A rare look at the missionaries' homeland
It is Friday, the first day of a conference on missionaries from Moravia in Greenland and Labrador. I am finally in the homeland of the Brethren who were once forced to leave their livelihoods and productive farms because of their religion to become exiles in Saxony.
From there they communicated their faith worldwide.
Suchdol, in northeastern Moravia, once called Zauchenthal by its German-speaking inhabitants, is a relatively small town with about 2,500 inhabitants in today's Czech Republic.
It is located near the Oder River - one of the mighty rivers flowing through the Czech Republic, shared by Germany and Poland, and eventually emptying into the Baltic. Here, only 40 kilometres from its source, it looks more like a creek.
On Friday afternoon, we visited a place in the forest accessible only by walking on stepping stones through a river. Here, near the large Zeisberger farm, according to tradition, the great bishop and early advocate of universal education, Jan Amos Comenius (for whom the school in Hopedale is named), preached to fellow members of the Unity of the Brethren amid the trees.
Comenius had laboured in nearby Fulnek, but in 1621 he was forced to leave behind all that he owned, especially his beloved books and manuscripts. After Protestant forces had lost the Battle at the White Mountain near Prague, he was a hunted man who escaped into Poland and from then on lived a pilgrim's life throughout Europe, eventually dying in Holland.
From Suchdol, two missionaries later left for Labrador - Matthaeus Kunz (1722-1774) and Johann Schneider (1713-1785), whose wife Elisabeth (1720-1797) came from nearby Butovice, once called Bodenwalde.
The Kunz and Schneider families were part of the oldest Protestant church, followers of Jan Hus, who died at the stake as a condemned heretic for his criticism of the medieval church and for his alternative vision of what a church and followers of Jesus should be.
Here in the communities of the fertile Oder valley, these ethnic Germans had early on accepted the faith of their Czech brethren from Bohemia and suffered severe persecution for it during and after the Thirty-Years War.
For many years, they lived a double life - outwardly Roman Catholics, but finding a spiritual home among fellow believers in the Unity of the Brethren.
The exile of the Brethren from Moravia took place during a remarkable revival initiated by the travelling preacher Christian David.
"Thus the Lord knew how to fan his fire in our cold and frozen hearts," Johann Schneider recalled in his autobiography. "By another tool it was completely ignited and set ablaze, namely through the well-known Christian David."
Only after seeing the large farm buildings, still surviving, associated with the Zeisberger, Stach and other Moravian families, did the extent of the sacrifice that these refugees made for their faith become clear to me.
Matthaeus Kunz, an 18th-century native of Suchdol, was part of the first failed exploration journey Moravians undertook in 1752 to Labrador.
For a long time, Kunz felt he should return to Labrador after he and his fellow missionaries were forced to abandon their first log house at Nisbet Harbour when Johann Christian Erhardt and six companions on the same voyage vanished during trade with Inuit.
Even four years after the failed mission, he penned a languishing hymn that expresses his disappointment over the venture.
Kunz would later serve as a missionary in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi), Tamil Nadu, India, where he died in 1774.
During the increasingly oppressive reassertion of Roman Catholicism in Moravia, Johann Schneider left in 1736 with a group of people from his hometown for Herrnhut, where a community of Moravian exiles and other religious refugees had established a new community on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.
Later, he served the mission of the renewed church under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf in Greenland and America.
After their stay in America, where Johann and his wife, Elisabeth, lived among Native Americans during the dangerous times of the Seven Years' War, the Schneiders joined the group of 14 people who, in 1771, settled in Nain, Labrador.
Johann was chosen by lot to baptize the first Inuk in Labrador, Kingminguse, who received the name of Peter on Feb. 19, 1776, thus establishing a direct link between Labrador and Moravia.
This conversion was, however, hardly a missionary success story; instead, it illustrated the drama and difficulties in the meeting of two quite different cultures.
Peter eventually left the congregation and took up residence on one of the islands near Nain, where he died. Only after the Inuit-driven Hopedale revival of 1804 did nearly all Inuit in and south of Okak adopt the Moravian faith.
Schneider struggled during all of his years in Labrador to find an appropriate terminology and emotional idiom to express his Christian faith in the Inuit language.
He alternated emotionally between satisfaction and despair over the difficulties in communicating across two so different cultures. Later, he would also serve in Okak and Hopedale.
His wife, Elisabeth, who had already felt quite close to Native American women, also had especially close relations with Inuit, with whom she would share food and engage in private trade. When she died, the burial ceremony was conducted in Inuktitut, not German, at her own request.
Johann and Elisabeth Schneider had chosen not to return to Europe or America, but remained in Labrador. Their graves can still be seen today in the oldest cemetery, near the ocean at Hopedale.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.