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.”

Building Puentes: Repairing the breach

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. –Isaiah 58:12

A year ago, Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean, leaving 70,000+ homes uninhabitable and more than 3 million people without power or water. It can only be described as a catastrophe on the level of Katrina or Sandy, with the desolation and destruction those names bring to mind in wide swaths of the US mainland. In spite of the partisan bickering about the “official” death toll, there is wide agreement that it’s bad, and that the reconstruction has been slow and inadequate to the devastation experienced throughout the Caribbean, with a special eye on our siblings in Puerto Rico.

The explanations for these inadequacies of response are just as inadequate. Distance from the mainland; language barriers that are real for some and imagined for others in positions of authority; the difficulty in conveying material aid and skilled assistance to the islands; but also the not-well-hidden disdain of some who see the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico, as a distant cousin of the United States.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the death of more than 4,000 people in the Caribbean can be connected to the hurricane, including over a thousand people who died for a lack of adequate health care after the hurricane was over. If this had happened on the mainland, the howling would have been intense and the response swift; but in the case of the Caribbean, there is a cacophony of crickets, and it’s increasingly more difficult to get the attention of the press or the rank and file citizenry, let alone those in government, who are sworn to protect these vulnerable citizens of the United States.

You see, I’ve seen this reality for myself. I’ve been to Puerto Rico in recent days and will return in the next month. I’ve listened to the stories of my Pastor-colleagues and friends from the islands tell the stories of their places and people, of resiliency and despair, of destruction and hope. And now that our mission teams are on the ground, accompanying a part of the family of God in the reconstruction work that will stretch on for years, they are seeing those same realities, too.

The Building Puentes initiative in partnership with the Caribbean Synod, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod is our commitment to “building bridges” across what seems a significant breach in our country and in the church; it isn’t a rigid prescription, but a loose road-map for us to better hear the voices of our Caribbean Synod siblings and to gather our resources to respond to voiced needs, rather than perceived needs.

And when we talk about resources, we’re certainly talking about money, but we also need to be talking about spiritual and prayer resources, the time and talent resources we have to accompany one another, and our call in Christ to bear one another’s burdens. Still, those bridges cannot be built on the exchange of checks, but on a commitment to being together on a journey of recovery that doesn’t have a finish line anywhere in sight. Thus, we’re on the ground together, working alongside one another; we’re listening to one another’s stories; we’re recognizing that Christ is standing in the chasm and the chaos, bidding us be a part of repairing the breach.

As we approach the solemn anniversary of Maria’s landfall in the islands, we do so with compassion for those who are experiencing the reminder of how much they lost and a renewed commitment to share that loss as we rebuild relationships – and physical infrastructure – together. Mayor Carmen Cruz, of San Juan, said that Hurricane Maria opened Puerto Rican eyes “to our inequity – and our inequality,” thus exposing the breach that we are called to step into as we accompany often-forgotten fellow citizens, and an often-forgotten part of our church, into the future.

Building Puentes is a part of our call and our responsibility as the body of Christ, to which I invite us all, let us attend.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. –Isaiah 58:8-12