Category Archives: Feature Articles

A WITNESS: THE HAITI EARTHQUAKE, A SONG, DEATH, AND RESURRECTION Book Review by WTS Professor Norma Cook Everist

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Renee Splichal Larson, A Witness: The Haiti Earthquake, A Song, Death, and Resurrection (Eugene. OR: Resource Publications, 2016), 264 pp.

This book could have been titled so many different ways: A Love Story; Tragedy in Haiti; Loss and Grief. But I think A Witness is just right. Renee Splichal Larson is a participant witness to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed her husband, Ben, and left her a widow at age 27. A Witness is a very personal and also a very global book. In telling her painful yet hopeful story, Renee invites us to enter, from wherever we are; to see, to feel, to question, and to understand more deeply the power, grace, and love of God. This is a communal story. It is about accompaniment and relationship, about Ben, Renee, and Jon, all Wartburg Seminary seniors, who went to Haiti to be with the people there, and who became part of the shaking of the earth with them.

This book is about a few minutes in history and about the years that surround them. It is not a short book, but you won’t want to put it down. The book is intimate, deep, and profound, but not heavy.  We laugh as well as cry. We see people who go to amazing lengths to care for each other. Care across boundaries!

As the book begins, we meet these three young people and enjoy setting out on life’s journey with each of them. Ben and Jon are cousins who are closer than brothers. We hear Renee’s own story about her early years. I have witnessed in Renee an incredible woman. You will discover this, too, as you come to know her and see how she views life and the people whom she comes to cherish. We see Christ in people, because Renee is a witness to Christ in their lives and to Christ at work in the midst of tragedy, care, connection, and the renewal of resurrection.

The story’s focus is on one very gifted young man who died too soon. But the story is also about two people, and three, and about the families of Renee, Ben, and Jon. This is a book about family. Yet we also meet strangers, and we learn from them, and learn what it means to be served by them as much as serving among them. We see, really see, the people of Haiti: Bellinda, Livenson, Kez, Louis, Mytch, and more. Soon we are a witness to hundreds and yes, thousands. This story is about the global church. It is about faith and what it means to be church together in life and death, and in new life.

We see the Haitian people, who have suffered so much and continue to care for the outsider. We hear their faith and song in the midst of despair. We see their resilience, but dare not romanticize the complex issues. In our own ignorance and arrogance, we who live in affluent countries benefit from countries that remain poor and dependent. These are the causes and ramifications of poverty. The call of A Witness is to community and justice.

Poetry from fellow witnesses (friends and classmates) comforts us as well as the author as we walk and weep with each step from earthquake to resting place. This is a book for all who have suffered trauma, sudden tragedy, or the sadness of long suffering.

Renee is a theologian—of the best sort—who lives life fully, and is forever asking questions. (So the title could also have been A Theology.) Her reflections are existential and challenging, and she invites her readers to reflect theologically with her. She also knows that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and that new life in Christ is real. But this new life comes only after lamentation and loneliness and deep grief.

Together with Renee, we become witnesses to the importance of pastoral care and of a worshipping and caring community. Friends carry a body out of Haiti, and all are carried by the body of Christ. This is a theology of grace, of the cross and resurrection, of Christ with people in their dying as much as with the living. This power of God, God’s own commitment to us, empowers us for commitments to all of God’s global family.

There are more ministry opportunities for this now-ordained pastor and for us all. Renee goes where God leads, including to the people of Heart River, North Dakota. I believe this work is and will be a blessing to all who read it, to all for whom she is a witness to Christ and to his cross and resurrection.

Renee

RENEE SPLICHAL LARSON

is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Born and raised in North Dakota, Renee is a graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, and Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. She is married to Jonathan Splichal Larson, who is also a pastor in the ELCA, and their son is named Gabriel. Renee and Jon are both survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A Witness is Renee’s first book.

TEN THINGS THE CHURCH CAN DO TO HELP ABUSED CHILDREN By Victor I. Vieth, 1st Year MA DL, Sr. Director and Founder, National Child Protection Training Center, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI

 

“It is to the little children we must preach,
it is for them that the entire ministry exists.”
–Martin Luther

The academy awarding winning movie Spotlight has again focused attention on the relatively recent and widespread failure of the church to protect children from abuse or to respond with compassion when abuse is discovered. Although the church has made important strides in the past twenty-five years, church policies and training continue to lag behind research and what many national experts consider best practice. Although this article includes a checklist for improving church responses to the needs of maltreated children, it begins where it should–with the teachings of our Lord and an exploration of early church views on the maltreatment of children.

