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2018 Youth Leadership Summit

At the beginning of November, the ELCA hosted the annual Youth Leadership Summit at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska. Each synod is able to send two youth and one adult advisor, funded by a special grant that covers the costs of the program. The Delaware-Maryland Synod was represented well by Matthew Fairchild, the Lutheran Youth Organization Overall Leader Among Leaders; Deborah Tadesse, member of the LYO Small Groups Team; and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia, one of the LYO Worship Team mentors. Today, I yield my blog post to Deborah and Matthew to share about their experiences at the Summit.

From Deborah:

No words can begin to express my attitude towards this event. Nonetheless, I’ll try. I felt a great altitude of comfort. Comfort in knowing that every soul there came, as a call sent by God. It was by his grace that I met the most wonderful people I could’ve ever known to imagine. I was surrounded by mounds of love, passion, and excitement. As I sat and looked around, I knew that there was a person there who was going to become an activist, someone who was going to be an astronaut, a teacher, a preacher, a president, a musician! I was surrounded by all of the people who were going to change the world. Who are changing the world. I feel this strong urge to become nicer, stand taller and be excited. I really hope that I never get off of this high.

As for attending with both Colleen and Matthew, it was genuinely an amazing time. They both have remarkable leadership skills. We started the travel to the summit with a bit of awkwardness, but by the end of the trip, we were laughing together. Those two are true superheroes and I’m so lucky to have experienced all of this with them.

From Matthew:

My name is Matthew Fairchild and I am an active member of Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster, Maryland. This year, I have the honor of serving as the Overall Leader Among Leaders in the Lutheran Youth Organization of our synod. Earlier this month, I traveled with Deborah Tadesse and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia to represent the Delaware-Maryland Synod at the ELCA Youth Leadership Summit at Camp Carol Joy Holling just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The Summit’s theme was, “Through Christ, we can,” and programming was centered upon practicing effective advocacy and learning how to best accompany others. I specifically learned about advocating for racial justice in a workshop led by Nicolette Faison and about the ELCA’s AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities) task force in a separate workshop led by Alaide Vilchis Ibarra.

Aside from the programming, I enjoyed connecting with other leaders of the church and learning about what youth ministry looks like in other synods. One of my biggest takeaways from the event was just how blessed high schoolers in the Delaware-Maryland Synod are to have such an expansive, developed youth program. After talking with high school students from synods around the country, I have a much fuller appreciation for how unique the opportunities for youth leadership are in Delaware and Maryland. Every person who learned about what our synod is doing with youth through retreats and the LYO was blown away, and several expressed interest in developing similar youth leadership programs in their home synods. The Summit helped me to learn about what resources are available in terms of advocacy and leadership development through the broader ELCA. I really appreciate having had the opportunity to attend this event and look forward to sharing with others what I have learned.

Election Day Redux

“The state and the religious conscience are not good bedfellows. The bed is too narrow and the blanket too short!” –Martin Luther, as quoted by Dr. Eric Gritsch

“Worldly authority cannot force us to believe, it can only outwardly prevent people from being led astray by false teachings – else how could we oppose the heretics? Answer: That is the task of the bishops, to whom this task has been delegated, and is not within the sphere of the princes. Heresy cannot, after all, be opposed with violence: it must be differently handled, for this battle and striving may not be met with the sword.” –Martin Luther, On Worldly Authority

“Love your neighbor, as yourself.” –Jesus, Mark 12:31

Today is Election Day in a very polarized country and after another bruising election cycle. These words of Jesus and Luther echo in my head as I approach my civic duty to cast my own ballot. Since I turned 18, I’ve not ever missed the opportunity to exercise this right and duty, reminded often by my late grandfather, “I fought in World War II to protect that right!”

I would dare say that there has been much prayer surrounding the outcome of today’s elections, from the top of the ticket down the ballot to the most humble of public service. A pastor friend from CPE, Beth Jonas, exercised right judgment, in my mind, when she called her congregation to be in prayerful vigil for this day and the days to come. They have gathered each week since the conventions for prayer, and have prayer partners who are blanketing each hour of the day with prayer for all the candidates and the unity of our common life as Americans.

Prayer is a right posture to approach the weightiness of this day; prayer that honors our relationship with God. Our prayer is not about manipulating or coercing God to make the world as we believe it should be, it’s “an exercise in bending our will to the shape of God’s coming kingdom,” admonished my colleague, Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA. “Thy will be done,” we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven” kind of prayer.

Two years ago as we were in the throes of the presidential election cycle, our own Virgil Cain, pastor of Trinity, Smithsburg, put out a wide call to prayer on Facebook (you can also see that post on my Facebook page, I shared it). Pastor Cain concluded, “[Prayers are] not partisan. They are an attempt to help us recognize that we can only move forward with God’s help, and with the grace and wisdom that only the Holy Spirit can bring. May God watch over our nation, guide us in this election, and help us to begin healing the wounds the election has inflicted.”

Perhaps the most weighty counsel I have carried into this day came from Pastor Chuck Erzkus, then at Christ, LaVale. In his post-Presidential election newsletter article, he reminded his congregation that our unity as the church is in Christ, and that doesn’t change today, tomorrow or ever.

So, sisters and brothers all, vote your conscience today. Be neighbor to one another  – after this last year, we can see that there is a lot of work to do, and a lot of healing needed to address what being neighbor means. And tomorrow, let us begin the churchly work of rebuilding community, nation, and world – for Jesus’ sake.

Lord God, you call your people to honor those in authority. Help us elect trustworthy leaders, participate in wise decisions for our common life, and serve our neighbors in community. Bless the leaders of our land, that we may be at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. –Prayer for the Nation, ELW p. 77.

This is a revision of my Blog post of November 8, 2016

Solidarity and witness

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. –Psalm 116:8-15

As a Lutheran Christian, I feel a particular sense of sorrow after this latest mass shooting.

It’s not the senseless violence and its ensuing loss of life, unfortunately, that has become all too familiar.

It’s not even the sense of vulnerability and violation of violence in a place of worship, the tragic martyrdom of nine African American members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston by one of our own Lutheran tribe created that gaping wound three years ago.

