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.”