Jesus, child abuse and early church history

Jesus scolded the disciples for keeping children away from him and warned that it would be better to be drowned in the sea with a millstone around our neck than to hurt a child (Matthew 18:6). Jesus also had strong words for those who preached in His name but failed to care for those who were suffering—promising to one day tell these false Christians “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23; Matthew 25:41-45).

The early Christians took seriously the words of Jesus and distinguished themselves by opposing the abuse and neglect of children that was common in the Greco-Roman world. In his book Bad Faith, Dr. Paul Offit writes:

Jesus’s message of love for children was embraced by his followers…the church was the first institution to provide refuge for abandoned children [and] the church put pressure on the state to legislate against practices that endangered children.

Ten things the church can to do help abused and neglected children:

  1. Make sure church child protection policies meet minimal standards 

The Centers for Disease Control has promulgated guidelines to assist churches and other youth serving organizations in developing and implementing child protection policies. The CDC guidelines, published under the heading Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth Serving Organizations, are free and online. All churches should review and adhere to these guidelines.

  1. Make sure child protection policies address all forms of abuse

Most child protection policies, including those promulgated by the CDC, focus only on preventing child sexual abuse within a church or another organization. Although commendable, these policies exclude from protection children who are physically abused, emotionally abused or neglected. These policies also fail to protect most sexually abused children since the vast majority of these children are violated in their own homes. Since it is inconceivable that Jesus wanted his followers to protect only a fraction of the abused children in our pews, churches must expand their policies to include all the children in their care.

  1. Require pastors and other called workers, as well as all staff working with children, to be rigorously trained in recognizing and responding to child abuse and neglect

According to numerous studies, the vast majority of clergy and other mandated reporters fail to report even obvious signs of child abuse. When working with survivors, clergy often fail to make appropriate referrals or to coordinate pastoral care with medical and mental health care. In these and other failures, a lack of training plays a significant role. Seminaries should work with child protection experts in addressing this issue before graduating clergy or other called workers and major denominations should require continuing education on these issues.

  1. Provide personal safety education to children participating in church programs 

According to several studies, children are more likely to disclose abuse if they have received personal safety education. This instruction is easily provided and numerous organizations, including the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, have a wealth of information to help churches in providing this essential instruction.

  1. Develop effective child protection and faith collaborations 

The Office of Victims of Crime encourages churches to collaborate with child protection agencies. In Minnesota, for example, an organization called Care in Action helps churches connect with child protection agencies to meet the needs of abused and neglected children in their communities. When an abused child has a need the government can’t provide, such as the entry fee to little league baseball, faith communities share this need with their parishioners and, invariably, one or more Christians agree to help. It is a simple way for churches to share their faith—and to make at least a small difference in the lives of maltreated children.

  1. Have church resources for child abuse survivors 

Clergy and churches should have brochures and other information for families seeking counseling or other services in response to maltreatment. Church libraries should have books and other materials families can easily access. Church websites should include helpful links that will aid families seeking help discreetly.

  1. Address the spiritual impact of child abuse 

Dozens of studies, involving more than 19,000 abused children, document that many abused and neglected children are not only impacted physically and emotionally but also spiritually. This may happen when religion is used in the abuse of a child or simply because the child has spiritual questions such as unanswered prayers to stop the abuse. The American Psychological Association has noted the importance of addressing the spiritual impact of abuse and numerous experts have called for coordinated medical, mental health and pastoral care. The church should be front and center in meeting this critical need.

  1. Tell parents God allows them to discipline their children without hitting them

According to the CDC, as many as 28% of children in the United States are hit to the point of receiving an injury. Often-times, this is done by parents who were lead to believe the Bible requires corporal punishment. Numerous biblical scholars, conservative as well as liberal, have concluded the scriptures do not require parents to hit their children. Unfortunately, pastors are often afraid to make this clear to their parishioners because corporal punishment is deeply ingrained in our culture. Every major and medical health organization in the United States discourages hitting children as a means of discipline and it is time for the church to join this chorus.