No, the mass shooting that left 11 dead and six injured, including four armed police officers, at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday reminded me that Lutheran Christians have a particular responsibility to fight antisemitism in all of its many insidious iterations.

On April 18, 1994 the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published a Declaration to the Jewish Community, which repudiates Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, expresses deep regret for their historical consequences, and reclaims our desire to live in “love and respect for Jewish people.” It reads:

In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism. Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.

The Lutheran communion of faith is linked by name and heritage to the memory of Martin Luther, teacher and reformer. Honoring his name in our own, we recall his bold stand for truth, his earthy and sublime words of wisdom, and above all his witness to God’s saving Word. Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.

In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.

Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us.

Finally, we pray for the continued blessing of the Blessed One upon the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.

The Declaration committed this church to something more than shallow tolerance or mere surface agreement, but greater self-understanding and mutual enrichment as siblings in faith. As Lutheran Christians, who bear both the theological giftedness of Martin Luther and the burdens of his antisemitism, this latest tragedy calls us to prayer, invites us to summon our courage and voices, and drives us to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community as they lead our country’s public mourning and response. Our prayer and our presence give embodied witness to our commitment to overcome antisemitism; our silence is complicity.

And so, I invite this part of Christ’s Church to express our solidarity and witness:

+ Pray for the people of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the families of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger;

+ Attend one of the many prayer vigils and solidarity gatherings in the communities across our territory. Make contact with Jewish neighbors and synagogues in your community, express your condolences and support. Ask if there are ways you might help. Even if you have never made contact before, this is a critical moment to reach out to a community that experiencing a real sense of vulnerability.

+ Make contact with your state and federal legislators, ask them for their presence and support for our Jewish neighbors; ask them for their commitment to addressing the escalating rhetoric that fuels racial tensions.

+ Vote. Martin Luther clearly said that being an active, responsible citizen is one of the vocations to which God calls us. Luther wrote, “[The ruler] should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me … Therefore, I will use my office to serve and protect others, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit from my rule.'” [Tract: On Temporal Authority] Being an informed voter, and exercising that right responsibly, is a part of our Christian vocation.

I was witness to a hastily gathered minyan, according to tradition at least ten Jewish adult men, but in this case eight Jewish people of mixed age and gender; Jewish people that found one another in a local restaurant after news of the mass shooting in Pittsburgh broke, who gathered for the sole purpose of reciting the mourner’s Kaddish together. This staple prayer in the Jewish tradition makes no mention of death; instead, it is dedicated to praising God in the midst of grief and loss. It’s recited three times a day for a proscribed period of time after the loss of a loved one, and then annually on the yahrzeit (death anniversary). In an intentional, liturgical way, it shapes the heart of those who pray and turns the mourning outward toward God. I appreciate this language of hope and the way it grounds us in God, not the politically-charged and often-hijacked rhetoric of the day.

An approximate translation from the Hebrew into English:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which God has created according to God’s will.
May God establish God’s kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May God’s great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be God,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

God who creates peace in the celestial heights,
may God create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

May God establish the kingdom in our lifetimes and during our days, speedily and soon;
May there be abundant peace from heaven and life for us all;
Indeed, may God create peace for us, and through us, all.

O God, you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.” What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. –Psalm 116:8-15

Beware of Prophets

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” –Mark 10:45

Telling the truth often has consequences. And consequences are rarely good news.

As a kid, I can remember my mother trying to convince me and my siblings to tell the truth with the promise that the consequences wouldn’t be as severe as if we lied. I’ll confess, I didn’t really believe her! My mom was swift in her execution of justice, emphasis on execution, and her consequences were rarely good.

Still, when I was 13, I had gotten myself into fairly big trouble – the kind of trouble I don’t know that I should share with you because it might make your pastor, youth leader or parent very uncomfortable. I think you could handle it, but for their sake, suffice it to say that it was big trouble and it wasn’t good; and frankly, it doesn’t make me feel too proud to think of it, even 31 years later.

By the time I got home, my mom and dad were waiting for me. I was ushered into the living room and my mom was doing her thing … investigator, interrogator, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. And I was caught. Dead to rights, I was guilty … they knew it … I knew it. And I can remember, like it was yesterday, that I confessed. I said, “I did it, I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway, and I’m sorry.”

Now, this is church – the story should end, at least we think, “happily ever after,” death gives way to resurrection, Jesus comes bearing unicorns and rainbows and hugs and kisses for everyone.

But it didn’t. I was in trouble. My dad, who was usually stable Mable, was purple with anger. My mom was swift in execution. I got a ticket to my pre-cell-phone, pre-computer, pre-anything-but-books-I-had-already-read room. For four weeks. Room to school. School to room. Room to dinner table. Dinner table to room. Room to shower. Shower to bed. Every day. For four weeks, 28 days, 672 hours, over 40,000 minutes – to ponder my sinful self.

And the truth? I didn’t understand why I was in such deep trouble. I had told the truth. I took responsibility. I apologized. Why was I serving this interminable prison sentence in my own home?

Still, something changed that day. I felt sort of relieved because I wasn’t trying to keep up the lie. I wasn’t having to cover my tracks. My mom’s eyes weren’t boring holes into my soul trying to extract the truth. I had told it. I had claimed it. And though I was “suffering” for it, even from the second-floor prison of my parents’ home, I was free.

The truth has consequences. Telling the truth, real truth, is rarely easy. If our visit with the prophets this weekend has done anything, it’s reminded us that there is risk in truth-telling.

And that’s where Jesus meets us, meets you today: There will be times when you will be confronted with telling the hard truth or slipping by with a half-truth, and despite the consequences Jesus calls you to tell the whole truth – and it could set you and those you love free from something really terrible. You will be confronted with the power and privilege of being bright kids with parents, pastors, youth leaders who are invested in your success and happiness, with resources, support, encouragement to do just about anything you believe that you want to do in life; and still Jesus calls you to stand with those who are disenfranchised, overlooked and forgotten in the margins – because you know that it’s what’s right. With the same fear and trembling of prophets in every time and place, the promise of our baptism gives us courage to speak the truth in love, and have peace about it, because you will know that two wrongs never make a right. How did Pastor Leila [Ortiz, the Chaplain for FreeRide] say it last night? “In your spirit, you know when someone is lying, when something is not truth.”

