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In 2003, the Oldenburg sub-command of the Order of St John took over the sponsorship of a congregation in Latvia from the then Diakonisches Werk in Oldenburg. At that time, I did not even know exactly where Latvia, or even Liepaja, was located – and I knew nothing of the many historical connections between Oldenburg and Latvia.
A few weeks later, in a most stormy sea voyage, I sailed together with the Rocksien couple and a lorry full of 5.5 tons of relief supplies by ferry to Liepaja, where we arrived in the evening at 10 pm, quite exhausted and seasick. At customs there was a slim, tall, somewhat awkward-looking friendly man who greeted me warmly and with a few words guided me past the awkward customs and entry control – Latvia was not yet in the EU and the friendly man showed his competence right at the first meeting, many people in Liepaja knew him and associated him with the church.
That’s how I met Pastor Martin Urdze and we liked each other immediately. This first meeting resulted in extensive activities of our sub-committee in the following years, aid transports, donations of money and goods, several individual and three group trips to Latvia, I myself was in Liepaja about twenty times. Also due to the support of the German churches, he was an uncomfortable admonisher in Latvia, but he could neither be overlooked nor cold. With great perseverance he fought for the preservation and the idea of a diaconically committed congregation and was not discouraged by failures and massive resistance. At the Synod in Riga, where women’s ordination was finally abolished again and the increasingly orthodox course of the Latvian official church was confirmed, his voice and his position could not be ignored.
Now Martin Urdze passed away on 23.4.2021 after a short serious illness of a malignant disease and was buried on 1.5. 2021 in Latvia at the cemetery of Asyl Ilgi at the gates of Liepaja.
For the inmates of this asylum, where in 2003 restless people, disabled people, demented people and dying people were still being housed in wild confusion, sometimes like in a prison, he always and energetically campaigned and he was also very proud to be able to show us how the conditions had fundamentally improved 10 years later after the EU aid began, both structurally and in terms of content – quickly recognisable to us. His commitment to the sick, the weak, the handicapped and the disadvantaged in the entire region was unbelievable, he was courageous in the face of the authorities of his church and state, he did not worry about his social or financial situation, unfortunately he did not worry about himself either, he was “proverbially” neither afraid of death nor of the devil. I have rarely met a person so straightforward and convinced of the Gospel.
We owe him and his network many encounters and experiences, small nursing stations in the countryside which we were able to supply with used nursing beds, contacts with other church congregations and pastors in Latvia, guided tours through magnificent Riga, several contacts with the Ilgi asylum and its residents, a short prayer service at the memorial for the murdered Jews on the beach of Karosta.
A few days before his death, Martin Urdze informed me by email about his state of health, he was calm and in a positive mood, we were also able to speak to each other again on the phone.
The Oldenburg Sub-Commandery of the Order of St John mourns the loss of a long-time friend and partner and hopes that his life’s work in Liepaja will continue.
Dr. Michael Jonas, Oldenburg