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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”