Jesus was a truth-teller. And it had consequences. Telling the truth made him splendidly exposed, put him constantly at risk and ultimately led to the humiliation by the overwhelming empire that he stood in solitary opposition to, to the devastating death he would suffer in the final turnaround on the cross.

And Jesus keeps telling the truth: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Truth-telling has consequences. We’ve seen this in our own time. People are telling their truth on social media. We’ve rallied for our lives, we’ve protested against mass shootings, we’ve claimed our voices against those who put others down based on skin color, gender or whom they love, we’re calling out institutional racism in its many not-so-subtle cancerous forms. We’re telling the truth with our bodies: showing up for justice, living in solidarity. We’re seeing truths that we had denied before.

The truth has consequences.

The need for people of faith to stand in the gap and give prophetic witness is real. And it begins with people like you and me, drenched in the waters of our baptism, being willing to risk something of ourselves to speak truth knowing that the consequences can be severe.

Prophets are those, who in telling their truth announce the kingdom of God has come near. And that can be scary and the consequences real. Still, like Jesus, we tell the truth because we believe God’s promise of life is stronger than the threat of death. God calls you and me to tell the truth about whatever diminishes life and wholeness for any person. We don’t speak up because we want to be martyrs; we speak and act because we believe God’s kingdom has come near and that makes all the difference.

You have these marvelous t-shirts that say Beware of Prophets! It’s a reminder for you to be your best baptismal selves. Your truth telling is the reformation this church longs for, and the consequences, by God’s grace, are the revolution this world needs, for the love of God and neighbor, in Jesus’ name.

Jesus called [the disciples together] and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” –Mark 10:42-45

Apology and action

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. –Proverbs 10:12

Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash

When I was a youth, some of my best memories of growing up in a household that was deeply rooted in multiple ethnic traditions, were holidays set apart to celebrate those rich heritages. St. Patrick’s Day always belonged to my Irish grandmother, who couldn’t imagine the day passing without corned beef, cabbage, beer and Irish coffee. My normally-stoic German grandparents appreciated the annual New York City VonSteuben day parade replete with brats and sauerkraut, sauerbraten and red cabbage. My mom’s father brought Italian ancestry to our family, and though my grandfather Joseph had a deep appreciation for St. Joseph’s Day, Columbus Day was the day our Sons of Italy groups made it en masse to New York City for the Columbus Day parade with music, games, everything-kind-of-parmigiana, and zeppoli!

Since the 2016 Churchwide Assembly of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a resolution on the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery which calls for the church to “explicitly and clearly repudiate” the doctrine and “to acknowledge and repent of its complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas,” Columbus Day has lost its luster. Not only has it made me reconsider my Columbus Day revelry, but just about everything I was ever taught – at home and at school – about how Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492. Add to that familial emotional baggage that I married into a family that is very proud of its Mayflower descendants, the Repudiation resolution has shaped much of my “holiday thinking” these last few years.

From the text of the resolution: [We] repudiate explicitly and clearly the European-derived doctrine of discovery as an example of the “improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword” (Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII), and to acknowledge and repent from this church’s complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas, which continue to harm tribal governments and individual tribal members.

There has been a move in recent years to recognize the Columbus Day holiday instead as Indigenous Persons’ Day. The howling on social media at such a suggestion was loud and long. It is an affront to Italian-Americans; it’s “fake history;” Political correctness gone wild … I was more surprised by the response than I expected to be. The Columbus Day holiday has steadily lost observance on state calendars and it was never an especially important holiday to most people. Still the thought of acknowledging that the day better belongs to those who were unfairly and often brutally colonized was anathema to many, at least in my Facebook feed, the Indians have Thanksgiving, isn’t that enough?

Recently, our Synod Council read Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. While I appreciated the takeaways from the book and the rich conversations that came out of our Synod Council, the Repudiation resolution really made we wonder if the whole premise of the book was so flawed that even though the conversations were helpful, that perhaps we are not doing the work of implementing the resolution, even after we took the victory lap after its passage.

In the March 2017 edition of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Vance Blackfox writes: “Will the task of repudiation put before the church at present be taken as seriously? Or will it be – not unlike the countless gestures that churches, schools, corporations, cities, states, and even countries have made to Native peoples in the past – all apology and no action? They happen. They are meaningful. There may even be a ceremony performed or a letter written, but then there is … nothing. The good feeling subsides, and the work goes with it.”

Again, from the Resolution: To affirm that this church will eliminate the doctrine of discovery from its contemporary rhetoric and programs, electing to practice accompaniment with native peoples instead of a missionary endeavor to them, allowing these partnerships to mutually enrich indigenous communities and the ministries of the ELCA.

I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I’m not diminishing the “pilgrim’s pride,” or anyone else’s for that matter. I am suggesting that for the Repudiation resolution to have made any difference in the life of the church, it calls for us to question our cultural underlying assumptions about “the Indians,” how America was “discovered” and how we are complicit in the ongoing effects of colonization when we push back on the conversation about the legitimacy of Indigenous Persons’ Day.

As for me, though proud of my Italian heritage, Columbus Day will never be the same again; nor should it be.

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.
The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.
Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray. –
Proverbs 10:12, 16-17

Report from the Conference of Bishops

NB: The notes below come from the Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference of Bishops, held in Chicago September 27-October 2. As they are intended to give you an overview of the work of the bishops, rather than a narrative, they are not edited or hyperlinked.

Thursday, September 27

Bishops gathered by regions for Synodical Assignment of First Call Candidates. Delaware-Maryland received one unrestricted candidate.  We prayed for all the candidates and the congregations that were being prepared for their leadership.

Following lunch the various committees of the Conference met to hear updates from Churchwide staff and determine how we can best interface synods and churchwide. I serve on the Roster Committee, supporting the discernment processes for those who seek to be rostered on leave from call or ask for a waiver to the three year initial congregational call guidelines.

