Tag Archives: Wartburg Seminary



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.



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.


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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!

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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!


“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col. 3:14-15, NRSV).

The Wartburg community gathered together on campus as brothers and sisters March 4th in love and fellowship for the specific purpose of participating in God’s mission (mission Dei).  Individuals entered into conversation with their own past experiences of racism and the division that it causes.  Some entered desperately seeking ways in which to participate in God’s work of reconciliation and the healing of wounds caused by racism.  People were guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to struggle together with questions of what to do about racism within our Church, our communities, and even within our own selves.

Through the teaching, sharing, and practice of some skills on how to go about carrying out a conversation surrounding the topic of racism, the night progressed quite quickly.  As I observed the group with which I shared conversation and also looked around at other groups, I felt a strong sense of passion and emotion flowing among participants.  At the end, when the entire group gathered together for a sharing of final reflections, many ideas and emotions reverberated throughout the narthex: Heartache, Hope, Determination, Acceptance, Love, Pain, Resolve… These words along with the stories and shared experiences I heard that night will stay with me forever.

My hope is that others left that night with a sense of purpose and hope for the future just as I did. A strong mix of emotions flowed through my very being but one thought stuck with me:  the conversation continues because it must.  The Church has everything to lose if it does not continue to address racism through conversation and action.  We must realize that we, as the Body of Christ, are not whole when certain voices are being ignored or silenced.  My hope is that the Holy Spirit will continue to stir within us all, not only just in the Wartburg community, but in the whole world.  Let us not be content with the state of the Church right now.  Let the Word of God continue to unsettle us when we hear it and look around us at the walls that separate us.  Let the reconciling work of Christ work in and through us all, and let us come to the fullness of glory because of it. May almighty God give us God’s own peace.



I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem for the first time during January Term, 2016. At each station of the Via Dolorosa, we sang and read scripture while the world went on around us. I tried to imagine Jesus roughly pushed out into the street, amidst yelling vendors and children playing loud games. Did everything become silent when Jesus stumbled? Or did the world’s noise just continue?

We entered several small chapels along the way. At the seventh station I sat down in the chapel with a sigh, and reached for my water bottle. No scourging, no cross, no crown of thorns, no crowd screaming for my murder, no betrayal or heartbreak,  but I was still tired. And thirsty. Lord, have mercy.

We marked the last five Stations in the courtyard behind the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was around noon, appropriately. Three people in non-Western robes, with covered hair and dark skin, were there when we arrived. As the bell struck 12, one of the men walked around a domed structure in the courtyard three times. He and I bowed our heads to each other in greeting.

We entered the church through the Ethiopian worship space, passing by two women reading and praying. I thought of Anna, “continually in the temple praising God.” I’d never considered that people today come and sit in the church all day, just to be there.

Continually praising God.

The sites in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were profound, overwhelming, wonderful. After I recovered from the amazement of seeing the tomb, I enjoyed watching others stream into the holy place. I needed to see myself surrounded by the communion of saints, and needed to see them all drawn to the same place I was.

I thank God for the random, blessed intersection of people at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the vendors we walked past, and the construction worker who looked at us as we sang at the First Station, and the two young Jewish boys gleefully laughing, expertly weaving in and out of our group on their way home.

IMAGES OF ICELAND by Kristi Grieder, 2nd Year MDiv


This poem was written while participating in a cross-cultural course to Iceland and Norway with Wartburg Theological Seminary in January 2016.

At matin, we rise for prayer
The sky is black
The cold is bitter
I walk to the chapel at Skálholt
My hands ache and long for warmth

Christ emerges from the altarpiece in blues and grays
His arms are open, embracing all who enter.
The nave echoes with chanting;
I do not hear my language
But I listen with my soul:
Give us this day, our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins.

At the pastors’ house, the bread is warm
The coffee is strong and candles glow
The walls are dressed with shiny frames and colorful canvas
Dalí and Picasso
Original and print
Art and artifact
Each revealing the stories of one’s life
And drawing me into wonder about my own.

