COVID Meets Church Camp

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – Church camp. For many of us it means a summer of children and youth going away for a week or two to enjoy God’s creation, be nurtured in their faith – or maybe even find it, be uplifted and encouraged by the staff, make new friends, and find themselves busy with a myriad of activities that inspire spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. For some young people, it is a life and faith-altering experience. And for some it is the only place they feel included or where they feel they can express their doubts and beliefs without judgment. 

Beyond summer camp, there are retreats and events spanned across the other three seasons. These are times for folks to connect; to learn, study, or plan; to experience personal or spiritual growth; or to just enjoy spending time with other people of faith. These times can bring refreshment and renewal to God’s people.

So what happens when these experiences are suddenly not possible? Who would have thought that a pandemic virus would make it an abrupt reality?

C. J. Clark, executive director of Living Water Ministries of the North/West Lower and Southeast Michigan Synods, knows what happens.

When it was acknowledged that COVID-19 had hit the United States and many governors, including Michigan’s, put public health safety requirements and guidelines in place, Clark immediately knew that changes were going to have to be made. Not last-minute tweaks or adjustments, but major changes that would impact LWM now and into the future. 

When the LWM board sadly, but prudently, agreed that the March 2020 Jr. High Youth CHARGE event and summer camp should be cancelled, Clark, along with LWM’s program innovator Nicole McCarthy, buckled down to map out future opportunities for summer campers and off-season events.

“How do you bring children together ‘to experience intentional community centered in Christ,’ which is our mission?” he said. “How do we engage people when they can’t come together?”

Creativity and not knowing how long the pandemic and its affects will stretch out have to be blended when planning for the present and the future. 

“This summer we were able to do some virtual campfires,” Clark said. “We also invited past anti-racism camp alumni to be part of a virtual event. We had ten people from across the country, including Michigan, take part. It wasn’t a huge number but it was a good experience. I was humbled by the participants connecting with us.” The Bridge Builders team continues to meet monthly via virtual meetings.

This year’s fall events have been cancelled, as has the annual Youth Gathering for the N/WLM and SE Michigan synods, which was to be held this January. Mostly likely any off-season events beyond that will also be cancelled. Then who knows what summer 2021 will bring. Clark and McCarthy are brainstorming resources campers can use in their home settings, especially things that get them away from the computer.

Meanwhile, LWM’s finances are stable.

“I’ve talked to other camp directors across the country and some of them are being hit really hard, especially if they rely heavily on [off-season] retreats,” Clark said. “So far, our fundraising has been going very well. May, June, and July were positive and August is looking to be on track.

“Right before COVID hit, we were raising funds for a new cabin. We have some verbal commitments, but have paused it [the project] for now. It was hoped to have the cabin built by August of next year, but pausing [rather than cancelling] indicates there is a day beyond [Aug. 2021] we are looking toward.”

Clark has been grateful to the board and the synod for their support.

“Bishop Satterlee sent me a message during a board Zoom meeting that said LWM doesn’t have to justify its existence,” he said. “That was encouraging.”

On Aug. 13, the following message was posted on LWM’s Facebook page:

“As the sun sets on what would have been the 2020 summer season, we remember all the summers that have come before. It is our hope and prayer that you have found ways to safely and meaningfully connect with God and other people this summer, and we look forward to again being a place that brings together all of God’s children on the shores of Stony Lake in the future.”

Shortly thereafter, Clark wrote a letter that was also posted on Facebook. One paragraph says:

“As the sun sets on summer 2020 we move into the next phase of pandemic life.  Living Water Ministries now turns its attention to the east to celebrate and witness the dawning of a new day in which we can continue to confidently trust that Jesus reigns.”

And God’s people say: “Amen.”

Sharing the Light

By Sue Sprang

EAST LANSING – At a time when intolerance seems to be the norm, it’s refreshing to come across an example that dispels that notion. In this case, it comes in the form of a long-standing relationship between University Lutheran Church and the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, both in East Lansing.

The congregations, which have had a relationship for about 35 years, provide spiritual and religious guidance and services to Michigan State University and surrounding area, sit next to each other, share a parking lot and a playground, and hold interfaith opportunities and events. 

The long-time friendship went a step further when ULC asked the Islamic Center to join them for “God’s Work. Our Hands” Sunday in September 2015. The mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Sohail Chaudhry, wasn’t surprised by the invitation, nor by his congregants’ eagerness to participate.

“When I came here, I was over the moon when I heard of the warm, close relationship with the Lutheran Church,” said Chaudhry, who came to the area in December 2014. 

“It is one of my goals to improve relationships with other faith communities and bring people of different faiths closer through education and collaborative efforts. In the case of the Lutheran Church, I didn’t have to make much effort because this relationship had been established before I arrived.”

The friendship between the two worshiping communities has continued to flourish. Prayer, education, and words and actions on behalf of one another are ongoing. The people of University are well aware of the threat of violence against Muslims across the United States, so are vigilant in their concern for their neighboring congregation. 

This strong bond laid a natural foundation for the mosque’s outreach to ULC when it came to taking steps toward environmental stewardship. The Islamic Center approached ULC with a friendly challenge in the form of solar energy.

“The Solar Project implemented by the Islamic Center is our attempt to care for God’s creation by generating electricity without a trace of carbon footprint,” said Chaudhry. “As a house of worship, we didn’t want to merely preach, rather, put our words into action. By producing electricity from a renewable source, we are conserving the environment as required by our faith.” 

Initially, the two congregations contemplated doing a joint solar project between their property lines, but realized the project was cost prohibitive in the short term. The Islamic Center moved ahead with the project with the installation of its own system.

“We installed a 10.24 KW Solar Array system on our rooftop – which generates only a small portion of the electricity we consume,” said Chaudhry. Not only does it serve the primary purpose of generating electricity, but it also serves as an example for our members to follow. We are treating this as a beginning and intend to grow the array in the future until it can produce enough energy to be self-sufficient.”

On ULC’s end, the idea went dormant for a couple years, although it was not completely forgotten – especially by its Muslim neighbors.

“We knew the Islamic Center had installed a solar array and some money had been donated at ULC for the project,” said Rev. Gary Bunge, lead pastor, “but there was not a great deal of energy for it except by the congregation’s Earthkeeping Team. However, when the Islamic Center surprised us with a gift of $25,000 for the project – although they said that there were no strings attached and we could use the money however we wished – the dormant idea came to life.”

With the Islamic Center money, other money donated to the solar project, money left from a bequest, and budgeted money saved with lower utility bills due to COVID-19, University was able to fund the second half of the project. The solar panels were installed by early September and are now producing electricity.

“Our friendship with the University Lutheran Church spans decades now,” said Chaudhry. “We have worked together on several initiatives to benefit our local communities. When we could not fulfill our goal of a joint solar project, and had to go our own ways, we did not want ULC to be left behind. After all, they are such wonderful neighbors to us, accommodating our parking needs every Friday and during the month of Ramadan. 

“There are some things money can’t buy, and the generosity of the ULC is one of them. So we came up with the proposal of presenting the gift and challenging their members to match the donation so that their energy needs can be fully met for decades to come.

“ULC was quite surprised by the gift,” he added. “They never had any expectation of a return for their kindness towards us. So when we presented the gift, they wondered why! And for our part, it was a small gesture to say thank you to the kind members and wise leaders at the University Lutheran Church.”.

The thankfulness for the strong bond between the two congregations is reciprocated by ULC:

“We are so grateful for the friendship and relationship that we have with the Islamic Center. They are incredibly gracious neighbors,” said Bunge. “We are grateful that we can share our parking space with them, and grateful for the ways that we can come together to serve our community. This relationship is a gift to both worshiping communities and a model for the rest of the world.”

Bishop Craig Satterlee of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod, where ULC resides, also commented on the relationship:

“The world’s future is people pulling together to respond to God in acts of God’s will,” he said. “I am thrilled – genuinely thrilled for the concrete acts of faith in East Lansing within our synod.”

Introduction: Women Clergy: Shout Out!

 By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – My recollection of the first time I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was when I was in the first grade and I immediately blurted out: “A pastor!” I remember the small number of people – mostly adults – being quiet for a moment, then I was told “Girls can’t be pastors.” 

The same thing happened when I was in the fifth grade. At the time, all I could think was: “Who wouldn’t want to be a pastor?” 

My dad was a Lutheran pastor and his work intrigued me. I loved going to church and Sunday school. I loved the music, the Bible stories, being with other people who loved Jesus. I thought it was so cool that Dad got to wear those fancy robes and get up in front of all the people and talk about Jesus and the world, teach people about the Bible, baptize babies, visit sick people, take Jesus (communion) to shut-ins, and who knows what else. 

My family would host missionaries who were home on leave and I loved asking them questions and hearing them talk about the people and places they served. The maps and the encyclopedias would come out and I was a captive audience. Maybe I could do that!