Bp Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, South Central WI Synod, presided for opening worship and Bp Wayne Miller, Metro Chicago Synod, brought the Word. Following worship we broke bread together and welcomed the new bishops to the conference.

Friday, September 28

The day began with Morning Prayer that was lead by Bp Roger Prois from the Western Iowa Synod, and encouraged the conference to be hopeful.  We then went into session with the company of seminary presidents and leaders.  Conference chair, Bp Bill Gafkjen, set the stage for the conversation and President Louise Johnson of Wartburg Seminar introduced her colleagues from the other schools.

Matt O’Rear, of Wartburg Seminary, shared the current status of the various seminaries and how grants from different sources are helping theological education focus on what might be.  He talked about goals:

  1. More students
  2. Ethnically and culturally diverse church
  3. Cultivation and marketing strategy
  4. Professional market research.

Matt told us of the new common website, new resources for discernment (including a very well-produced video on the website) and early marketing data.  There are currently about 1300 people who have expressed interest in theological study, normally 10% of those who are seeking actually enroll.  The ELCA sem experience is 16%.  There are approximately 2776 open calls in the ELCA, to fill those vacancies we will need nearly 10,000 asking if they should serve. Some signs of hope were those High School students who participated in the Horizon Internship program, 60 who were part of the Young Adult Discernment Retreat, and imagination is coming into play.

Presiding Bishop Eaton then laid out the format of the conversations that would follow around the implementation of Together in Christ: Future Directions.  Participants were the CoB and Senior Leaders of the Church Wide Staff.

After lunch and a short break we resumed our conversations focusing on the 5 goals and the actions identified with each of those goals.  The Conference, along with senior leaders of Churchwide, broke into 20 groups to work out objectives and ways the actions could be accomplished.

We worked until 4pm, then after a break regrouped to hear Judith Roberts, Domestic Mission Unit, update us on the Multicultural Mission Strategy.

The day concluded with the Fund for Leaders recipient banquet. Dianne Lewis, Chapel (Libertytown), a student at ULS/Gettysburg, was a recipient from our Synod.

Saturday, September 29

Morning worship was led by Bp Paul Erickson, Milwaukee Synod.

The Conference then moved back into deliberate conversation and process work to develop ways to accomplish the 5 goals and supportive actions for Future Directions. Our hope is a team of CW folk and bishops will edit and/or compile our work product with a draft document in the near future.

After an hour for lunch and spontaneous meetings we reconvened with Bp Jerry Mansholt, Eastern Wisconsin, leading us in prayer.

Some of the work groups meeting Friday and this morning shared the ideas and plans they developed.  It seemed that energy was high to do this work and all were invested in the time.  PB Eaton commented that she felt it was a healthy exercise and would plan to include it in future CoB gatherings.

Chair Gaftken gave the current terms of the Exec committee and who will be finishing their time on the committee and announcing that we need to fill one open position.

Bp Patricia Lull, St Paul Synod, was invited to report on the latest draft of the Inter-Religious Policy Statement.  Comments and public input were collected until June 2018, with respondents including; Bishops, Church Council members, ELCA colleges and seminaries faculty and students, synod hearings, American Indian consideration group, and individuals and pastors of the ELCA.  Inputs were generally affirming and noting the timeliness of the document. The Church Council will receive suggested amendments until October 26, with action by the Council at their November 2018 meeting.  VP Bill Horne commented that he has served on the writing task force and feels it is an important piece for our church.  Bp. Lull noted that this is a policy statement that could lead to further inquiry and discussion. The latest draft will be posted on the web following the CW council the second week of November 2018. The CoB recommended this draft to the Church Council and offered two amendments, which Bp Gaftken will include in his report.

VP Bill Horne facilitated a discussion of the paper “Toward a Faithful and Multidimensional Understanding of Sustainability”  It is agreed that sustainability is more than financial and much of the conversation revolved around how the word is interpreted and contextualized.

Following a time when Bishop’s shared personal concerns we adjourned for the day.

Sunday, September 30

Bp. Jim Arends presided and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached the Gospel for our morning worship (though I, admittedly skipped COB worship to visit Lebanon Lutheran Church in Chicago, where Pr Matt Zemanick serves after having been ordained at Holy Spirit, Eldersburg last December)

Sec. Chris Boerger offered his report.  He began by thanking Frank Imhoff for his service to the ELCA as he is about to retire.  Boerger reminded us that voting member names must be given to chuchwide before Novmeber 1, and sooner if possible.  We are also to remember the ratio of lay to rostered and that we can send one additional youth/young adult and one additional person of color or whose primary language is other than English.

He went on to talk about the submission of parochial reports and only two synods have 100%, the accumulative is 78% of all ELCA congregations.

We are now a church of 3.45 million souls, down 2.9% from 2017. And total worship numbers are down about 2%.  To quote his written report “The significant trends that we see show that congregations continue to pay down their debt. Congregations of this church had debt totaling $1,228,165,017. That is down $37.7 million from the previous year. 70.1% of the reporting congregations have no debt. Total regular giving by members, even with fewer members, was up $3.6 million or .2%. Total regular giving was $1,758,832,857. It is also interesting to note that earned income was up 14.4% to $203,555,752. Grant income from any source was up 16.6% to $31,139,872. Both earned income and grants would suggest that congregations are finding new sources of funding or additional sources of funding for their work.”

Boeger went on to say that we are now using the constitutional language of “synodically authorized worshipping communities”, rather than “congregation under development”.

The annual directory of the church went digital last year and has been widely accepted.  (Note: any changes that need to be made should go through the synod offices.) He asked that any roster transitions or other changes be made as promptly as possible.

A constitutional amendment that will be brought before the assembly in 2019 will change the formula for clergy/lay representation on boards, committees, and voting members.  Deacons will no longer be considered “lay” which will more appropriately balance the leadership formula.

Vice President Bill Horne reported on his work in the past months.

