While earthquakes and hurricanes ravage the Americas, Leipzig has been doing its bit for its Texan sister city, Houston – which lies 5,300 miles away.
Last month, the St. Thomas Choir and organist and the Gewandhaus Orchestra wind quintet gave a charity concert to raise funds for those affected by flooding in Texas. The money goes to support the poor and homeless. Works by J.S. Bach, J.H. Schein, G.P. Telemann and others were played at the concert, organised by the City of Leipzig and the St. Thomas Church community.
Hurricane Harvey caused a massive amount of flooding and rainfall in late summer, with thousands in the city of 2.3 million now living without shelter.
“The pictures we see from Houston are cruel, especially the poorest are affected,” said Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung.
Leipzig wanted to help Houston and the concert was one way to do this.
Leipzig’s citizens have been very generous over the past weeks, and almost €30,000 had been donated by the end of September, according to Dr. Stefan Röhrbein, co-founder of the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association. Other churches have gotten involved, as well as the Rotary and Lions Club and the Johannes Kepler School, which organised a sandwich sale to help its Texan partner school, Houston Heights High School.
“The water in Houston is gone, but the vast damage will keep people busy over the next months,” says Röhrbein. “Texans do not just give up, people are helping each other wherever they can. Now that the water is gone, people have to deal with destroyed houses or damaged roofs and walls. Whole streets and blocks are gone, people have lost their beloved ones. Houston is also no exception to the following: Poor families and house owners were amongst the ones hit the hardest.”
In November, the St. Thomas Reverend Martin Hundertmark will visit Houston to see where help is needed most, Röhrbein adds.
The cities’ partnership came about when, not long after the fall of the Berlin wall, Röhrbein, then a young student from Leipzig, approached the Washington D.C.-based Sister Cities International, asking whether any American cities would be interested in forming such a connection with his hometown.
He recounts that a few months later, he was approached by a German business man, Wolfgang Schmidt, whose wife Angelika was a lawyer originally from Leipzig. Both were living and working in Houston, and happened to hear of Röhrbein’s inquiry.
“I had never imagined that a city like Houston, after all the fourth largest in the US, could be a match for Leipzig,” Röhrbein says. “[But] they and a bunch of other Houstonians including their mayor thought this would be a great idea.”
Schmidt and Röhrbein forged ahead with the project, which expanded with the foundation of the Leipzig-based counterpart,
Freundeskreis Leipzig-Houston e.V. (Friendship Association Leipzig-Houston), in 1992.
Friedrich Magirius – senior pastor of the St. Nicholas Church in the run-up to the Peaceful Revolution – was president of the Leipzig city parliament at the time and became honorary chairperson of the fledgling association. A “groundswell of support” in the two cities has guaranteed the dynamism of the project, which endures to this day after two decades, as its website describes:
“Business people, doctors, students and other citizens practice an active and fruitful exchange between the two cities, living up to the spirit of international friendship contemplated by the sister cities program.”
The project aims to promote “international understanding and cultural appreciation” between the citizens of Houston and Leipzig, as well as to foster “artistic, academic, youth, business and scientific exchanges” and develop local programs to support these aims.
In 2010, Sister Cities International honoured the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association with the Arts & Culture Award for Population over 500,001. The award recognised the association’s work in sponsoring the Peace Window in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, and their multimedia presentation of rare books in Houston on the 600th anniversary of the University of Leipzig.
The main highlight these days is the strength of the community spirit in Houston.
“People have taken in strangers who had become homeless during Harvey, dozens of restaurants made sure people got fed for free so they had one thing less to worry [about],” says Röhrbein. “As Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, put it, ‘I’ve never loved my city more!'”