Anyway, quite frankly, I don’t remember if either of my parents were among the adults who asked me the question, then turned around and told me I couldn’t do it. I would suspect they weren’t because I don’t remember any post-conversations, especially from my mom, who was a strong woman and placed no limits on women’s possibilities. 

(I would later learn that Mom had once considered being a doctor – not popular in America circa 1950. And I have no doubt she would have attained that goal. But she said she really felt called to nursing – and she excelled at it.)

So, at the age of 10 years old, I gave up my dream of being a pastor, and turned my ambitions elsewhere. During my junior high years, I was determined to be an English teacher. I loved literature – reading, discussing, writing book reports and research papers (who doesn’t love footnotes?), finding entire worlds about which I knew little or nothing. And grammar? Diagramming sentences, writing essays, learning about dangling participles. What could be more fun? And wouldn’t it be fun to teach others to do the same?

But by the time I hit mid-high school, I had turned to social work as my college major. The Civil Rights movement, the needs of the poor, the awareness that there were children who suffered in many ways that were preventable… these and related things turned me toward wanting to help others in a meaningful way. And if I couldn’t be a pastor, then I could still make an impact as a social worker.

By the end of my first year of college, with an adviser who listened to what I was saying, I found that the school I attended (Capital University, Columbus, Ohio) had a major in Church Staff Work. I switched majors and knew immediately that I had made the right choice. I specialized in Christian Education, minors in sociology and history. (Side note: Pastor Joan Oleson of our synod was with me in many of those Church Staff Work classes!)

I married my husband in 1976, the same year he entered seminary. And lo and behold… there were women there! Women who were studying to be pastors! It was a tiny group, but they were there: Connie Sassanella, Susan Swartz, Paula Maeder Connor, and a few others. I was amazed!

There were times earlier in my adulthood when I felt the tug that maybe I should go for it and follow the ordained minister path. But, in my mid 30’s, I found myself taking another route and becoming an associate in ministry (now called a deacon) of the ELCA. I found I was in the right spot and have no regrets for the parishes I served (permanently or as an interim) in Ohio and Michigan, and I can confidently say that I was the right person to be administering our synod’s Lay Missionary Training Program (later evolved to Equipping Leaders for Mission & Ministry) at the right time, helping it to grow in many ways. 

When I left that position, I did so knowing that there might not be another place for me in the synod. (I did put some parameters around myself, out of selfishness, not wanting to be called somewhere outside of my geographical realm.) So three years later, as dictated by ELCA policy, I was off the roster.

But there have been no regrets. 

And one of the things I am most grateful for during my times as an associate in ministry, a person active in the synod, and as the spouse of a pastor, is the women clergy I have been able to meet and get to know. For me, they have become a source of hope, encouragement, and blessing. 

AND SO… As of December 2018 (the latest statistic I could find), 32 percent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American’s ordained ministers are women. At the same time, roughly half of those in our seminaries preparing for ministry were women. 

Most assuredly a “YES!” for God’s people!

AND SO… this piece is the introduction to a series raising up the women clergy of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. They are receiving questions from me on an incremental basis and are responding to any, all, or none of them as they choose. 

I think you, like me, will enjoy what these women have to say, from the serious to the playful. I look forward to writing these pieces and hope you will look forward to reading them!

Campus Ministry + Isolation = A creative challenge

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – For many of us, campus ministry is one of those things that is on the fringe. Unless we’re involved with or connected to it in some way, we really don’t think about. We might give it a nod and say “that’s nice” – but all-in-all, it’s probably not something most of us think about on a regular basis.

There are some folks, though, who find campus ministry to be a priority. 

For ordained and lay persons doing campus ministry, it is about introducing or keeping students connected to God. It is a compassionate and passionate ministry. They are out there connecting face-to-face with students, listening, welcoming, counseling, worshiping, breaking bread, doing service projects and mission trips, going on retreats, studying the Bible study, and other activities with them.  

For those university students, it can be a place for community in God’s name while they are away from their home congregations. For some it is their only church. And for many it can be the one place where they can find the affirmation, hope, and reassurance that they desperately need.

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted all of us and college students have not been exempt from its uncertainties and frustrations. Our synod’s campus ministers have been finding ways to stay connected with their students, in spite of them being dispersed throughout Michigan and beyond.

One Community members Emma Repp and Rachel Tuller make the most of being sheltering roommates.

Pastor Haley Vay Beaman serves University Lutheran Church, East Lansing and does campus ministry – “One Community” – at Michigan State University:

“We have weekly Zoom check-ins, just like we would have our weekly ‘Friday at Five’ meal and fellowship ministry,” she said. “We also have ongoing Bible study and game nights on a weekly basis. 

“We are also keeping students connected through video ministry, our ‘youtube’ channel that features student-made videos. At April 26 worship, we are celebrating our graduates with a virtual quilt wrapping”

Pastor Dana Hendershot serves Immanuel Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, along with Craig Torgerson, Director of Faith Formation. One of Torgerson’s tasks is ministry to Central Michigan University students through “Immanuel on Campus”:

“As we have spent most of our time trying to figure out online church [at Immanuel], we’re finally getting into a rhythm,” Hendershot said. 

The plan is to use Zoom and other resources to stay connected with students. 

Immanuel musicians finish a virtual worship service piece just prior to Michigan’s sheltering mandates.

“There is no doubt this crisis is affecting our college students deeply and it is important for the church to be there for them. Not only did they get stuck home, unable to return to campus, and moving to online classes, but now for many their summer plans to work have vanished, too. We look forward to the students return and we miss our interns deeply.”

Pastors Rachel Laughlin, along with Megan Floyd, Youth Ministry Director, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Portage; Jennifer Michael, St. Peter Lutheran Church, Battle Creek; Kjersten Sullivan, Trinity Lutheran Church, Battle Creek; and Ken Johnson and Jake Lehman, Trinity Lutheran Church, Kalamazoo serve congregations that make up “Matrix”, a campus ministry directed at Western Michigan University:

“Matrix has been setting up Zoom supper gatherings in place of our normal twice a month gatherings,” Sullivan said. “There were some concerns the students would be ‘zoomed’ out, and what was discovered is they were tired of internet school but the stress is definitely building rather than receding – so Zoom checks are appreciated.”

No matter where Matrix students find themselves, “the pastor is in”. 

“We’re also working to arrange summer internships for our students to continue growing in faith and connecting with their ministry sites, even if it’s digitally,” Laughlin said. “Like every other expression of the church, we’re trying to do what we always do – in our case, give students a place to connect, grow, and lead in faith – in brand new ways. We’re learning fast and doing our best – All while all of our leadership is doing the same in our individual congregations.

“Specific ministry site aside,” she continued, “campus ministry has an opportunity to be the church – the community of faith for those in need – for our students in the midst of all of this. We may be the only connection to the community of faith that they have.”

This brings to mind some lyrics from “The Church Song”, written by Lutheran musician Jay Beech:

“The church is not a business, a committee, or a board;                                                                                                                       It’s not a corporation for the business of the Lord.

The church, it is the people living out their lives,                                                                                       Called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ.

We are the church, the body of our Lord.                                                                                                             We are all his children, we have been restored.”

Meanwhile…during the virus…

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – As COVID-19 blankets us and we move through uncharted territory, the people of God take example from the early Christians and find ways to share the Gospel, even though the odds sometimes seem overwhelming. We can take heart, though, that we do not have to meet “in secret” – in its most literal sense – or that we will be slain by the Romans for gathering for Christian fellowship, study, prayer, or worship.

Unlike our very early ancestors of the Christian faith, we have the luxury of not having to meet in secret. Yes, we are inconvenienced – sometimes to the point of feeling like  rubber bands about to snap – but it really is an inconvenience when you put it next to “in secret, but I will die (literally) if I get caught.” 

So even though some refer to this situation in which we find ourselves as “A Brave New World” or “the most trying time of all history” – for most of us, especially Christians in the U.S.A., it is not the most dangerous situation in history for us or for the world. Currently, we Christians can use social media, the internet, video chats, etc., to stay in contact with one another. We still worship, study, pray, and have fellowship, albeit not in the forms we enjoy and take for granted. We are also finding ways to stay in touch with, serve, and provide needs for our communities.

Meanwhile… our synod’s staff, pastors, deacons, and church members are finding creative ways to make these much-desired connections happen. What follows are “gleans” from some of our congregations’ web or Facebook sites. Can any be reworked or built upon to meet your congregation’s and community’s needs? Are there other congregations (including churches with whom we are in full communion) with whom you can share any of these offerings? 

Decide what mode works for your situation: audio, video, virtual, face chat, etc., and go for it.

(These are in no specific order.) 

Sunday school –Bible stories or topics; downloadable activities for kids; participants do art or crafts using whatever is available to them; virtual Sunday school (kids, adults, intergenerational) at its usual Sunday morning time

Pastor Christen Fawcett and her daughter do a daily message for kids.