Church council update:

  • Approved process for developing an ELCA Governance Policy Manual
  • Received Entrance Rite Discernment Group Report
  • Received Draft of Inter-religious Policy Statement
  • Created task force to consider a future ELCA campaign and strategic focus on generating additional revenue for the church.
  • Women in Justice: one in Christ Social Statement hearing
  • TEAC update
  • Gender Identity discussion
  • Café conversations with ethnic-specific and multicultural associations.

November ELCA Church Council 2018 Agenda

  • Review Constitutional amendments
  • Review proposed Inter-Religious policy Statement
  • Consider Word and Service entrance rite
  • Review and approve Governance Policy Manual
  • TEAC Report
  • Mission Support pilot
  • Cleansing and Contemplative conversation on racial justice
  • Faithful and Trustworthy servant document
  • 2019 and Beyond Conversation
  • Draft paper: Toward a Faithful and Multidimensional Sustainability

He attended three synod assemblies; Rocky Mtn, Pacifica, Nebraska, and also attended their synod council meetings.

He is planning to be part of the synod VP Gathering October 19, with focus on Two Way Communication, Listen and Share.

Bill felt the ELCA Youth Gathering was a needed and great event.  He noted that MYLE seemed separate from the Youth Gathering, rather than part of the whole.

His place at the Leadership Table is hard work, but, allows for collaboration, improves good governance, and must tackle the most difficult problems that face the church.

The church council decisions must meet the expectations of Rostered Ministers, lay leaders, and congregation members.

God is calling the ELCA to do God’s Mission in the world.

Bp Guy Erwin spoke on a draft document, “Church Council Governance Manual”.  This is a new attempt to define the purpose and responsibilities for the council. Bp Erwin noted that the council is asking for input from the CoB on relationship, what is missing from the document, and is it understandable.

Each CoB meeting includes guests from the ELCA Church Council. They offered their reflections on what they have experienced.

There was an open seat on the Executive Committee of the CoB and a first ballot to fill that spot was taken.

We broke for lunch and an afternoon of sabbath.

Monday, October 1

Morning prayer was led by Bp Katherine Finnegan, Upper Great Lakes Synod, pondering on the question, “When have you been stopped by the Spirit?”  Reflecting on Acts 16:6-7.

The second ballot was taken

The Conference went into executive session for 20 minutes.

A third ballot was taken

Bp Tom Aiken, NE MN, reported the work of the Roster Committee.  His report included requests for extension of Leave of Call status, and non-stipendiary calls for Word and Sacrament ministers.

Aiken then shared a document that helps guide the work of the Roster Committee and Bishops in requesting exceptions to the 3 years of congregation service for specialized ministry.  Subsequently he reported that 7 Bishops had requested such exceptions and 6 were approved.

Bp Jon Anderson, SW MN, offered the report of the Theological and Ethical Concerns committee.  He facilitated a conversation about when and how bishops should publicly speak.  Committee members shared that the conference is not of one mind on many issues, so a bishop cannot speak on behalf of the conference nor the ELCA, however if a bishop writes something that is a good teaching piece, it can be shared for that purpose.  Anderson noted that bishops should be comfortable with speaking at their own pace and comfort level. He also offered a document that might help guide bishops in their calls for “sign-on” letters and other forms of pubic statement.  His hunches are: speak to leaders in a non-reactive way, when faced with a crisis a team should be commissioned to offer some thoughts so that individual bishops can write their own statements,  bishops speak to their own synod, God gives us particular vocations and not all readers/hearers will agree with our position.

Victoria Flood, Director for ELCA Mission Support, and Nick Kiger, Assistant Director of MS, were called on to comment on their work and the status MS.  Nick lifted up the work of Mission Interpreters and how important their efforts are.  Victoria then talked about individual synod MS commitments and subsequent symposiums.  She also shared that the 2018 Stories of Faith in Action is now available. Included in this edition is a devotional guide to help readers connect to the stories.

After a brief break, Rev. Ron Glusenkamp, Director for the ELCA Campaign, gave us an update on the campaign.  The theme for this year is Leadership.  There are now grant availabilities for disability ministry and youth and young adult.  The Church council has extended the campaign until June of 2019 and planned gifts are being counted in the total. His hope is that we will finish strong, with Big Game Challenge, 40 days of Giving during Lent.

We engaged in a hearing of the draft social statement “Women and Justice” led by Bps Ann Svennungsun, MPLS, and John Roth, Central/Southern IL.  This is a remarkable document that is long overdue. The proposed Statement will be available next spring and will be reviewed by the CoB and addressed by the Church council with the intent to have the Churchwide Assembly deliberate on it in 2019.

We broke for lunch at 12:15pm and reconvened at 1:30pm

ELCA Treasurer, Lori Fedyk, gave the unaudited YTD results ending August 31, 2018.

Mission Support is favorable to budget, due to investments and mineral rights.  Expenses are favorable to the budget due to underspending in all units.  36.2% of expenses are in the Domestic Mission unit, Global Mission 19.8%, and the other areas are less than 10% each.

World Hunger is at a record level of $7.8M in direct giving, with endowments and bequest bringing the total to $9.5m.

LDR has received $2.5m with few disasters in the early part of the year, before the current hurricane season.  $4.5m has gone to areas of need.

Campaign for the ELCA is at 82.1% of the goal of $198m.

MS support trends are showing a decrease by 4 synods, 9 increase and the balance to be stable.

Treasurer Fedyk then went on to speak of the changes in the recommended health plan for CW employees and its effect on the financial future of the organization.  (CWO employees will be provided Silver+ as the standard, spouse and dependent coverage costs will be shared with employees, CWO will be making a contribution to HSAs for employees)  Historically the cost for benefits has increased while Mission Support has decreased.  The cost has risen to over $3m per year with family coverage at > $25k. This change should see a $700k savings for the year.

CWO will still run a deficit in FY 2019 and some positions will be eliminated, but this will help somewhat.

Rev. Jeff Thiemann, President and CEO of PORTICO, presented on PORTICO’s philosophy of benefits review.  He noted that 2.5% of members are in Platinum, 86.5% in Gold, Silver 7.1% and Bronze 3.9%.  He then offered a list of benefits available to members which can be found on the website.