  1. Deliver a sermon or conduct a Bible study on child abuse 

Over the years, numerous survivors of child abuse have told me they left the church not because clergy or other faith leaders abused them but because these leaders never spoke up about abuse. One survivor told me that during the years her father was sexually abusing her she desperately wanted to hear a sermon or a Sunday School lesson condemning the abuse of children. She never heard that message and, when she became an adult, she walked away from a church she deemed indifferent to the suffering of children. Still another survivor told me “I used to spend my Sunday evenings listening to the podcasts of all the area churches desperately hoping to find a message about child abuse. I never heard that message and I finally just gave up.”

  1. Listen to the needs of survivors 

Many survivors want the simplest things from their pastors and churches. A woman abused while her father hummed a certain hymn wanted to return to the church but was afraid of hearing that hymn and losing control of her emotions. Another survivor was abused on a church altar and needed to be ministered to in a facility without altars or the traditional symbols that comfort others but were used to violate her tiny frame. These and other survivors are not asking for much but, in order to meet their needs, we must first hear their voices. 

Conclusion 

Although millions of child abuse survivors have fled the church, many of them tell me they still cling to Christ. “I love Jesus,” one survivor told me, “because he knows what it is like to be abused.” Another survivor told me that when he feels abandoned by his church, he recalls that Jesus was also rejected by the religious leaders of his era. The fact that so many survivors align themselves with Christ, but not organized religion, is a stark reminder of how far the church has fallen away from the teachings and example of Jesus. It is also a reminder that if we truly desire to find Jesus, we will need to look among the children.

BEING PART OF THE BEAUTIFULLY COMPLEX AUTISM COMMUNITY By Alexandra Hjerpe, 2nd Year MDiv

Hi! My name is Alexandra.

I’m a second-year, Masters of Divinity student at Wartburg Seminary. I grew up in rural Minnesota. I graduated in the top tier of the honors program at Augustana University. My favorite movie of all time is Jurassic Park. I’m no good at dancing to music or socializing at parties. I can’t do a somersault to save my life. My favorite part of scripture is the Psalms. I am obsessed with the color turquoise. I believe cats are God’s gift to differentiated academics. I’m equally parts introvert and extrovert. My favorite kind of ice cream is rum raisin. Autumn is my favorite time of year. And I’m one of many representatives of the Autism Spectrum Disorders community.

I always get excited when April rolls around every year, as I think about the fun things that I could do to differentiate myself as a part of the ASD community during Autism Awareness Month. Should I host an anime marathon every Sunday? (Too cliché). Should I host a dinner full of sensory-friendly, or sensory-aversive, kinds of foods? (Lots of applesauce.) Or should I just mind my own business and move on, trying not to attract too much attention to the fact that I identify as someone from a different neurological heritage and community?

Does it really matter that much?

The official terminology for ASD includes the word “spectrum” for a reason: no two people are alike in this world, especially people who are influenced by the neurodiversity of Autism. This truth goes not just for ASD, but for people who are any part of any group that we have created.

I think human beings love to categorize, because we love to think that we are in control, and that we can know what is going on. There is something comforting for me about organizing our reality into something manageable—it gives a feeling of security, wisdom and safety from the unknown. But, truly, it’s just another way to distract us from our mortality: we are dying. Nobody escapes that.

All nihilism aside, the question still stands: what does it mean, in generalized terms, to be loosely collected into the broad spectrum of ASD? And why does that matter?

Speaking in culturally-normative, scientific terms, Autism Spectrum Disorders is a term covering five different major categories of pervasive development disorders: PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Delay – Not Otherwise Specified); Autism (sometimes referred to as Classic Autism, Early Infantile Autism, Childhood Autism, or Autistic Disorder); Asperger Syndrome; Rett Syndrome; and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

The Autism Spectrum part of ASD is paired with the word “Disorder” due to some shared traits frequently recognized within this community, which are divergent from and frequently cause strain with normative society: generally, Social Impairments; Speech/Communication Deficits; and Repetitive Behaviors / Specific Interests.

In my brain and body, for example, something is happening where my sensory system volume is turned way up: sounds, sights, textures, touches, all these inputs seem louder, more exaggerated, to me. This is just one example; for another person on the ASD spectrum, the sensory system may be turned to a low volume (where one does not seem to feel much of anything!). For another, these neurological connections might impact the way that the brain connects topics including muscles, cognition, and more, leading to larger-scale physical delays such as cognitive function and development.

But personally, speaking in the terms of a fellow human being, I like to think of the ASD community as a diversified group of humans with specialized skills and particular sensory awareness. Such a definition affirms the strength and uniqueness of persons on the ASD spectrum in relation to what we culturally view as normative, rather than the deficits or struggles that separate people from those expectations.

We don’t know for sure what causes ASD characteristics. Some research seems to indicate that the structure of synopses connecting in the brain impacts the neurology of how the mind and body connect, resulting in unusual patterns of human development. Most research concludes that ASD has a biological component, showing up here and there across patterns of family history.

What we do know for sure is that people who have been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum are people first—full of richness, complexity, and potential—and are primarily fellow creatures and children of God, worthy of the same dignity and respect allocated to peers.

I went through the process of self-diagnosis while I was in college, affirming what I understood about my social, cognitive and sensory self from a young age. Typical for someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome, I recognized that there was a pattern and a structure going on with my reality–but I did not internalize that this pattern had a great deal to do with how I encountered the world, and perceived it around me through my senses and interpretations of these senses. For example, a course about the diversity within the ASD community released me from feeling like I was not the only person in the world with synesthesia, the trippy ability to perceive music through the medium of color in ones’ mind. I realized that there were others like me who also consistently craved the familiarity and security of rituals within a daily routine, and who felt the compulsion to make sure all their writing utensils corresponded to each day of the week in color, shape and size.

As I began to know myself better and more wholly through my ASD diagnosis—as one who is fearfully, wonderfully, and intentionally made in the image of God—I began to take courage in who I am. I learned how to manage my need for controlling aesthetic environments, and how to prepare for anxiety about social situations.

And then, ultimately, I realized that these unique gifts and struggles did not make me that much different from all of the other people who surrounded me in this world, who were not in the diagnosis of Asperger’s. We are all entrusted with different gifts. We all find ourselves in the corner of our growing edges. We are all beloved of God.

And while my life may not involve the same gifts and struggles as those that are most common within our society—while my biggest crisis of the day may be that I cannot match my soft-textured Digimon T-shirt with my favorite jeggings—that does not make me, or anybody else!—that much less of a person.

As I celebrated Autism Awareness Month April 2016, I celebrated my life, which is a life that lives honestly and vibrantly into God’s mission. Part of this life and identity includes who I am in the ASD community. Part of this life has very little to do with Asperger’s. Regardless, I thank God for a human community of wonderful weirdness, beautiful complexity, and wide welcome.

FROM FEAR TO LOVE By Phyllis Kester, Denver, Colorado

My journey from fear to love began over 75 years ago.  Orphaned and homeless at 18 months of age produced its own DNA:  fear of annihilation.   Simultaneously with my childhood experience of losing home and parent came the blessing of two homes and families.   One was my aunt and uncle’s home and family.  One was a church home and family.   The two were a powerful pair.

Throughout my long life, these two bedrock forces (loss and blessing) created a tension between fear and love.   The primal fear of non-existence would be triggered by major life events for eight decades.

Whenever I would encounter homeless men and women on the street—or orphans in the media or in real life—it was like seeing my own reflection in a mirror.  It was a stark reminder of my beginnings.   It was an instant re-play of my fear of annihilation. It was always unsettling.  It always made me turn away.

Tugging within me from another direction has been the Gospel message repeated again and again:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “I was hungry and you fed me.” “I was naked and you clothed me.”    “Feed my sheep.” “Tend my lambs.”  “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”    Coupled with the Gospel message has been the on-going nurturing of my physical family and friends and long-time spiritual practices.  God works in a mysterious way—through people, events, prayer, and time.

Fast-forward to 2016:  Enter Ed Watson, Missioner in Residence at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver where I am a member.  One bright winter day I wandered into his office.   Almost as if on cue, he invited me to join him at the St. Francis Center for the homeless.  “Would you like to come with me on Friday?”

Something inside me melted.  The life-long tension between fear and love dissolved.  I now volunteer every Friday.   No trace of fear is present.  Instead, I feel the same connection with the guests at St. Francis that I felt in the three inner-city schools where I taught in the past.  It’s hard work.  But the love there released me from the bondage of fear.