Lectionary  post upcoming Sunday’s lessons for people to look up or, better yet, supply the entire texts; videos or audios featuring someone reading the lessons

Children’s message – post animated videos for the upcoming Sunday’s children’s messages or videos of someone telling or acting out the upcoming Sunday’s children’s message

Words of encouragement – giving everyone a chance to share their and receive others’ encouragement and inspiration

Daily messages – biblical/inspirational messages from pastor, lay leaders, youth, kids

Visitation – “visit” or lead devotions for shut-ins, nursing home residents, etc. 

Bishop – share Bishop Satterlee’s messages 

Community connections – keep members of the congregation and community apprised on food distributions, free meals, emergency transportation, and whatever the community needs; provide avenues for community to tell you what it needs

Bible study – give prompts via FB or other sources for people to do their own study; study as a “face-to-face” or audio groups

Daily messages, stories, activities for kids – use borrowed or original resources, props, costumes, puppets, etc., live or pre-recorded, downloadable activities

Teens – keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch; involve them and call on them for tech support or to be part of your “productions;” provide a closed forum where they can connect with one another and share their concerns; listen, listen, listen; let them do the talking; don’t judge

Sunday worship – live, during regular worship times; try to do “face-to-face”; include pastor, deacon, lay ministers, acolytes, etc. 

Daily prayers – morning and evening prayers, noontime prayers; live or pre-recorded

Pastor Emily Olsen and her cat, Meatball (pictured), lead daily matins.

Drive-in worship – work with AM radio station to gain access, offer drive-in worship in your church parking lot at usual worship times

The church – Keep congregation updated on what the Northwest/Lower Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and their affiliates are saying and doing

Music – share original or other inspirational, meditative, up-dated music, be they hymns or secular; find ways to sing or dance together

This is, for sure, not an exhaustive list. There is more out there and there is more to come. 

Meanwhile… if you’ve been lax with your web site, now is the time to use it to its maximum. If you use Facebook, keep it busy. If you’ve been meaning to try Instagram or Twitter, this is a great time to take the leap. 

And meanwhile… stay safe, keep others safe, sing, pray, and keep rising above our current inconvenience.

Six Years and Counting: Part 3

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – What follows is part 3 of sharing some of my favorite stories (which have been updated/abridged in this article) that I wrote for “Mission in the Mitten” during Bishop Satterlee’s first term in office. Choosing is difficult because there are so many good stories to tell. But I hope the ones I’ve chosen will refresh and inspire. 

A Gift of Pie (2016)

It always inspires me when I am able to tell a story that, on the surface, seems to be a no-brainer, but that, in the end, has great depth. This is one of them.

Some groundwork: According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one definition of “gift” is “the act, right, or power of giving”. It’s no surprise the “giving” is defined as an act. It may be a bit surprising that it’s referred to as a right. And it’s probably safe to venture that many of us are wondering about the inclusion of power. But shouldn’t we? After all, it is through the giving of God’s son on the cross that God exerts power over the darkness of sin. Jesus gives us new life through his powerful and power-filled resurrection. 

We find power in our own giving. Through our giving of time, possessions, prayer, and compassion, we see time and time again that our giving gives us power,through Christ, to bring thepower of hope, promise, self-sustainability, healing, justice, grace, self-esteem, and new life to others.

Pastor Ray Bartels is well aware of the power of giving. He may be retired from his “paid” work, but his call to serve others remains intact. Widowed and in his 90’s, one of his lifelong learnings is that what may seem a small gift to the giver can be a powerful example of God’s love and grace to the receiver.

One of Bartels’s more recent hobbies is baking pies. One day he decided that was what he wanted to do – and so he did, and now he does. He now makes 27 kinds of pie.

The first ones were strawberry. Fresh from the oven, he put them in his car and headed for the nearby homes of three men who, like him, were widowers.

After his wife died, a retired pastor found the power of giving.

The first widower had lost his wife six months before Bartels’s wife died. The recipient was grateful for the gift and Bartels’s brief, but meaningful, words.

Finding no one home at the second stop, Bartels moved on to the third one. At first, no one answered the door. Certain that someone was home, Bartels persisted.

Finally, the man came to the door, weary, grief etched on his face and in his stance. Bartels gave a warm hello, a few words, and offered the strawberry pie.

“Ten minutes after I got home, I received a phone call,” Bartels said. “It was the man from my third stop.”

There was a sense of relief and gratitude in the man’s voice.

“Thank you,” he said. “All I had for dinner was a bowl of cereal.”

Then the impact of the gift of a strawberry pie came in the man’s next words:

“That,” he said, “was an act of God.”


Pinpricks of Hope (2015)

On May 2, 2015, ten members and one former member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lansing, embarked on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota. The Ogala Sioux (Lakota) reservation, was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, when a group of Lakota families (nearly 300 people) seeking sanctuary was ambushed and slaughtered by U.S. soldiers – virtually sealing the defeat of the native peoples. 

Geographically, the reservation is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, is the U.S.’s 8thlargest reservation, has a population of about 29,000, and is second only to Haiti as the poorest area in the Western Hemisphere. With roughly 80% of its population unemployed, it is not surprising that about half of the reservation’s population lives wellbelow the Federal poverty level. 

There is little economic development or industry on the reservation; there are no banks or discount stores. Most spending is done off site, mostly across the state line into Nebraska. Most of the 84,000 acres of arable land that exist are leased to large agricultural producers, with the reservation receiving little benefit.

Although the sale and possession of alcohol is banned on Pine Ridge, alcoholism is rampant and affects 80-90% of the reservation’s families. Suicide among teens is four times the national average. The life expectancy for women is 53; for men it is 48. The infant mortality rate is roughly 30 deaths per 1,000 live births – five times the national average.

Many residents have no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewage system. Many homes have dirt floors and sometimes no beds. There is no public transportation. The predominant forms of travel are walking and hitching. Owning a car is a luxury. Gang activity has seen a rise as young people go to the cities and bring the gang culture back with them.

Learning about Pine Ridge left me with a feeling of hopelessness. How did these people survive? Where was God in all of this? 

Kelly Carpenter and Steve Viele were among the group that traveled from Lansing to Pine Ridge. 

Viele already had ten mission trips under his belt and had one chief goal: to connect with the Pine Ridge Retreat Center (a Lutheran/Lakota shared ministry) and the people. The interest was piqued by former Bethlehem member Max Miller, now a pastor serving in South Dakota. Miller did his seminary internship at Pine Ridge.

Spiritual and emotional preparation, with prayer being foremost, began in August of last year. ELCA Pastor Karen Rupp, who was then the director of the retreat center, recommended some reading. The mission team was also able to direct questions to Miller via e-mail. 

“We weren’t quite sure what to expect,” said Carpenter, who had already been on seven mission trips, “so we went with an open mind and not as many goals as just willingness to do whatever they asked – which we did.”

Lunch is part of a day’s activities for children at the Lutheran/Lakota Retreat Center.

Some of the tasks at the center were plumbing work, installing a hot water heater, starting a roofing project, yard work (also at offsite locations), and working with the kids. 

“We also did sightseeing to learn all we could about the people and the culture,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter and Viele describe the reservation as: “not many trees, sparsely populated, very poverty-stricken with deplorable housing, dogs everywhere, much un-farmed land.

These statistics are about a people, humans made in God’s image. They are also a brutal reminder of a piece of history that some would rather forget.

“There are many struggles,” Viele said. “Unemployment, suicide, alcohol, and inhalants are big problems. There have been 19 suicides so far this year (as of May 2015).”

Although hopelessness can run deep, there are pinpricks of hope along the way… tiny flecks of light that dare to challenge despair. Many of those pinpricks can be attributed to the work of the retreat center and the Lakota’s strong emphasis on family and heritage. Households filled with multiple generations are not unusual, with many three-bedroom homes housing 15 or more people.

“Family means everything to them,” said Viele. “They take great joy in celebrating the educational accomplishments of their children.” 

“This mission trip was the first of what we hope will be regular trips to the retreat center,” said Bethlehem’s pastor, Matt Smith, who also went on the trip. “We are just beginning to form relationships with the people and explore ways that we can join in helping to meet the great needs on the reservation. The mission offering we receive once a month has been designated to fund a ministry position at the center that will be focused on youth and young adults, primarily working on suicide prevention.”

Pinpricks of hope. God’s work. Our hands. Our hearts.

Called by Fire (2016)

What if I were tell you that three out of four ECLA clergy are volunteer fire fighters? Well, at least that’s true for Gladwin County, where four ELCA clergy reside and three serve on their community’s fire departments.

From Left: Pastors David Sprang, Emily Olsen, and Reed Schroer.

The story begins in 1980 with Pastor David Sprang, a Gladwin resident who serves as a bishop’s assistant for the North/West Lower Michigan synod. Sprang’s first call was as to St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Trufant, where he was taken under the mentorship of Michael Anderson, the pastor of the neighboring Settlement Lutheran Church, Gowen. 

