Many of them are missionaries, ministers, and teachers carrying on the family tradition of active service for the Lord like their progenitor, Valentine Leer.
Marha Leer Kit