 

FOOD, FAMILY AND FELLOWSHIP FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NONE Excerpts from “Stories of Hope” ELCA Central States Synod

 

Childrens Memorial - Lunch Line lr

In the midst of a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Kansas City is a tiny church community where a pastor, outside volunteers and highly-engaged church members have come together to create a sense of hope and joy. . .in spite of their surroundings. The church has been through some very rough times as the surrounding neighborhood has declined. But Pastor Ann Rundquist sees hope. While Ann was at Wartburg Seminary she was asked to do part of her fieldwork at Children’s Memorial. “I bit,” said Ann, “and then I didn’t want to leave.” The church is under synodical administration with an oversight board consisting of the community and synod representatives. “We really are the synod’s church. . .a mission outpost. . .with nontraditional ways,” Ann remarked.

Children’s Memorial Lutheran Church is an ELCA congregation in northeast Kansas City, Missouri that was established in 1884. The church’s name describes the story of its origination. Back in 1882 a capital campaign was conducted where children across the U.S. sent money to the congregation so they could buy land and build a new church. The church and neighborhood prospered into the 1950’s and then declined as its families moved to the suburbs.

Childrens Memorial - Earl Tony Ann lr

Ann was consecrated as a diaconal minister and installed as pastoral leader on May 9, 2013. Because of the needs of the people and as an expression of her diaconal service in this unique ministry setting, she completed additional classes and was ordained and installed as pastor on March 14, 2015. “I am so thankful that ELCA congregations’ support our unique ministry in what many think is an ‘undesirable’ location. Isn’t that where Jesus lived?” Though she serves only part-time, she is breathing new life into an area that is comprised mostly of people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. “One of my roles is to develop leaders who love to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, welcome others, and serve one another. Our consistent message is ‘come and see.'”

Even in such a poor area, where the total weekly offering might average $5, God is doing something extraordinary. When the plate passed by me during Sunday morning worship, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” ~ Luke 21: 1–4

“Gone are the days of just a handful worshiping and serving on Sundays. Thirty faithful disciples come together consistently as a Christ driven community,” Ann said. Retired pastor and church member Bill Pape suggested a Saturday morning worship, which gathered 30 people to word, sacrament, service and lots of singing. And the church’s street corner worship on Fridays attracts about 10 people. Bible studies are on Tuesday and Fridays. Two hundred hot nutritious meals are prepared and served each week. Holiday diners (Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) number about 300.

ThriftStore

The church also has a volunteer-run Thrift Store chock full of clothing bargains that helps offset the church’s expenses, and a Clothes Closet that provides free clothing for those in dire need. Pastor Ann is hoping to add a licensed Food Pantry in the near future to meet people’s requests for food to take home. Food can be bought from Harvesters at a discount, but the Pantry needs funding.

Thirteen synod congregations partner with CMLC to serve lunch, donate clothing, provide financial support and prayer. Generosity USA, a local nonprofit agency, funds all the food expenses and in 2015 MLM volunteers donated Christmas gifts. “It is amazing how adults and students come to serve lunch and before long they match their talents with our needs. An Eagle Scout built shelving units and a Girl Scout just brought us twenty Easter baskets. The Chamber of Commerce and Northeast High School partner with us, too. And we look forward to Youthworks volunteering, again, this summer,” Pastor Ann commented.

Childrens Memorial - Earl and Freezer lr

“I’m spoiled rotten!” said Earl the Church Caretaker.
Earl has served as Church Caretaker for three months now. Before that, he lived under a bridge on I-70 and Truman Road. Earlier this year, Children’s Memorial had several robberies of items used in church services, one being the altar cross. The members of the community were quite upset and organized a search. One night they found the cross in the middle of an abandoned lot, shining in the light of the moon.

“It’s a pleasure to volunteer here at the church,” said Earl. “It’s amazing and I’m still getting used to it. I get to help people who have needs most people can’t imagine. I get to use my skills around the church and make dinner for people. I get to sit in a pew and pray early in the morning and late in the day. It’s so peaceful. I’m spoiled rotten! The only thing I don’t like is having food for the kitchen but not being able to hand it out to people to take home. But we are working on setting up a Food Pantry so I won’t have to turn people away any more.”