Anderson was a volunteer firefighter and encouraged Sprang to take the necessary training to join the Trufant Fire Department. Since he had decided as a little boy that being a firefighter would be “way cool,” Sprang didn’t need much goading.

“Mike said ‘once you get it in your blood, you’re hooked,’” he said, “and that is so true. It becomes a passion.”

Subsequently, Sprang has been a volunteer firefighter in Millbury and Leetonia, Ohio. When he was called as pastor to Christ the King Lutheran Church, Gladwin, in 1996, it didn’t take him long to connect with the Gladwin Rural Urban Fire Department. He also serves as the department’s chaplain.

While Sprang was at Christ the King, Hope Lutheran Church in Rhodes saw the arrival of Pastor Reed Schroer. As their friendship grew, Schroer was able to discern his own call to firefighting.

“David got me involved,” he said. “I listened to his stories and thought ‘I can do this.’”

Schroer joined the Billings Township Fire Department and eventually became its chaplain as well. Although he had to give up much of the firefighting itself, he remains as the department’s chaplain and assists where needed.

“It stays with you,” Schroer said. “You won’t retire; you won’t quit.”

Meanwhile, Emily Olsen landed at Hope in the summer of 2012 to do a yearlong seminary internship under Schroer’s supervision. She blames him for her call to firefighting.

“It was Reed’s idea,” she said. “When he was interviewing me [before internship] he talked about being on the fire department… and I thought it sounded worth pursuing. So my firefighting days started along with my internship.”

After her internship, Olsen returned to Pacific Lutheran Seminary for two more years of study. In 2015, she received the call to Christ the King, Gladwin – where Sprang had served – and resides in nearby Beaverton. By now, Olsen had done some EMT training and was quick to become a member of the Beaverton Area Fire Department.

Looking back at their first runs as firefighters, the three pastors have no problem forgetting the scenarios.

“I was only in my second or third week of training in Trufant when we were called to a small structure fire,” Sprang said. “The adrenaline kicked in and it was exciting to see the ‘book work’ turn into action.”

Schroer had only been with his department for one week and had already experienced three structure fires.

“Officially, I couldn’t do anything fire-wise, yet,” he said, “but I was able to talk with and care for victims and my colleagues.”

Olsen’s first run was while she was on internship.

“It was 2:00 in the morning, there’s a call, and Reed says ‘come along’,” she said. “We took off our ‘Vicar Emily’ and ‘Pastor Schroer’ hats… but we were still ministers.”

That being said, Olsen pointed out that even in this kind of scenario, the three of them are still pastors and representatives of Christ and of the ELCA. The same boundaries and skills apply in the firefighting community as in the faith community.

“You can’t separate yourself from your boundaries and who you are as a called and ordained minister of the church,” Olsen said. “What you say and the way you talk as an EMT, as a firefighter, or as a pastor –it’s all the same.”

Like members of a congregation, firefighters share a comradery and culture that isn’t always understood by outsiders. One thing that does differ is that, unlike Christ’s church, not everyone is welcomed into the firehouse family. Certain criteria must be met and those not willing to carry their share of the load might find themselves out the door.

On the other hand, like a congregation, that sense of community builds as the members spend more time together – especially as they share times of crises.

“There is a firehouse culture,” said Sprang. “You don’t talk about your colleagues behind their backs and you don’t know any firefighter who doesn’t have his or her own sort of piety.”

“It’s interesting that when you are at the fire, accident, suicide, or other crisis, everyone is on their best behavior,” Schroer said. “They are doing everything with dignity. Working as one is the only thing that’s going to meet this monster head-on. But when we’re back at the station, everyone has to let off steam. That’s when I need to assess how I can best be helpful here.”

The firefighting pastors see other correlations between the firefighting and congregational communities:

  • “One of things I’ve learned on this fire department is that you don’t have to need to know everything that you’re doing – there’s one or two other people telling you…”
  • “No matter how much training you have, putting it into practice is what matters.”
  • “Mutual aid is necessary. Fire departments assist one another when needed. You can’t be an island as a church. When there is a common need, you need to work together.”
  • “You can’t get any closer to the people – your comrades or the victims – than when there’s a crisis… because you’re with them when they’re vulnerable.”
  • “It’s always important to be engaged in your community.”
  • “There’s ten people standing here between you and disaster.”
  • “Give each other space when needed.”

But Schroer probably summed it up best: 

“We need to stick with each other.”

Six Years and Counting: Part 2

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – What follows is part 2 of sharing some of my favorite stories (which have been updated/abridged in this article) that I wrote for “Mission in the Mitten” during Bishop Satterlee’s  first term in office. Choosing is difficult because there are so many good stories to tell. But I hope the ones I’ve chosen will refresh and inspire. 

Young Boxers Find Self-Worth (2016)

I spent an afternoon at Zion Lutheran Church, Saginaw, which hosts The Saginaw Boxing Club. The boxing club is a year-round program that promotes discipline and hard work, while aiming for participants to not only learn the craftsmanship of boxing, but to gain a sense of pride and self-worth. The club’s mission is to be “a nonprofit organization that offers physical and mental training to youth and adults of Saginaw free of charge in the art of boxing and self-discipline”.

With a large gymnasium that saw less and less use over the years and with a commitment to its changing neighborhood, Zion took on the opportunity to be the club’s home. This has given the club consistency and roots. It has given Zion a tangible way to demonstrate its commitment to the neighborhood.

Kids and young adults participating in the program find Zion to be a safe, welcoming place where they can feel part of a community. Some young people find boxing to be a way to unleash their emotions in a controlled environment. Some box because they like to do sports and this is one sport that they can afford or one for which they’re skilled.

Young boxer Jeremy Olivarez (left) with Joe Mendez: “It’s a great way to take out my anger and frustrations.” (2016)

Most of the boxers are male, most are Latino – but there are females and there are African Americans and a few others in the mix. Many are in low-income situations and some are at-risk. But in the confines of Zion’s gymnasium, they are a community of individuals aiming for being the best they be.

“These kids are amazing,” said Pastor Sue Hand of Zion Lutheran Church. “Some of them have tough challenges in life… but they try to find positive ways to deal with it.”

I was fortunate to talk one-on-one with three of those young men, all of whom were looking into the future – well-knowing their lives could have easily taken them down unhealthy paths.

Joe Mendez, who was 18 at this time, began boxing when he was 14 years old. 

“At first I thought it would be a little ‘phase’ thing,” Mendez’s father said. “But after I watched a couple of fights, I knew he was serious. I’m really proud of him.”

Mendez, who has run track, played basketball and football, and who works out to stay in shape, knew he was in the right place when he stepped into the ring for his first fight.

“I wasn’t really nervous,” he said. “When I stepped into the ring I thought ‘just lean back into what you’ve learned, Joe’ – and it worked. I can do it when I put my mind to it.”

Jeremy Olivarez, who was 19 at this time, also started when he was 14 years old. He was inspired to try the sport after witnessing an older cousin’s success with tae kwon do.

“He learned discipline and proved he could be tough,” Olivarez said. “Not ‘tough’ like beating somebody up… but being able to hold his own.”

Olivarez, who works full time, spends his evenings working out at the boxing club and his weekends participating in tournaments. He credits boxing for keeping him disciplined and focused.

“I’m either working or boxing,” Olivarez said. “I don’t have time to get in trouble. We can’t drink; we can’t smoke. We need to be healthy – our bodies and our minds.”

Olivarez knows he could have easily self-destructed. At the time I spoke with him, his father was in prison. Even harder was the loss of his mother who was murdered in her home several months prior to my meeting him. (His father’s incarceration had no relation to his mother’s death.)

“A family… well… sometimes in life you can’t control things,” Olivarez said. “It’s [boxing] a great way to take out my anger and frustrations. I definitely need this.”

He hopes to go professional.

“I can only do my best,” he said. “It’ll take a lot of time, a lot of hard work, and a lot of faith.”

Jayden Rodriguez, who was 14 at this time, began boxing when he was 12 years old. He rapidly made his way to championship status. But he had his doubts when he entered the ring for his first bout.

“I was anxious and wanted to get it over with,” he said. “But I just focused and remembered what I’d learned – and I won.”

That win gave Rodriguez the boost he needed to continue.

“I like it,” said Rodriguez’s father. “It keeps Jayden busy. When he gets home he’s worn out and he doesn’t have time to run the streets. And he know that if he gets in trouble, his punishment is ‘no training’.”

Like Olivarez, Rodriguez hopes to be a professional boxer.

“These three young men are awesome. It’s been amazing watching the transformation – especially Jeremy. This program and his girlfriend are the two steadying things in his life.” Hand said. “The kids who come here find purpose and affirmation. They find acceptance. It’s great for them, it’s great for the neighborhood, and it’s great for Zion.”

Kids Can Do Anything (2016)

Sometimes it takes the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of children to get things done – and was reminded of that while doing this story.