He went on to talk about the changes in the Retiree Medical plan rollout and the reactions to the changes,  PORTICO is making strides toward improved health by proactively working for healthier members.

We then went into Executive session with the General Counsel of the ELCA.

Molly Beck Dean brought us back from a short break with a presentation on the ELCA Youth Gathering.  She shared the goals then reported that 31,242 had registered, with 29,967 attending from 2740+ congregations.  There were 636 volunteers and 478 planning team members.  The pre-events (the tAble & MYLE) were well attended. A moving story of a group from Puerto Rico helped refinish pews in a congregation as a respite from their lives. The service learning numbers are available on the web page.  61 partner organizations were part of the learning center. Synod day was well received in 22 ballrooms throughout the city.  It was about young people leading and getting to know those closest to them, and the bishops. +40K books were offered in kind, $700k +was raised for Global Farm Challenge, the Sunday offering was over $200k split between 3 ministries.  The Conference gave her feedback on reactions within synods from the event and specifically the Mass Gathering speakers.  She is now planning for the next event in Minneapolis for 2021.

Bp Brian Maas, NE synod, reported on the work of the Domestic Mission: Leadership Committee specifically on a replacement document for Visions & Expectations.  There was significant conversation about standards and the variety of voices at the table.  The Conference moved to return it back to the committee for further work.

Pr Walter May, Executive for Synodical Relations, gave thanks for his team and new hires.  He also announced that Pr Eric Wester, Assistant to the Presiding Bishop and Director, Federal Chaplaincies, is retiring from his position.

Bp Mark Narum, W ND, was called on to report on the work of the DM: New and Renewing Committee. (This committee is looking to change its name to Congregational Vitality Committee. I serve on this committee of the Conference)

This committee heard of new documents that more clearly outline the DEM hiring process and job description.  There also will be a DEM symposium to anticipate the future of the DEM position.  The committee also learned of the work of the Congregational Vitality team and changes soon to be realized in the granting process.

Bp. Narum then facilitated a conversation on the Entrance Rite for Word and Service Ministers Discernment Group.

Bp. Tom Aitken, NE MN, brought a request from the Middle East Ready Bench that the Conference unanimously agree to send letters to all US Senators urging the President to release 2017 funds for Augusta Victoria Hospital and 5 other hospitals in Jerusalem.  That motion did pass unanimously.

Pr Stephen Bouman, Director for the Domestic Mission Unit, addressed the Conference as this will be his last CoB gathering in his position.  He may be retiring but he is not leaving the ministry on behalf of the poor.

We moved to Bishop’s announcements and concerns before breaking for dinner.

Tuesday, October 2

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton gave brief report on the TEAC conversations asking synod to maintain their level of financial support to seminaries. This is an ongoing concern and there seems to be many moving parts with seminaries exploring various methods of funding their operations, recruiting students, and offering full tuition educations.

Bp Dick Graham, Metro D.C. Synod, provided a report on and request for the Pilot Synod experiment. 5 synods have been withholding Mission Support dollars equal to the cost of DEMs and mission starts and fund those ministries locally.  There have been mixed results with the program and the working group hopes that it can be continued for another 2 years, without any other synods included at this time.  Bp Graham noted that there are a number of experiments being conducted with the attitude that we need to do something different in regards to Mission Support. The pilot team requested that the Conference recommend to the Churchwide Council that the experiment be continued for another 2 years.  It was moved and carried.

Our work concluded at 9:45am with prayers for safe travel.

Climate in the Pulpits

This week, Deacon Laura Heller, our synod’s Creation Care Ministry Coordinator, is blogging about Climate in the Pulpits while Bishop Gohl is traveling.

Eco-theology can be defined as a form of constructive theology that focuses on the interrelationships of religion and nature, particularly in the light of environmental concerns. There is already a significant body of work developed in this emerging branch of theology, but our basic call to care for creation is explained in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, God gave life to all creation which He called good – vegetation, birds, sea creatures, animals – every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and also humankind. Then God gave us dominion over creation – dominion means loving stewardship. And quite frankly, there is some room for improvement because rapid, human-caused climate change is affecting us all.

During recent years, we have experienced extreme weather events more and more frequently: prolonged droughts leading to uncontrollable fires, severe storms that cause catastrophic flooding, oppressive heat that withers crops and people alike. Super-sized hurricanes such as Florence, Maria, Harvey, and others are not an anomaly, they are becoming a pattern. In interview after interview following climate-related disasters, people say the same thing – “This has never happened before.” If we don’t make progress in reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere and stem the increase in temperature, these weather events will become the new normal.

Consider these facts shared in the 2018 NOVA program, Decoding the Weather Machine:

  • Seven of the hottest years on record have occurred within the last ten years
  • There is more CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere than there has been in the last 800,000 years as determined by core polar ice samples
  • The CO2 levels are continuing to increase rapidly
  • There is a scientifically proven correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the temperature of the planet
  • We know the increase in CO2 is caused by the burning of fossil fuels due to their distinct carbon signature
  • This increase in temperature is causing the polar ice to melt and increase sea levels
  • Warmer ocean temperatures are causing the severity of hurricanes and other storms to increase
  • Coral reefs that are foundational to ocean life, are dying off at alarming rates due to bleaching from the increase in ocean temperatures

Paul Douglass, one of the narrators of the program, has co-written a book with Pastor Mitch Hexcox titled Caring for Creation. Douglass, who was previously a climate change skeptic, has come to understand through his work as a meteorologist, that climate reacts to increases in temperature just like humans do. Think about how miserable you feel when your internal temperature increases only a couple degrees. Douglas likens the current conditions as if the weather has the flu.

Climate change, like so many other social justice issues, impacts the impoverished significantly more than the wealthy. Those without resources to relocate from high-risk coastal areas or rebuild following storms will bear the brunt. According to a study at Cornell University, with the acceleration that is occurring the sea level rise, there could be 1.4 billion climate refugees by 2060 and 2 billion by 2100 if we do not change our current trajectory. Climate change is also wreaking havoc on crop production in much of the developing world and causing the number of hungry people facing chronic food deprivation to increase, based on a press release from the United Nations.