Pastor Ann found a creative solution to two problems by asking Earl to volunteer at the church. Caretaker Earl makes use of his handyman skills and has fixed long-neglected problems with plumbing and electrical, as well as an issue with the gutters that resulted in water pouring down the stairs of the main entrance people use for the Community Kitchen and Chapel services whenever it rained. He also serves as a cook in the kitchen and is proud of his homemade spaghetti sauce.

“Our ministry is word, sacrament, fellowship, meals, and clothing. Most of the people who come here learn about us from a friend on the street. Creating a safe, family environment has been key in welcoming others as many don’t have families. So we visit, eat, work, and pray like a family. Nutritious meals, which include fruits and vegetables, are often a luxury to our diners. Travel with us from the dinner table to the Lord’s table,” said the determined pastor.

Because of the support from other congregations and God’s grace and abundance, a growing church ministry has been created here at the corner of Independence and Brighton, right in the midst of poverty. Instead of children across the U.S. sending their pennies here to build a new church, local congregations and volunteers are making contributions and driving a short distance to rebuild what was once a thriving congregation.

childrens_memorial_worship_x800

“There certainly are other churches in our neighborhood,” Pastor Ann said, “yet, people tell me they worship and eat at Children’s Memorial because they feel respected, listened to, understand worship, seek forgiveness of sins, like the food, and have opportunities to participate and lead.”

“The tremendous, collaborative ministry that’s happening at Children’s is a vivid example of what God’s people can do when we work together,” said Roger Gustafson, Central States Synod bishop. “The overall theme we’re exploring as a synod is HOPE, and all of those who are lending a hand at Children’s are showing that in the midst of difficult and challenging circumstances, hope springs to life when we focus on sharing our abundance.”

“As you may guess, we have few ‘frills,’ such as a telephone, janitor, secretary, or musician. However, our followers of Jesus pitch in and take leadership roles to maintain the building, sing solos, prepare meals, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ,” said Pastor Ann. “The majority originally came for a ‘sloppy joe’ meal and stayed for the Lord’s meal. . .over and over again. Jesus instructed us that ‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. . .you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Childrens Memorial - Chapel Service lr
Quick Look at Children’s Memorial Congregation
A recent survey of 53 adults at Saturday lunch found:
64% Have disabilities
42% Receive Social Security disability
17% No income
41% Intermittent jobs: scrap metal, clean parking lots, move furniture
3% Full-time employment
38% No permanent shelter
21% Live outside
21% Have transportation
55% High school diploma or GED
30% Addictions
43% Receive food stamps
34% Former felony convictions
96% Come to Children’s Memorial for food, clothing, and to socialize
87% Attend worship weekly
62% Volunteer at church

Read the article by Rick Moser in it’s entirety here.

VISITING OUR COMPASSION CHILD IN TANZANIA By Christin Flucke, Final-Year MDiv Spouse

Tanzania - 703

During January term this year, my husband Daniel (final-year MDiv student) and I traveled with a group of seven people from Wartburg Seminary to Tanzania. Our goal on the trip was to witness the work God is doing there, and we spent an incredible two and a half weeks visiting a wide variety of ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) including multiple churches, primary and secondary schools, a university and a vocational training school, a rehabilitation center for people with physical and mental disabilities, a hospital, an orphanage, and even a coffee cooperative. We also experienced the tremendous beauty of God’s creation during safari tours through two different national parks, a definite highlight of the trip!

For me, the most meaningful part of the trip was getting to meet Naomi, the young girl I sponsor through Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship organization whose mission is releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. After traveling almost 10 hours from where we were staying in Arusha to the capital city of Dodoma, I finally came face-to-face with this girl I’ve been sponsoring for almost seven years.

While there, we had a chance to visit the Compassion center and the church Naomi attends. I learned from the site director that I was only the second sponsor to ever make it to that site for a visit, so everyone was very excited to see us. Naomi was fairly shy and a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, and I’m sure the fact that we didn’t speak the same language didn’t help much (though we did have a translator there to assist). That being said, she became a little more comfortable and relaxed throughout the day, and she and I were able to share a beautiful moment as we sat and looked through the collections of letters and photos we had exchanged over the years.

After our tour of the site, we walked to a local shop where our Compassion host helped me to purchase items like flour, rice, beans, and cooking oil to present as gifts for Naomi’s family. Then we had the opportunity to walk to Naomi’s home and meet her family.