It’s a simple process, really: (1) decide what to do and (2) do it. 

The process says “no” to studies, surveys, committees, performance tests, red tape, or all that other stuff that adults sometimes let get in the way of action. You just name it, then you do it. It’s a no fuss, no muss deal.

That’s exactly what sisters Makayla (age 10 at this time) and Sarah (age 8 at this time), Wiseman, members of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Gladwin, did when they heard about the Flint Water Crisis.

“At school one day I heard some people talking about the bad water,” Makayla said. “I thought, ‘huh… maybe we should do something about that. Maybe we should have a bake sale and give the money to the people in Flint’.”

Makayla Wiseman, second from right, talks with Sue Sprang (left) about the bake sale. Also in the picture are her sister, Sarah (right), and their friend, Shannon Graham. (2016)

After school that day, Makayla told her sister about her idea. Sarah agreed and they approached their mom, Dawn Wiseman, to get her take on things. Much to the sisters’ delight, their mom wholeheartedly agreed.

Within a week, the girls had recruited some of the congregation’s best bakers and placed an announcement in the bulletin. The bake sale was held after worship services the following weekend. Baked goods were purchased by freewill donations.

Makayla and Sarah raised $194. The money went to Salem Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Flint, which was and still is instrumental in assisting the community with issues related to the water crisis. Makayla and Sarah’s gift went toward a new filtration system installed at the church – a place people could come to obtain clean, safe, sustainable water.

The girls made no hesitation in explaining why they chose to have the bake sale.

“The kids are sick,” Sarah said. “They need help.”

“They cannot drink the water,” Makayla said. “They cannot bathe or cook.

“Jesus wants us to help others,” she continued thoughtfully, “and it’s a good thing to do during Lent. We’re supposed to go out and help others.”

Christ the King’s pastor, Emily Olsen, was pleased with the girls’ desire to serve Jesus and to help others.

“Kids like the Wiseman girls not only make us proud,” she said, “but their actions make it look like we actually know what we’re doing from time to time.”

What advice would the sisters give their peers?

“Kids can help out in any way they want,” Makayla said.

Sarah agreed with a smile and a nod of satisfaction.

The Good Years (2017)

Interviewing C. J. Clark is always a pleasure. Clark is the executive director of Living Water Ministries (LWM), a joint program of the North/West Lower and Southeast Michigan Synods, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This particular interview was done in the spring of 2017, looking back at summer 2016 and toward the upcoming summer.

“It was a good year,” said Clark, as he reflected on 2016 summer camp and looked toward the 2017 season, “and we expect this year to be a good one, too.”

Under Clark’s vision and steady hand, LWM summer camp has been moving forward by offering quality programing based on community, inclusivity, faith and leadership formation, and the current and future needs of the Church and the world. Program director Lori Pranger and LWM’s board have also played integral roles in the program’s evolution.

LWM’s mission statement reads: “Bringing together all of God’s children to experience Christian community, grow in faith, develop leadership skills, and serve others.”

“Our mission statement clearly defines who we are,” Clark said. “We were intentional with the phrase ‘all of God’s children’ because we didn’t want to leave anybody out. It’s a guiding statement that holds LWM accountable to reaching out to as many people as possible with the gospel through the camp experience.”

“Bridge Builders” brings youth from across the country to address leadership and racism in a safe, caring, faith-forming environment. (2016)

Among 2016’s successes was “Bridge Builders,” which has gained national recognition as a cutting-edge program. Geared for youth grades 9-12, “Bridge Builders” seeks to help participants “grow as a leader, develop peer ministry skills, and join the fight against racism as an expression of their faith and our call to love our neighbors.”

Clark shared that the week-long program was intense, but participants left with a new or renewed sense of purpose and empowerment.

“There were definitely some challenge points,” he said. “Probably the biggest challenge was bringing together kids from different cultures and cultural norms. We needed to recognize and acknowledge each other’s survival or preservation modes and keep grace front-and-center – but the kids navigated through the week just fine.”

Joining their Michigan peers were youth from across the U.S. Scholarships were available to assist out-of-state participants with registration and travel costs.

One young woman, Leticia, commented: “… I was very impressed with my small group discussing the experience they had relating to privilege and racism. I did not know that they would be as upset as I was with society nowadays.”

“The dynamic was awesome,” Clark said. “[The kids] wanted to be there.”

Grant-based follow-up will keep track of how the young people are implementing their learning and experience at home.

Another fast-growing program is Day Camp. Geared for kids ages 5-12, day camp’s purpose is to “provide a safe environment for families to engage the gospel daily in ways that are fun, educational, and transformative.” 

“We work with each congregation to tweak the program for their needs and desired outcome,” Clark said. “What works in one setting isn’t necessarily the best format for another.”

Because of the growing demand for day camp, LWM has had to find ways to meet that need.

“We’ve increased the number of [day camp] teams,” Clark said. “We’ll keep adapting as we go.”

Clark credits the staff for their genuineness and hard work in making the summer a success. Programs and situations involving campers with what is called “other normal” were a challenge. 

“They had to learn to recognize that not everyone defines or experiences ‘normal’ the same way,” he said. “We’ll keep working on our “mental first aid” – recognizing that certain behaviors that we see as not normal might be normal for someone else.”

At the end of the day, though, the staff brought it home.

“They see what is happening,” Clark said. “They see change in the world and they believe in making a difference, in tearing down boundaries. We’re building on that for the upcoming (2017) summer.” 

 Clark summarized our conversation by saying: “One of our core values is ‘excellence’. Things can only get better!”

Operation Turkey Sandwich (2016)

While most of us enjoy not working on holidays (especially Thanksgiving and Christmas), more and more workers are finding themselves at their jobs as stores, restaurants, cinemas, and other non-essential businesses open their doors on those special days. They join an already established holiday workforce from essential services, such as law enforcement, firefighters, and so on.

Kristen Wilson, a member at Peace Lutheran Church, South Haven, was a member at St. James Lutheran Church in Jackson, when she was inspired by similar projects to thank those workers   – not only for working on a holiday, but for their work in general.

It made sense that such a project should happen on Thanksgiving Day. And so, with willing volunteers on board, Wilson spearheaded “Operation Turkey Sandwich”. The goal was to deliver paper bag “Thanksgiving” meals to people on the job on Thanksgiving Day.

It was decided that the sack meals should not require silverware. Two turkeys were roasted, then made into sandwiches. Volunteers met at the church on Thanksgiving morning to pack and deliver the lunch bags.

Each bag included: a plain turkey sandwich, a homemade stuffing “muffin”, a homemade pumpkin dessert (bar or cookie), a boxed cranberry juice and straw, a napkin, one packet each of mayonnaise and mustard, and most importantly, a note of thanks.

Operation Turkey Sandwich is an outreach of “thanks” to those who work on Thanksgiving Day.

The lunch bags were hand-delivered to places such as grocery stores, dollars stores, etc., in Jackson, with a verbal “Happy Thanksgiving” and thanks. Sixty-two meals were delivered.

“We handed one to a police officer on a corner,” Wilson said, “and you could tell he was so surprised. We had made his day.”

I was impressed with the project, then I thought of the possibilities. Thanksgiving isn’t the only holiday to thanks those who are working. What about a Memorial Day or 4thof July picnic or a traditional Christmas Day meal in a bag? Are there others in your congregation or community who might help you show holiday workers that you care?

Six Years and Counting: Part 1

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – When asked if I would write stories for the “Mission in the Mitten” column on the synod’s website, how could I resist? It’s rare when I turn down the chance to write, so it was a pleasure to say “yes” and I looked forward to learning what the people in our synod were doing/hoping to do to carry out the Gospel.  That being said, I would like to share pieces of some of my favorite stories with you. Choosing is difficult because there are so many good stories to tell. But I hope the ones I’ve chosen will refresh and inspire. (NOTE: “Six Years and Counting” refers to the Bishop’s first six-year term. He was re-elected for another term in May 2019.)

Abounding Faith 

In the spring of 2015, I spent part of a day with our synod’s South Sudanese Christ Lutheran Church, Wyoming. It was a rich, deeply moving experience that left me spiritually uplifted and reminded me of those things I take for granted. Worship, stories and conversation, and a warm welcome culminated to pronounce a strong, abounding faith of a congregation whose roots lie in a story of civil war and strife. It was a story so foreign to my own – and it was humbling.

The congregation’s roots lie in the phenomenon of what has been labelled the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, some who found their way to America. The church community brings together those who have shared an emotional ride of civil war, refugee camps, and going to a strange country to try to forge a new life. Their past and present are intermeshed as they bring the strife of their past with the hope of a better future for their own children, thanking God for the present while vowing to not forget the past – and those they left behind in South Sudan.

Boys as young as seven (or younger) journeyed to find refuge during civil strife, with some walking 1,000 miles or more.

Their strong faith has kept our Sudanese brothers and sisters from falling into a chasm of irrevocable despair. It has sustained them through witnessing murders of neighbors and loved ones. It is a faith that buoyed them when fleeing a military that saw no problem in kidnapping 12-year-old boys (then, later, seven-year-olds, to train as soldiers. It is a faith that saw them through separation from families, moving from refugee camp to refugee camp, and making a journey to a new country. It is a faith that they are anxious to share with anyone who will hear. I remember wondering: “God help me if my own faith would be that strong.”

I was blessed to be able to sit down with one of the congregation’s lay leaders, Paul Mawut, and hear his story. He displayed a tenderness and steadfastness that amazed me – and amazes me still – after hearing what he had experienced as a boy.

In 2001, after years of staying on the move or in refugee camps, Mawut, then age 16, arrived in the United States with about 3,800 other Lost Boys. He was placed with a foster family in the Grand Rapids area, completed high school, and earned a bachelor’s degree in aviation management. He works two full time jobs and sends much of his earnings to his family in Africa. He is grateful for making it safely through the war and for the gift of coming to the U.S.

The relocated Sudanese have not forgotten the importance of community that is highly valued by their culture. There is also the shared language and culture, and the shared childhood experience of a long, brutal war. 

“This [church] is where we come together. It is important socially and as a community,” Mawut said. “We want this to be a place where God’s Word is central and to be a comfortable place for children and strangers. As a people, we want to evolve in a healthy way. We want to be able to return to our country to give back the blessings we have received.”

A Twist on Lutheran DOGma (2015)

My 2015 interview with Pastor Joan Herbon, Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Portage, included a field trip involving the two of us, my sister, two dogs, and a nursing home. (Perhaps you’ve spied her at a synod assembly or clergy gathering, dog in tow.)

Herbon has been a “foster ma” to nearly 50 dogs and she has no doubt that God has used this foster mom/dog relationship to lead her to where she is today.

“I was 13 years old when I knew I wanted to work with God,” Herbon said. “I said, ‘Lord, I want to serve you… but I don’t want to be a minister’.”

Her reasoning for not wanting to be a pastor was that she was extremely shy, but God had other plans – which she later realized began when she started owning and training Irish Setters. She entered the dogs in shows and took them with her to work and other places. Herbon then got connected with Leader Dogs for the Blind and fostered a Golden Retriever named Jenny. She found that she enjoyed – and was good at – training Jenny the initial layer of commands and behavior required of an assistance dog. 

Herbon was prepared to foster another guide dog when she and her then husband moved out of state for his work. There she connected with Guide Dogs for the Blind and with the 4-H. Although not yet apparent, it was Hebron’s simultaneous work in these venues that cemented her path toward ordained ministry.

Kayci waits for a toy held by Pastor Joan Herbon. Assistance dogs must be patient and undistracted.

Working with the dogs and with 4-H not only honed Herbon’s patient and loving persistence, but showed her that she could be a tool for bringing hope into people’s lives. 

“I was becoming skilled in many things,” she said. “How do you comfort kids when they lose a pet or a prize animal and help parents deal their children’s grief? How do you explain what seems unfair? I was learning how to participate in community – in this case, a club – and make it make it a place of wholeness. God was actually teaching me how to minister to a church.”

Fast forward.

Herbon moved back to Michigan where she found a new church home. The tug toward ordained ministry became more pronounced. She was at a synod assembly when she realized God was serious – and eventually wound up attending college and seminary. During this time she continued training assistance dogs.

“I always had my dogs with me,” Herbon said. “They were with me at Wayne State and at Trinity. They were ‘good conversation starters’ that helped me get over my shyness. Someone would ask me about them… and the conversation started.”

After receiving a call to Lord of Life, Herbon quickly became connected with a local nursing home. Once a week she brings her dogs-in-training to the home where she leads a brief worship service and where the dogs are lavished with love, pats, and hugs. When my sister and I went with her on one of the visits, it was evident how popular the dogs were and that they brought joy and comfort to the residents. 

Herbon demonstrated some of the things the dogs had to learn. For example, she blew up a balloon which was bounced around the room by the residents and the two dogs. Finally, the balloon ended up in Herbon’s court and she gave it a quick pop. The dogs froze and gave her all their attention. Herbon explained that they had to learn to not be scared by loud noises, such as vehicles backfiring, firearms, etc. Their attention has to be totally focused on their owner.

Of course, Herbon connected each demonstration with faith and how God is always lovingly tending to us – but we sometimes let others things distract us and turn our focus elsewhere. It could take something like a gentle nudge of a dog’s nose or the unexpected pop of a balloon to turn our attention to where it needs to be. If we put the love and grace of God in the center of our lives, we will find focus.

Buster, Hoss, Rowdy, and Fritz (2015)

To date, this story has been the most popular one I’ve written for “Mission in the Mitten”.

While on Mackinac Island for an event for church leaders and spouses in the fall of 2015, I sometimes caught an island taxi (horse and carriage). I enjoyed talking with the drivers and learning about the horses – and it struck me that these horses have something to say about mission and working together as the Church.

It was there that I met Buster, Hoss, Rowdy, and Fritz. These horses spent an extended summer working on the island, where motorized vehicles are not allowed. They and some of their peers provided transportation for tourists, while others hauled luggage, garbage, food, packages, and other necessities. 

Buster and Hoss worked as a team for the island’s Mission Point Resort. Buster was at the driver’s left, Hoss to the right, and Buster seemed to be the lead horse. He didn’t take much goading to stay on track. Hoss was well-behaved – just needed a little more reminding. But they did their job and did it well.

What can Mackinac Island’s horses teach us about being the Church?

The horses were in no rush, giving their charges a chance to take in the scenery and enjoy the slower pace of island life. Passengers could talk as much or as little as they wanted – or could be silent, taking in the sounds of water traffic and horses’ hooves meeting pavement.

Although Buster and Hoss exuded confidence and good manners, they could still be distracted or try to do things their own way. The driver would gently, yet sternly, remind them who was in charge – and they would get back on course. Hoss usually took longer than Buster to get the message, but he pulled through.

Rowdy and Fritz did their job, too. 

Rowdy was always on the move. Even when he was just on “stand by”, Rowdy’s tail and at least one foot were in motion. Sometimes he got overanxious and needed gentle admonishing from his driver. 

Fritz was the perfect counterbalance for Rowdy. He deferred to Rowdy at the watering buckets, stood still – except for the occasional tail twitch – when he was supposed to, and, if he ever tried to go his own way, it wasn’t obvious to the passengers. Fritz was the “laid-back” to Rowdy’s zealousness. But they worked well together, pleasing their driver and those in their charge.

Periodically, the Mackinac equines were given short breaks for refreshment. Water and sometimes a treat accompanied encouragement from the drivers and loving pats from tourists and islanders. They returned to their work, grateful for the refreshment, inspired by the encouragement.

At the end of their tour of duty, the four horses and their roughly 500 co-workers returned to the mainland to winter – time for rejuvenation. Medical issues would be addressed, personalities monitored, and tender loving care given in an effort to maintain the horses’ fitness for their work.

A driver said the horses leave the island in waves as the number of tourists dwindles, and that they are able to sense when other horses are leaving and when they themselves are about to leave. Some horses exhibit behavioral changes such as restlessness, sassiness, or a sort-of melancholy. But when they return to the mainland, these majestic beasts find they are still part of a caring community, receiving encouragement, refreshment, and energy to carry out the next year’s task.

Music in a ‘Lutheran Sort-of-Way’

Although Jonathan Rundman, who was the music leader at our synod’s 2015 assembly, doesn’t reside in Michigan these days, he is a full-fledged “Yooper” – a Lutheran Finnish-American (six of his great-grandparents came from Finland, two from England) raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I shared his table in the display area and also had the opportunity to sit down with him for a chat over lunch. I found him to be passionate about his family, his roots, his music, and his faith.

A native of Ishpeming, Jonathan Rundman has fond memories of his childhood, where church was the center of his social life and school was something to be tolerated. He grew up at Bethel Lutheran Church, which Rundman described as “a multi-generational, family-oriented church. He loved going to church, where his grandma was the organist, and he also loved the music, the hymns, the liturgy.

Jonathan Rundman: purveyor of powerful church music and Finnish folks tunes

“My school was small, very non-homogenous and non-diverse and, unless you were an athlete, there really wasn’t much offered. I didn’t do sports and I didn’t do the ‘typical’ Yooper things like hunting or snowmobiles… so I spent a lot of time at church.”

Summers were a favorite family time at the cabin – swimming, saunas, and enjoying the outdoors. The rest of the year there was little to draw his interest – no mall, no hangouts – except church. 

By the time Rundman began high school, he knew he was called to make music his life. He had begun piano lessons in the 4thgrade and began to teach himself the guitar at age 16. He listened to and watched other musicians.

“I listened to the radio a lot and taught myself songs,” he said, “and I learned lots and lots of hymns.”

Then along came MTV. Rundman spent hours and hours watching and listening to ‘80’s rock and roll. He watched the musicians play their instruments and learned from them. The music videos gave him a music education – but, most importantly, they were a window to the outside world.

The idea of being a band teacher crossed Rundman’s mind – fleetingly. Then he attended a church youth gathering and knew he wanted to share his gifts in a different way. When he graduated from high school, Rundman joined a Lutheran Youth Ministry group, playing church camps, youth gatherings, and congregational concerts. He knew he was on the right track.

Known for his innovative arrangements of old hymns, bringing well-known secular songs into the religious realm, and his own compositions, Rundman has also become proficient in the music of his ancestors. Trips to Finland have connected him with family and Scandinavian/Nordic music, especially waltzes and polkas.

Rundman has had the opportunity to play alongside some of the world’s best Nordic musicians and is grateful for their influence on his music. There have also been other sources of inspiration.

“My [paternal] grandma started playing the church organ when she was 12 and played for 60 years,” he said. “My [maternal] grandpa had a houseful of instruments and my uncle helped me appreciate bluegrass and country. John Mellencamp has also been a big influence. When I first heard his music I thought ‘these are my songs’ – music of farms and of the Midwest.”

Rundman still uses his grandpa’s banjo and harmonica – and, along with the guitar and piano, also plays the harmonium and mandola. 

What sustains him? “I like to use that phrase ‘the great cloud of witnesses’. In recent years I’ve discovered a very long river running through the ages of time… It’s a grand story stretching back eons. When I became a parent my perspective on that ‘long line’ solidified. But my wife is my primary muse. She encourages me, supports me, and understands the theological concept of ‘vocation’.”

His mission: “I would say my mission is to apply my music career in a ‘Lutheran sort-of-way’. I have certain gifts God has given me – and with that comes a responsibility. It’s bringing a ton of encouragement to a community’s need [of God’s gift of grace] – singing, writing new songs for people to listen to and to sing. I hope to fill a need, fill a void, if I can do it.”

Besides his church-related work, Rundman makes up half of the Finnish folk music duo, Kaivama. For more information about all of his music, go to www.jonathanrundman.com

A Call for Community Engagement (2015)

I once served as associate in ministry at St. John Lutheran Church in Saginaw and was on board for its first day camp in 1998. I was long gone from St. John in 2015 when Pastor Connie Sassanella, who was serving as pastor at the time, invited me to one of the day camp talent shows. 

It was an amazing, emotional time for me as I moved to various points in the sanctuary and witnessed this profound transformation taking place at this place. The music of 120 youth, grades 1-8, moved through the sanctuary, voices raised in confidence and praise. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon my heart,” they sang. With passion they sang about freedom. 

In its 18thyear, the camp had begun as a two-week program targeted at the neighborhood, drawing in a few dozen kids. By 2015, it was eight weeks, with loads of kids and a wonderfully gifted staff.

120 neighborhood youth and a committed staff brought lots of joy to St. John’s 2015 day camp.   

An eastside congregation founded by German immigrants in 1852 and once one of the largest in the city, St. John found itself in the same situation as many urban congregations – experiencing “white flight” as the neighborhood’s demographics changed. It became largely a commuters’ congregation while its surroundings changed from predominately European American to African American. 

Saginaw was also struggling with the profound shift in Michigan’s automobile industry, the foundation of the city’s economy. The city’s infrastructure floundered; the population dwindled drastically. 

Beginning in the late 1990s, new pastoral leadership (Frank Reisinger, then Paulette Cummings) slowly helped lay groundwork for the future. Still, the congregation struggled into the 21stcentury knowing something had to happen – either close the doors or take the risks needed to re-invent itself.

Sassanella came to St. John in 2014. Along with a global vision and a commitment to inner city ministry, she also brought ideas for honing the day camp program with her – including staffing.

“Some of our staff are from the neighborhood; some are old-timers,” she said. “Our arts and crafts director was at the first day camp [in 1998] and our music director, Curtis, is a young man who’s the music director at two churches.”

Saginaw Valley State University students were also among the staff. These students attend the university through a program for inner city students.

“We have the university right here as a great resource… so why not use it?” said Sassanella. “They [students] have been a real gift.”

Campers could attend one or both of the four-week sessions that were offered Monday through Friday and included breakfast and lunch. Although the program included what most would consider “normal” camp activities, such as Bible study, recreation, arts and crafts, and music, it stretched to encompass other needs of children who are often at-risk. Among the daily activities were math and reading classes to help give kids the edge at school. 

Thanks to a grant, the day camp was able to get an “Experience Saginaw Passport”, which allowed one free trip for a group of 25 to each of three Saginaw facilities: Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum, the Children’s Zoo, and the YMCA. 

Music and culture made a wonderful blend when, thanks to an anonymous donor, respected percussionist Kevin Collins paid several visits to the day camp. Collins, who, among many things, directs Flint’s African Drum and Dance Troupe, demonstrated an impressive collection of traditional African percussion instruments, including hands-on time for the kids.

At the end of both sessions the campers presented a talent show in the sanctuary. They sang or danced to music accompanied by a grand piano and drum set or by digital tunes. They performed as one large group and in smaller groups and they did it with passion and with pride.

Pastor Kareem Bowen of The Potter’s Touch Ministries in Saginaw had five families from his church involved with the day camp. 

“Absolutely,” he said when asked if he saw the program as a positive one. “It’s very safe and a place for the kids to be able to have fun. This is our third or fourth year here. Pastor Connie has brought new energy and this camp has the ability to be a call for more community engagement. We are blessed.”

Trapp Grants Assist Northern Congregations

By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – Nine congregations recently benefited from grants received from the North/West Lower Michigan Synod’s Trapp Endowment Fund. The Trapp family gifted the synod with the funds about 20 years ago, stipulating they be directed to the northern portion of the synod. Here is how some of the grants are being used:

Members of New Life give their full support to their 24/7 food pantry

New Life, Spruce: $1,500, Little Free Food Pantry/Library – The Little Free Food Pantry/Library (LFFPL) began after a New Life member saw a news report about Little Free Food Pantries in other communities. She brought the idea to the congregation’s Church Outreach Committee who, along with the Congregational Council, thought it was a great idea. The congregation got on board and a member offered to build the pantry, with the church providing the needed supplies. Teachers in the congregation asked if books could be included – and that, too, was supported. The LFFPL was installed in June 2017. 

The congregation is involved providing either food and books or money to help fill it. Donations have also been received from New Life friends, Alcona Elementary School teachers, and local groups and organizations. This year the Spruce Postal Carriers donated all the food from their recent food drive. This is in addition to community members who donate food when no one is at the church. 

In the winter canned goods are stored in the church building with availability during office hours/worship times due to food safety concerns (frozen cans exploding/breaking seals, etc.), but the outdoor pantry is still stocked with items that can withstand freezing.  

“Alcona County is one of poorest counties in the state, and I think people saw a need and this was a good way to do something small to try and make a difference,” said Pastor Chrissy Bright of New Life. “We have definitely seen an uptake in use due to increased food insecurity. The LFFPL is available 24/7. There is no requirement for use.” 

Kids from Christ the King’s afterschool program with some of the personalized quilts they made.

Christ the King, Gladwin: $1,700, Kids Club – Christ the King’s Kids Club ministry began around 20 years with seed money from the St. John Lutheran Church, Saginaw, Trust Fund. The weekly afterschool program is staffed by adult and teen volunteers, with a director receiving a small stipend. 

There are two ten-week cycles school each year – one in the fall and the other beginning shortly after the New Year. The goal is to provide a safe, caring, fun environment for children while providing quality learning, music, games, refreshments, and arts and crafts, but mainly to share God’s love and to be a place where children can share their ideas about/ask about God and the church, knowing they will be heard. The arts and crafts are substantial, with some projects taking the entire 10-week cycle. For example, each child made her/his own personalized quilt, which involved assistance from the congregation’s Quilters group. 

At the onset of Kids Club, volunteers picked the children up from school and delivered them to the church. Now, in order to simplify the “red tape” of transporting others’ children, the kids are picked up by a Gladwin County Transit bus, with Christ the King covering the cost.

Pastor Matt Carpenter and members of Grace with Jerod boxes for hospitalized children.

Grace, East Tawas: $850, Jared Boxes– According to its website, the goal of the Jared Box Project is ‘to lift the spirits of children in the hospital. The boxes symbolize the importance of play and are filled with toys, games, well wishes, hope, and love” (www.thejaredbox.com). Grace’s pastor, Matt Carpenter, learned about the project when his son received a Jared Box while in the hospital. Carpenter was impressed and talked with parishioner Eric Nunn about the project. Nunn ran with it. Grace now gathers items, packs the boxes, and delivers them to the St. Joseph Health System, which is based in West Branch but is also present in Oscoda and Tawas.  Thanks to Grace and other groups, over 500,000 boxes have been distributed nationwide.

Grace, East Tawas:$1,000, Iosco County Coats for Kids –The purpose of the organization is to provide warm winter coats for families in need. While the focus is mainly on children, there are continual requests to help out other family members – so the organization tries to carry a wide inventory of adult coats. 

Each year, an average of 1,300 winter coats are distributed through local schools and organizations. Whenever enough funds are available, gloves, hats, scarves, boots, and shoes are also provided. Items of clothing that cannot be used are recycled to Detroit Missions and local clothing pantries. In recent years, the gift of a cross has been put into the pocket of every child’s coat along with a message to remind us all that Jesus Christ loves us and is Lord of our lives. Last year, a pocket quilt was placed each coat with a cross sewn inside. This year, the children will receive cross necklaces. 

Everyone involved with the ministry is a volunteer. The board members and many of the people who work on Coats for Kids are members of Grace and most of the other helpers are members of other churches in the county.   

Peace, Gaylord: $500, Community Meals– This weekly outreach ministry is shared by other churches in the community and provides a meal for approximately 60-70 people on a weekly basis. Peace is responsible for six of those meals, which are served at the downtown Congregational Church. Members prepare the meal, serve, clean up, and also provide dessert. Generally, 8-12 people are involved in serving and cleanup. 

Thanks to Peace and other congregations, approximately 3.400 were served last year. One of the highlights is always the Christmas dinner, where six turkeys are cooked by Peace members. 

Messiah, Roscommon: $1,500, Food Give Away Truck – In 2016 Messiah Lutheran began an outreach program that involved the purchase of semi-trucks of food from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. The foundation for the food truck was laid in 2009, when Messiah started serving dinners to the community, providing nutritious meals to those in need. The dinners are still served, but the congregation wanted to make a greater impact by helping more than the 100 people it could feed in the fellowship hall. What started as a once-a-month dinner has grown into reaching out to hundreds of local people by bringing semi-trucks of food to give away. 

Unlike many other area food programs, there is no income requirement, meaning the food is made available to all Roscommon County residents. The poverty level is high and it was the congregation’s concern that there were adults and children that may not be eating nutritious meals on a regular basis. The objective was to reach as many people in the community as possible, offering free food in large quantity. The food trucks offer meat, fresh and canned vegetables, and a great variety of items to choose from. Making a choice has appealed to those that attend the food giveaways. They get to choose what they want, and they aren’t given a pre-packed box of items that they may not like or use. The goal is for them to use the items. 

Local churches and other organizations, as well as individuals, have come on board, reaching out to those who are often forgotten. 

Other congregations receiving Trapp Grants were: Bethlehem, Traverse City: two grants totaling $1,350– both directed for youth ministries and scholarships; St. John, Grayling: $600 – youth ministry; St. Matthew, Herron: $300 – Community Christmas Brunch; and Trinity, Ocqueoc: $1,000 – Adopt a Family project.

Also, a $1,000 grant for northern travel was allocated to the synod.

“We’ve (synod staff) been spending more on travel in order to make sure our northern congregations get visited on a regular basis,” said Pastor David Sprang, Assistant to the Bishop and Director for Evangelical Mission for the N/W Lower Michigan Synod. 

Sprang also shared that the Trapp Endowment Committee earmarked 10% of the fund for reinvestment.

“This is something we ask all our endowment committees to do,” he said. “Grants are given off the interest earned. Reinvestment keeps the endowments replenished.”

 Any congregation in the Traverse, Sunrise, and Northern Bay Conferences are eligible (roughly anything north of M-61).  The committee will consider any grant amount requested, but the average award is $1500 or less. Committee members whose ministry settings submit a request abstain from voting on that particular request. 

The 2019 grant application will be finalized by September 15 and posted on Facebook and the synod website, and sent out by email.  It will be due on or near November 15.

Current committee members are Rev. Christina Bright (chair), Rev. Paul Busekist, Rev. Matt Carpenter, Ms. Denise Palmer, Bishop Craig Satterlee, and Rev. David Sprang.  The committee would be delighted to have a lay member from Traverse and Northern Bay as well. If anyone is interested in being on the grant committee please contact Pastor Bright at 989-736-7816 or at cmbmsu@gmail.com.


By Sue Sprang

SAGINAW – Sunshine, dedication, and lots of energy and enthusiasm helped to make Ascension Lutheran Church, Saginaw, 2018 Soccer Camp a success. Last year was the third for congregation’s Vacation Bible School “with a twist”.

Ascension member Bob Aldrich, who spearheaded the program, explained why the congregation moved in a new direction with Vacation Bible School. Aldrich is the congregation’s education coordinator.

“Our VBS attendance was low and most of the kids were from our congregation,” he said. “We were looking for a way to bring in more kids from the community.”

With the help of UPWARD SPORTS* and a slew of volunteers, Aldrich spearheaded a new approach to VBS – soccer… Jesus-style. UPWARD SPORTS is a faith-based organization that “helps church leaders leverage the power of sports to connect with families in their community”.

Coaches model sportsmanship and God’s acceptance.

In a nutshell, UPWARD offers resources to help faith communities bring Jesus onto the playing field. Kids don’t just learn to play soccer or reinforce their skills, but are encouraged by their coaches and other volunteers to play fair, with integrity and excellence, and with a humble acknowledgement of their God-given gifts.

“We used UPWARD’s resources,” Aldrich said, “but we just used the basics at added to it – gave it our own twist. A very important aspect of Soccer Camp is the Bible devotions each night. We have exceptional teachers and the kids learn some very valuable scripture knowledge.”

Last year’s Soccer Camp was held in the evening, July 23-26. Monday through Wednesday’s schedule included practice/play, devotions, Bible study (divided into age-appropriate groups), snacks, and lots of fun and fellowship. Thursday night included exhibition games.

Coaches, teachers, and high school soccer players joined other adult and teen volunteers in making each night its own adventure. School districts represented were Saginaw Township, Freeland, Swan Valley, and Hemlock. 56 volunteers put in over 2,000 hours of time and kept 52 campers busy and enthused.

Every camper is valued and every camper plays.

Good friends Owen, Connor, and Truett came to soccer camp for the enjoyment, but mostly to hone their skills in a positive environment.

“I want to get better,” said Conner, who plays defense and backfield, “and here everyone gets to play.”

“I used to play midfield, but now I play forward and goalie,” Owen said, “so I have to have strong legs. That’s what I’m working on.”

“This is fun and I want to play all positions,” Truett said. “I made a header yesterday.”

Eight-year-old Gabby enjoyed her second year of soccer camp.

“I want to learn soccer and I want to play baseball and basketball,” she said. “My favorite part of camp is Bible devotions. I love answering the questions. I also like snack time, especially the blueberries.”

“This is a great experience for Gabby,” said her mom, Dori Dalton. “She’s an only child, so this is a chance to hang out with kids her age, while getting exercise and learning good values.”

Ella, age eight, also found the camp to be a great experience.

“I like soccer, and I like being with my friends and making new friends,” she said. “I like playing with the older kids. I really like playing defense. My favorite snack was the yogurt with blueberries. And I love my friends Gabby and Victoria. I like Jesus, too.”

Teen-age volunteers covered many tasks and shared their outlook on the camp:

“I love seeing the kids smiling,” said Courtney, age 18, who has helped with the coaching drills the past three years. “They’re just having plain fun.”

“I was bored and wanted to help out,” said 13-year-old Anni. “I’m having a good time.”

“It’s good to help out,” said Max, 15. “I like seeing everyone having a good time learning about God and stuff.”

They and their peers are already looking forward to this year’s soccer camp.

Fifty-six volunteers put in over 2,000 hours to help make last year’s camp a success.

Adults involved in the program also shared their perspectives:

“The great thing is that there is a lot of community involvement and volunteers,” said Pastor Julie Bailey, Ascension. “It’s also an opportunity to get the confirmation kids to use what they learn. They’re able to connect soccer with their faith. The younger kids may not get it, yet, but it’s a start.”

“I know this church is my community and I want to be a part of it,” said volunteer Shelley Dawson. “It’s things like this that give people a chance to serve and to feel needed. Seeing people who aren’t a part of the church become involved is rewarding. It’s like we’re planting a seed.”

Shelley’s husband, Swan Valley High School teacher and track coach Dave Dawson, echoed the thoughts of his wife and other adult volunteers.

“It’s great to be outside and to see the kids having fun,” he said. “We get more kids [than we did with VBS]. It’s a good vehicle for comradery and challenges them physically and spiritually. The congregation is totally on board with the program. It’s good for us, for the kids, for the community.”

*UPWARD SPORTS also has recreation and sports programs in basketball, cheerleading, flag football, volleyball, baseball, and softball.

For more information about UPWARD SPORTS, go to www.upward.org. To learn more about Ascension’s program, please contact Education Coordinator Bob Aldrich at 989-781-2170.