Outside the parsonage, the wind howls
Thick walls have sheltered the family for twenty-eight winters
And the pastor hopes for twenty-eight more.
Laughter rises from the common table
And I wonder, do homes belong to people
Or do people belong to homes?

The falls at Gulfoss roar
The wind pushes me toward the cliff
I can barely keep my footing
But if I let go, it carries me
With a force that is greater than my own

I slip on sheets of ice and stumble on rocky craters
My bare heels burn on freezing sand as I run into the ocean
The path is uncertain
And the pilgrimage is not without pain.

With squinting eyes, I walk toward the altar
Yellow and orange flood the sacred space
With empty hands, I receive bread and wine
I cannot see the priest’s face
For the rays of light are too bright to bear
I cannot understand the words spoken,
But I taste the sour wine on my tongue, saying,
For you, the body of Christ, broken

At vespers, we worship in darkness
The blue lights and grand piano set the mood
As the melody of the choir soars, I sit in the pew;
I look through a long, narrow window
I can see the city lights,
And I am reminded of the parish
Beyond these walls and my sight

A baby boy is baptized
His long white gown spills over his grandfather’s arms
No one sitting in the pews knows his name
Until he is claimed as a child of God

Outside, the flag flies at half-mast
In the sanctuary, two caskets sit side by side
She died on the twenty-second
He stayed only five more days
Polka from their youth plays on the accordion
The caskets are carried to the grave
Two lives intertwined in life
Two souls dancing in death

The burial hymn of an Icelandic poet runs through the veins of the people,
And ring softly in my ears:
“Thus in Christ’s name I’m living;
Thus in Christ’s name, I’ll die…
O Grave, where is thy triumph?
O Death, where is thy sting?
‘Come thou wilt will, and welcome!’
Secure in Christ, I sing.”*

Pink and orange linger in the horizon
The sunset lasts for hours.
Steam rises from the rocky earth like a prayer
And I welcome the cold on my cheeks.

*Hallgrímur Pétursson (d. 1674), Icelandic Burial Hymn

KNOCK AT THE DOOR By Paul Waterman, Final-Year MDiv

I love to have company. The idea of having a house full of people, laughing and conversing, makes my heart swell. Providing hospitality and sharing my kitchen, dining room, and living room to host a gathering is among my favorite things. It all starts with a knock on the door! There is great anticipation to see who has arrived. However, I have a new perspective as a result of a January term trip in 2016.

A classmate and I were invited to a house in Austin, Texas, share a meal and conversation. The pastor, Pastor Joe, who himself is an immigrant from Central America, but currently serves a Latino congregation near Austin, Texas. prepared us for the home visit. We were given some details about the people which revealed the complexity of the living situation for this immigrant family. Three people lived in a duplex: one who is a dual citizen of El Salvador and the United States, their child, who is a natural-born citizen of the United States, and an ‘undocumented immigrant.’ I struggle using words to describe this individual who has arrived in the United States from Central America because of human-made boundaries (we call them borders). For this writing, I will use “undocumented immigrant” because it is the most fitting term. For this story, he will be referred to as Bill.

The family of three, the pastor, my classmate, and I were gathered around the family’s dining room table to enjoy a meal. We prayed and dug in. The food was absolutely delicious and the conversation was deep! All was well with our souls and stomachs as we reached for seconds. Then, things all changed.

There was a knock on the door. Time stood still. People froze. Silence rushed into the dining room. The atmosphere changed. The mood had taken an about face. There was another knock. The husband/father of the house, Bill, stood up and walked to the door. All eyes followed him. I can’t speak on behalf of the others around the table, but I immediately feared the worst, that ICE had arrived. We were going to see the ‘apprehension’ in front of our eye. This beautiful family was about to be torn apart! I was speechless and uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to respond.

Being an Iowa native, I was familiar with the ICE raids in Postville in 2008 and was faintly familiar with the difficulties that immigrants face daily. Bill had talked about being employed in the United States without having ‘legal documents.’ Bosses treated him differently, often withholding pay or only paying a portion of what was owed. Work hours were long; there are no ‘safety precautions’ for people without documents. They can be replaced easily by the next person looking for a shot at a better life. The working conditions were often treacherous. But what really got to me was the fear of driving. Every trip in the car could be the last time in the United States. Every law enforcement officer poses a threat of possible deportation.

Bill answered the door, and two gentlemen were outside waiting for him. The one on the right had a hat on with the logo of a local collegiate sports team. The other one was wearing a camouflage jacket. They said something to Bill that I couldn’t hear, and he walked outside. Seconds felt like hours. The silence was deafening. The tension was thick. A few seconds later, Bill returned–smiling! The men were repossession agents who were looking for someone and they had been given the wrong address. Bill made a joke about them taking his wife’s car, and we laughed. Bill sat back down and supper continued. Things were the same, kind of, for the rest of the evening.

The thoughts and feelings I had during those brief moments of unknowingness led me to a reality outside of my own experience and into the life of the roughly 11 million ‘undocumented immigrants.’ Nothing is simple; there is no such thing as a quick trip to the store. Every element of public life is a heightened experience, with the thought of apprehension looming. I cannot fully understand what Bill was going through when he heard the knock on the door, but I am certain that it is much different than what I feel from unexpected knocks on my door. What I do know is I have been changed; I have seen my neighbor differently. Looking at this experience through Bill’s lens has changed my life. Every knock on the door now takes me back to a dining room with friends, new and old, when the rhythm of the world was out of sync for a few moments. Thanks be to God for opportunities of transformation.


Wartburg’s campus has been enriched by the presence of international students for decades. Second year Michaelo Abasori, who is from Ethiopia, shares his passion about God’s work in the world and his own call to ministry.

“I am called to serve everybody,” Michaelo asserts. “I’ve been in ministry since I was young; I serve every people in every culture. God has called us to serve every people in every culture, the big, the small, the rich, the poor.”

Michaelo’s gifts and passion for ministry were recognized by others at an early age. At fourteen he began to take on leadership roles in his church, which was Lutheran. He lead choir, Bible studies, prayer, ministered to people, heard their stories, and worked on building community, bringing people together from different backgrounds, cultures, and languages.

As a child, his foundation of faith was built through attending church, Sunday school, confirmation, and hearing the pastors’ teachings. “I started to have faith in God, learning about people around me, [and] how to love people. That’s the foundation,” recalls Michaelo.

Did he always know one hundred per cent that he was called to being a pastor? He answers, “When I was young I had mixed feelings. I knew that I lived to serve the community [and] the church, but [at] the same time, I didn’t know that it was the right thing for me, so I struggled with that feeling. That’s how it starts. People liked what I did in the church, how I prayed with them, how I led worship or Bible study, and they said this is your gift, you’re going to make a good pastor, but I didn’t like it! I think everybody has that kind of feeling, right?” Michaelo laughs.

“Through time, through my struggle, I came to know that [this] is what God’s calling me to do, because I’ve seen that the ministry that we do in the church and in the community has great impact in the community and world [and it] is changing lives. So I decided there’s nothing better than this to do in my life. I committed myself to the call.” Michaelo was around 20 years old.

Michaelo’s commitment and call has led him to Wartburg Seminary. “When I came to United States, I was looking for a way in which I could serve the church of Christ,” recalls Michaelo. “Through prayers and through time, I knew God was guiding me through the Northeast Minnesota synod, by the support of brothers and sisters there.” Now, Michaelo is in his second year of seminary at Wartburg “to learn more and engage the gospel in the context of the culture.”

From Ethiopia to the US and beyond, Michaelo sees God at work and finds much hope in that. “God is not only working in this century; God is working from the beginning in every culture, in every society, all over the world. The hunger [and] the hope the church has right now—it’s great. There is hope for the church. God is working through them, through us, you know,” he nods.

Michaelo is encouraged by people’s response to the gospel. “God is working in people’s lives—in everybody’s life, that’s what I’ve seen. God is doing great things here in the US and other parts of the world.”