During the Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco in September 2018, the ELCA hosted an affiliate event to discuss loss and damage from climate change and a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Recommendations that have emerged include faith community involvement in public policy decisions through advocacy and training. Public policy should be viewed through a triple lens of racial equity, economic equity, and ecological sustainability.

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Just as research and discovery have shown that the world is not flat and that all celestial bodies do not revolve around the earth, a substantial and credible scientific body of knowledge supports that humans are impacting climate and we need to reverse this trend to avoid further damage to our planet.

Climate in the Pulpits, scheduled for the weekend of October 5-7, is an opportunity to share the message about how we are impacting climate and what we can do to change. Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) has created a resource page with bulletin inserts, sample speaker talks, and sermon starters, all available online, to assist with planning a service.

There are numerous responses to climate change that provide clean energy services and products coupled with an opportunity for economic growth and environmental responsibility. But we need to embrace them now, time is of the essence. God entrusted us to care for creation, not just for ourselves, but also for future generations. We are facing a climate and moral crisis that affects everything, particularly the people and creatures for which we are called to care for. Knowing and loving the world is a starting point, but as a steward, we’re also called to sustain and heal this world. We have an opportunity to act on climate change in a tangible way for God’s creatures, for our neighbors, and for future generations.

The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children. -Proverbs 13:22

On believing

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. – Psalm 27:11-12

The first person that ever came to talk with me about sexual abuse was Kara, who has given me permission to use both her real name and the circumstances of her story in today’s blog. I was in seminary, a field education student, and Kara gained from a sermon I preached that I might be a “safe” person to share her story of a boyfriend who quickly increased the pressure on their then-new relationship to become sexual; and after it became sexual, would never take no for an answer.

Kara was a college student who was fresh to a new community, working hard to keep up her grades while balancing a part-time job. She was musical, involved in a few causes that were important to her, and faithful to her Lutheran upbringing – finding her way into my field ed site nearly every Sunday morning, helping with the nursery once a month, too.

She met Tim during orientation and they quickly became an item on campus. Tim played soccer, quickly found a place in one of the campus fraternities, joined student government and was usually with Kara on Sunday mornings in worship. He was well-liked and easy to talk to.

By the time Kara had come to talk to me, Tim was no longer to be seen on Sundays. Though I still saw him in the community, he had moved on and was no longer easy to talk to – at least to me.

Kara and I met for coffee and before we were too deep into our time, she blurted out, “I feel bad because I hate Tim and I know I need to forgive him.” I remember thinking in that moment, “Oh, the high highs and low lows of young love…”

And then she started telling her story, a story of being pressured into a sexual relationship for the first time in her life, and then she recounted being serially raped by Tim, yet never named his “forcing her to have sex even after she said ‘no'” as rape. Instead, she said something about “believing she was a ‘bad Christian’ because she was having a hard time forgiving him.”

And while Kara was the first of these kinds of conversations, over the twenty years since, there have been many, many more. Conversations with colleagues and learning opportunities bear out that my experience is not an isolated one; that often, faith leaders, are first contacts for help, conversation, and counsel. This initial disclosure is critical, and research consistently shows that the advice of the first person whom a sexual assault survivor tells will in large measure determine their next steps.

But those of us who are leaders in faith communities aren’t always equipped to handle such situations, which can hurt rather than help. Amy Gopp, writing for Sojourner’s earlier this year, raised that “Allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter shine a light on how important faith leaders are in such cases. Porter’s ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, said they turned to clergy but didn’t receive the support they needed.

“‘Both of us had a hard time getting them to fully address the abuse taking place. It wasn’t until I spoke to a professional counselor that I was met with understanding,’ Holderness wrote in the Washington Post…”

I suspect their experience is not an unfamiliar one. One need only look at the aftermath of the release of the Grand Jury investigation in Pennsylvania to see that the faith community was – and is still – unprepared to respond to issues of sexual assault and sexual abuse. While we’ve made significant progress in becoming zero tolerance leaders around issues of sexual assault and sexual abuse in the church, we are still struggling to provide adequate resources and support to those in our care. We don’t yet have a common and helpful theological vocabulary for preaching and teaching about these matters. We still don’t have the ego strength as faith leaders to recognize, in these sacred conversations with those who have lived through these traumas, our duty to have a trustworthy network for referral.

These last weeks in the body politic have triggered larger conversations about those who are coming forward; how we listen, how we respond. Unfortunately, it’s also caused a crisis of how we believe.

Believing a survivor doesn’t negate due process. Believing a survivor doesn’t legally indict the accused. Believing someone who tells their story is the beginning of a journey toward healing. Justice, and perhaps forgiveness, are stops on that journey – they are not the sum of the journey, nor are they easy or expedient places to go.

When Kara came to me twenty-some years ago, I am grateful that I did, in fact, believe her. It was difficult to imagine Tim, easy-to-talk-to-Tim, in the role he played in Kara’s trauma, but I did believe her. I earnestly tried to help her find that healing forgiveness that eluded her those first months after she broke away from him. We prayed, we talked – but, it was the wise intervention of my field ed supervisor at the time, who helped me to refer her to a competent mental health provider and who showed me how to accompany Kara in a pastoral way on her journey.

Kara never did report Tim to the authorities. She thought too much time had passed; that there was no physical “evidence” to back her recollection of the experiences. By the time she was considering these things, Tim was, she said, “ancient history.”

It wasn’t until nearly twenty years had elapsed that Kara had the courage to tell her story to others and to finally name what happened as rape. When she and I spoke last, we agreed it wasn’t the long time that had elapsed, but the truth-telling that finally brought her to that elusive place of forgiveness on her long journey toward healing.

As these last weeks have elapsed, their accusations and summary denials have caused such deep tears in the fabric of our society. Decrees of disbelief without hearing the other out smacks of politics giving way, again, to partisanship. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it well: “There’s a stigma and a silence surrounding all these issues … Those who are in a position to do something about it ought to.” The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians amplifies this point: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) I have prayed much in these weeks for those who have been re-traumatized by turning on the news or opening a newspaper, for the many who are triggered by the classic “he said, she said” conundrum for which “she” inevitably loses.