Her house is very modest, consisting only of 1-2 small rooms with clay walls and a dirt floor. There is no electricity in the house and the only furniture was a few wooden stools and a mat on the floor where the family sleeps. However, we were warmly greeted by the entire family and graciously welcomed inside. Naomi lives with her parents and 3 siblings, but we also met her grandparents and multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins whom we suspect also live in the house or nearby.

 

After being introduced to everyone, I presented the gifts of food as well as a backpack I had brought along packed full of toys, school supplies, hygiene products, candy, etc. Daniel and I also received gifts from the family: a shawl and several clay cooking bowls for me and a ceremonial bow and arrow set for Daniel. We also exchanged words of thanks and prayed for one another, and of course, took lots of pictures. It was an incredible blessing to witness the work of Compassion first-hand, and it’s a day I’m sure I’ll remember and treasure forever!

Tanzania - 748

In addition to visiting Naomi and tour her Compassion site, we also happened to visit two additional Compassion sites located at ELCT churches as well as the main Compassion office in Tanzania. We witnessed again and again the work of this amazing ministry and the real difference it makes in the lives of children. We learned there are about 75,000 children in Tanzania who receive assistance from Compassion and have sponsors just like me. My family has been a supporter of Compassion for many years now, and it’s a commitment that Daniel and I knew we wanted to continue when we got married. Daniel and I have even volunteered at several Christian concerts to help find sponsors for Compassion children.

However, it’s one thing to hear the talks, watch the promotional videos, and hold the child packets, and another thing to actually get to see those faces in person, to hug the girl that you send letters and money to each month, and to meet the incredible people who make sure that money actually helps to make a real difference in the lives of those children.

Through all of these experiences we witnessed the amazing work God is doing through the Lutheran church in Tanzania. We experienced generous hospitality from so many wonderful people who are passionate about proclaiming the love and salvation of Jesus through worship, education, and service. We learned about the challenges of ministering in a nation where the average person lives on about $200 a year. We were reminded of the many things we take for granted here in the U.S such as reliable electricity, paved roads, access to affordable education and quality healthcare, and clean drinking water.

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But most of all, I was reminded of the simple yet profound truth that God is God no matter where you go. God’s church in Tanzania is not all that different from God’s church in the U.S., and while we may look different, dress or eat differently, or face different challenges in life, God is still God, and God is still good!

CONNECTING THE CONGREGATION AND THE COMMUNITY By Sarah Wicks, 1st Year Diaconal Ministry

 

Sarah Wicks is pursuing an M.A. in Social Work and an M.A. in Diaconal Ministry. She writes this article describing her joint degree work.

I’ve spent a lot of time this school year at the Almost Home shelter located at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Dubuque. In my role as a social work field placement student at Project Concern, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the work at St. John’s and am involved with the lives of the shelter residents. St. John’s Lutheran is such a beautiful example of the powerful relationship that can exist between the worlds of social work and diaconal ministry.

One of my former social work professors told me once that, “social work is not just about understanding who the people are that we serve, but to more deeply understand what is happening in their lives and in their community that influences their lives and brings them to seek your services.” Social work is about seeing the visible and invisible social systems of power, poverty, racism, classism, and privilege at work and applying that understanding to the work we do with people. In my own understanding of diaconal ministry, I also see it as essential that we can identify and incorporate those visible and invisible systems into the work we do on behalf of congregations within the community.

St. John’s Lutheran is a powerful example of a congregation that saw those systems at play in their community and sought to build a bridge between the congregation and the people in the wider community. The shelter provides overflow beds for the Dubuque Rescue Mission and can shelter up to 12 men at a time. They offer showers, laundry services, social supports, and work with Project Concern and people like me to connect the shelter residents to rehousing programs. As someone who has training in social work and is also learning the fine art of diaconal ministry, I can speak both languages and that has been a critical resource. I understand the mission of the church and the history of downtown, urban churches that are declining in membership and have a need to fill their unused spaces.

I also understand the needs of the community, which I learn from the people I serve, and the programs in we participate. I can serve as a case manager for the shelter residents to get them back into permanent housing and connect them to supportive services. It is a really wild and exhilarating position to be in! I’m so grateful for congregations like St. John’s that have taken on this diaconal work and are doing it so well in their communities. I pray that we all continue to listen to the callings in our own lives, and to be creative in considering ways that we can continue to bridge these experiences and backgrounds with congregations and communities we will serve in the future.