When Henri Nouwen was seeking meaning in his life by service, he decided to go to Latin American to live among the poorest of the poor. He wanted to serve. He wanted to help. What he found, instead of needy people, was grateful people—people who always shared what little they had, people who looked out for the most vulnerable among them. He went to Latin America thinking that he had so much to share. And he learned that he received so much more than he was able to give. So he wrote a little book, Gracias!, about his experience.
The eight people from the Montana Synod who spent nearly two weeks in Bolivia visiting our companion synod could echo Nouwen’s experience: we received so much more than we gave. We shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what accompaniment is all about. It is not transactional. It is not about how much money one party has, nor how much need another has. It is about relationship, walking together.
We were invited to Bolivia to walk with them through their celebration of 80 years as a Lutheran Church, and to meet Lutherans from across the country. As we walked together, we found common interests, common challenges, common goals. We spent a morning talking about lay ministry. In our conversations over the years, we (Pastor Presidente Emilio and I) have discussed our joint interest in lay ministry. Last summer when he visited from Bolivia, we spent an afternoon meeting with LPAs and learning about their ministry. Last week, we spent a morning going into more detail about our program, including presentations from 3 LPAs—Cynthia Thomas, Dave Scholten and Alex Tooley. We also heard about their lay ministry program, and brainstormed about how we might cooperate. We are richer for the conversation. Gracias!
We spent time in Cobija, on the border with Brazil, and returned to the Galilea Centro, where lay pastor Luis works with children. Because he has done such a good job with children with special needs, the public school has asked him to take on more and more high needs children into the after-school program. And because he has incorporated these children, volunteers have come along. And the church is growing. Luis’s top concern has always been the children. At one point the entire leadership of the church consisted of children. Now there are adults, too. Because Cobija is a border town, it is full of drugs, and children are routinely recruited to be drug runners. Luis used to be outspoken against drugs. Because of threats to his life, he is less vocal. Instead he provides alternatives—computers, music, woodworking, sports, traditional culture. We were blessed to be in the presence of Luis and the children. Gracias!
The ministry in Cobija is supported by a cattle farm that was given to the church. Five years ago, at the request of the church, our delegation included a cattle expert, who was asked to diagnose the problems with the cattle and design a solution. A year or so later, the Montana Synod used our Assembly offering to help out with the problem, which turned out to be lack of water. Our offering helped repair water damage in the Centro, and set in place a system that will allow pumping of water from the stream to the cattle. Gracias!
We spent time in the opposite end of the country, in Tarija, not far from Argentina. Tarija is a lovely, temperate city, that is so expensive that thousands of people have to live in the unincorporated barrios on the outskirts of town. The IELB has a new ministry in 3 of the barrios—in one they are helping women grow food in greenhouses. In another there is a ministry among children, with cooperation from the barrio. A lay pastor (formerly a philosophy professor) oversees the ministries, teaches the children, helps with the greenhouses. The plan is for these ministries to attract local leadership, generating more lay pastors, serving more of the community. As we left the gathering of adults in the barrio, they said to us: “Don’t forget us.” We won’t. Gracias!
The church in Bolivia is very grateful for the partnership with the Montana Synod over the years. Pastor Bob Nilsen was the anchor in the relationship for many years, covering changes in leadership in both churches. He was instrumental in raising scholarships for schools, and for raising money for the Jessica Crist Retreat Center. The MTSWO started a scholarship in honor of Diana Hedegaard. Many congregations and individuals have made contributions, large and small, over the years, to projects of the church in Bolivia. Gracias!
And the church in Montana is very grateful for the partnership with the Bolivian church. We have been able to walk alongside a Lutheran Church that is entirely indigenous and completely natural about it. Gracias! We have learned about different models of lay ministry. Gracias! We have worshiped in a multilingual church in a plurinational country. Gracias! We have seen a church working with partners—churches, NGOs, government entities—to improve the welfare of the most marginalized people. Gracias! We have prayed and broken bread with people who are proud of their Lutheran identity, surrounded by Catholics, Pentecostals and traditionalists. Gracias!
Accompaniment is relationship. Gracias!
Jessica Crist, Obispa
For the last week I have been in Bolivia, visiting our Companion Synod, the Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and celebrating their 80th Anniversary as an indigenous Lutheran Church. So far we have spent 5 days in La Paz (elevation 13,000 feet), learning about the history of the church, worshiping, visiting the school, and going to the Obispa Jessica Crist Retreat Center. On Monday we traveled to Cobija, just across the border from Brazil, where the heat and humidity are tropical. We spent the afternoon and evening at the Centro Galilea, where Pastor Luis Blanco has a ministry with high needs children, and a congregation. This afternoon we head into the jungle to harvest bananas, and to visit the cattle farm that supports the ministry (and that we supported through our Assembly offering a few years ago.) Below I want to share some initial thoughts from the rest of our delegation.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
We are church! This has never felt more true than when we as Lutherans marched through the streets of La Paz to the celebration service of 80 years of Lutheranism in Bolivia,
Cynthia Thomas, LPA
Hola from Bolivia! Of the many life-enriching experiences I have had so far, I have been inspired by the gracious, generous and overwhelming hospitality extended to us by our brothers and sisters in Christ in Bolivia. I was moved by the ways in which very different cultures of peoples here desired to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That is to say, to be the people of God in community. I saw this powerfully expressed in Cobija with the ministry Pastor Luis has with children. I am grateful for this life- changing opportunity and look forward to sharing these and more stories with you, my Montana Synod brothers and sisters in Christ.