Still, Pastor Gopp drew a conclusion, that “the #metoo movement has shined a spotlight on a widespread cultural problem. It’s about more than celebrities and political agendas; it’s a cry for help and a call for change from our friends, our neighbors, our family members.” If we are to accompany those in our care towards healing, we must begin with a position of believing their stories, being faithful to our siblings on the journey as “comforters, advocates and change agents.”

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! –
Psalm 27:1-3, 11-14

Building Puentes: Finding home

The following is a reflection from Kendra Hernandez, one of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. From last week through the end of this week, more than 40 volunteers will work alongside Lutheran Disaster Response as a part of the Building Puentes initiative with the Caribbean Synod, the Metro D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog. You can find all of the Building Puentes posts here.

If I were to ask you what an outsider is, you would probably be able to tell me. If I were to ask you who feels like an outsider within a group, you might not be able to tell me quite so easily. These feelings of not belonging arise from a variety of places, whether it be a change in physical surroundings, an emotional disconnection, or blatant language barriers. Coming into these two weeks, I knew I would be an outsider in many ways. I worried about not being from the Delaware-Maryland area [ed: Kendra is from Las Cruces, New Mexico] and not knowing anyone. I worried about not knowing Spanish as much as I wanted to and that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the people of Puerto Rico. I worried about such minuscule things that would damper my excitement and twist my expectations before even arriving.

The first week demolished these inhibiting feelings. No one knew each other and we were a group of strangers soon to become a family. We helped each other to understand the language and the culture of Puerto Rico. In the second week, we met an entirely new group of strangers who only added to this family we were building together.

At one point or another, everyone felt like an outsider in some way, even if just from being in a new place. The people of Puerto Rico shared their many stories of hardship. Their stories of devastation. Their stories of loss. Yet they showed us love and a very warm welcome. They were excited to see us and meet us and hug us. They wanted to know our names and where we were from. Most of all, they wanted us to take their stories home with us. Stories of how some went as long as nine months without electricity, or how they would wait eight hours for only 10 gallons of gas which was their “allowance” per household. Stories of how to this day, people wait 8-10 hours to receive food from the local food pantry truck. Due to Hurricane Irma hitting shortly before Maria, some did not even know Maria was coming because the news was only spread via word-of-mouth. The people of Puerto Rico were hurt and are still hurting. The process of recovery from a storm like Maria takes about 15 years and can be pushed back if another hurricane comes along in that time. For this reason, they are ecstatic to see volunteers willing to help – and more importantly, care.

When we came as outsiders to this new place full of love and hope, we found friends. We laughed together, cried together, sang together, and danced (a lot) together. We found a family. We found a home.

Building Puentes: Our experiences

The following is a reflection from Agatha So and Dave Reid, two of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. From last week through the end of this week, more than 40 volunteers will work alongside Lutheran Disaster Response as a part of the Building Puentes initiative with the Caribbean Synod, the Metro D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog. You can find all of the Building Puentes posts here.

It’s Wednesday, and a group of new and old friends are headed to El Yunque National Forest for a little rest and relaxation. The work we have been doing has been humbling – pulling and whacking weeds, painting, shoveling, power washing, carrying logs and benches, and clearing out debris from a neighbor’s home damaged by Hurricane Maria. We’ve seen the fruits of our labor, and we’re having some fun doing it.

We (Agatha and Dave) have volunteered to write this blog and wanted to include the ideas and thoughts of our crew. The idea of inclusivity has guided our work and daily activities. Over the last few days, during lunch, while serving, and during dinner, we asked members of our crew the following question:

What word or phrase best reflects or represents your experiences and thoughts about our service so far?

Some of our crew gave us a word, some a story and some talked for 10 minutes. The following themes embody our crew’s experience in Puerto Rico.

The words of our crew are bold and italicized.

Community, Connection y La Comunidad were major themes.

The crew experienced a connection with a variety of communities: our own community of volunteers, our Puerto Rican neighbors, and our hosts at the Campamento Eduardo Roig. Our work has been about embracing each of these communities.

While a few of us knew each other before coming to Puerto Rico, the majority of us arrived on the island as strangers. Our community of volunteers came from as far as New Mexico, Wisconsin, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland – and we’ve been learning more about each other through our service, sharing meals, daily devotions, and while having fun. It’s amazing how a service trip has brought this group of strangers together as friends.

For some of our crew, this was not the first time in Puerto Rico. Pastor Mark has been coming to the same camp for nearly 20 years. Some others have long-time connections with people here. For others, this is our first trip to a very hot and tropical part of the country. And through our service this week, we have begun to make connections with the local community surrounding the camp.

I will go Lord, if you need me and send me were other major themes.

Members of our crew have based their commitment to service on a strong foundation of faith. During our daily devotions, different people lead discussions, reflections, and prayers about why we are here, what it means to serve, and how that service relates to God and our personal faith. For some of us, the motivation to serve comes from the desire to make a tangible difference.

At the end of the day, we’re all spending our days sweating. Despite the climate being wicked hot, we’ve made great progress as a team, surrounded by beautiful scenery, palm trees and the coqui (frog native to Puerto Rico). We hope our contributions will be a meaningful contribution to our neighbors in Puerto Rico. Members of our crew have described these last few days as life-changing, and say they are grateful for the opportunity to recognize the privilege we have to come and serve and then leave to our air-conditioned homes.

The crew has shared that these have been some powerful days, with so much joy in such devastation. Even in the most trying times, we’ve learned from our Puerto Rican neighbors to fire up a grill and turn on some music while waiting for hours for a much-needed emergency food distribution.

We’ll close with lyrics shared with us by one of our crew members. The song is called “Vivir Mi Vida,” by singer/performer Marc Anthony:

Para limpiar las heridas [de Maria]”

English translation: “To wash away the wounds of [Hurricane] Maria.”