Pastor Steve Van Gilder
Live generously! I thought I did that (mostly). But in Bolivia I discovered a deeper meaning to this expression. Despite living in the poorest country in South America, the Bolivians I met shared their food, their incredible talents, and friendship as they welcomed an awkward stranger in a foreign land. Today I learned that living generously is not just about sharing resources, it’s about sharing love.
Dave Scholten, LPA
During my time here, I have learned so much about the culture and so much about the church. This is an experience like none other, where I am less of a tourist, and more of a neighbor to others. I have learned how much our partnership with the IELB means to both churches, and how each church has and is still benefiting from the relationship we hold strong. I hope to come back sometime soon to continue our efforts together as people in Christ.
This visit has given me even greater understanding of what it means to commune around Christ’s table. After the IELB’s worship service celebrating 80 years of ministry, hundreds of us from across Bolivia and around the globe gathered to eat off of a very long stretch of colorful aguayos (blankets used by Aymara Chola women to carry everything on their backs from food to firewood to babies). They were filled with potatoes, choclo corn, cheeses, meats, and plantains—a diverse feast preluding the feast that is to come in Christ. It made me rejoice in knowing there is always a place at God’s table for everyone. No greater gift is shared than the love made known to us in Christ whenever we gather in community to break bread.
Pastor Stacey Siebrasse
La sangre de Cristo, derramada por ti. A familiar phrase, in a not so familiar language. We Montana Synod pastors were invited to serve Holy Communion during the service celebrating the IELB’s 80th anniversary. I held a chalice, a “common cup,” and was struck by the diversity of worshipers, the reverence with which they came to the Lord’s table, and by how totally we American pastors were accepted. With a new phrase in my mind, I totally forgot the Spanish blessing I’d learned. When a mother and her infant came forward, I marked the little girl with the sign of the cross and said, “Jesus loves you very much!” Her mother and I were both surprised, and mom exclaimed, “Amen!” After worship, the two found me to take a photo, and the mother asked me to pray for her daughter, Luz Valeria. I will be praying for Luz, her mom, and her church, for a long time. During this amazing trip to Bolivia, God is showing me over and over again just how connected we are.
Pastor Lindean Barnett Christenson
With September comes the beginning of the school year, and the beginning of the program year in most churches. Next September the Montana Synod will begin a new chapter with the installation of a new Bishop.
The Synod will elect a new Bishop by ecclesiastical ballot at the Synod Assembly May 31-June 2. The new Bishop will take office September 1, 2019, and will be installed September 21, 2019. If you have never been to a Bishop election, you may be wondering what an ecclesiastical ballot is. It is an election procedure that relies on prayer and the Holy Spirit. For the first ballot, after prayer, all eligible voters are given a blank sheet of paper on which they are permitted to write one name, with prayerful consideration. An election team will compile a list of eligible nominees from the first ballot and publish it. Anyone wishing to remove her/his name from the ballot may do so, after discernment.
The second ballot consists of the remaining names, which are whittled down on successive ballots. Before each ballot there is prayer and time for solemn discernment.
People have asked, “How do we prepare for an election?” In some synods there is a pre-identification of potential candidates, who sometimes travel around the Synod in groups, doing presentations and answering questions. We do not do that in the Montana Synod. But that does not mean that we do not prepare.
First and foremost, as we prepare for a Bishop election, we need to pray. We need to pray for guidance, we need to pray for vision, we need to pray for clarity. We need to pray about the future of our Synod, of the ELCA. We need to ask God to guide us into a vision of what our church can be, and what kind of leadership we need to go on that path.
We need to pray to God to give strength and wisdom to potential leaders, so that they might be available to serve God’s people is new ways. We need to pray for the Synod Council and the staff, and all who work with leadership. We need to commit ourselves to this kind of prayer for the next 9 months. And then we need to commit ourselves to praying for the new Bishop for the following 6 years. We need to pray.
We also need to be educated about what a Bishop is and is not in the Lutheran, specifically ELCA, tradition. I frequently tell call committees that I am not Catholic and I am not Methodist—I cannot force them to take a pastor, or, except under special circumstances, to give one up.
The Bishop’s Convocation this year will be devoted to the office of Bishop in the ELCA. Secretary Chris Boerger will guide us through constitutional, historical, ecclesial and practical discussions of what it means to be a Bishop in the ELCA.
Following the convocation, in the new year, we will provide congregations and other groups with discussion questions of the kind of leadership they are looking for in a Bishop. In the end, electing a Bishop is really about call. It is about discerning a call, issuing a call, accepting a call, living out a call.
So let us pray.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA