Deaconess murdered; suspect arrested

By Paula Schlueter Ross

A man who was helped by a kind and well-loved deaconess with a heart for helping the less fortunate has been arrested for her murder.

Benjamin Fish, 47, is being held by police in Wichita, Kan., as a suspect in the beating death of LCMS Deaconess Evelyn Middelstadt, 79.  Fish, who had middelstadtdriven Middelstadt’s car to Oklahoma and was returned to Wichita by a relative, was charged Aug. 3 with first-degree felony murder, aggravated robbery, and felony theft.

The body of Middelstadt, a retired social worker, was found Aug. 1 at the office of Minority Contractors and Consultants, Inc., where she worked as assistant manager.  She was “trusting of people,” according to company president and close friend Moses Thompson, and had a hard time saying “no” to those who asked for help.

In the months before her death, Middelstadt had reportedly given money and rides to Fish, a part-time employee of the firm.

The deaconess was known for her service to others.  She co-founded the Kansas Self-Help Network, along with her mother, at her kitchen table in 1984.  The network connects those who need help with more than 3,000 support groups, and is the second-largest organization of its kind in the country, according to news reports.

Rev. Allen Hoger, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wichita, said Middelstadt will be “especially remembered for finding homes for — and for helping homes with — children with special needs.”

The deaconess also was “an advocate for mutual understanding between the races, and for minority rights,” he said, and “a great asset to Moses Thompson, who sought as a minority business owner to help the residents of central Wichita by securing contracts for demolition and asbestos removal.”

Thompson, who had known Middelstadt for more than 30 years and considered her his closest friend, said the deaconess had helped several of his family members and likely would have forgiven her killer.

“She was that kind of person,” he said, adding, “She taught me how to understand and accept people.”

The deaconess also served the Immanuel congregation through teaching, helping parish families in various ways, administering its “Love Fund” to help members and non-members in financial need, coordinating its English-as-a-second-language program, and overseeing its monthly food-distribution program.

Even though she was slightly built and soft-spoken, Middelstadt “possessed a fiery tenacity when it came to helping others secure what they needed,” Pastor Hoger told Reporter.  “She was also very level-headed and kind-spoken, and was cherished for how she always treated people fairly and did not speak ill of anyone.”

A story on the Web site of The Wichita Eagle characterized Middelstadt as “fearless.”

“She thought nothing of walking through known gang neighborhoods and handing out fliers for Immanuel Lutheran Church,” said the Eagle, paraphrasing Phyllis Jenish, parish secretary at Immanuel.

Hoger told the Eagle that Middelstadt wasn’t naïve about danger because she knew what could happen — she had been in frightening situations before.  But she willingly went where she needed to go to help others, he said.

“God is going to speak to this community through her death, even as He did through her life,” Hoger told the newspaper.

More than a dozen members of the Lutheran Deaconess Association joined 200-plus mourners at Middelstadt’s Aug. 7 funeral at Immanuel, which featured the Deaconess Litany and “was packed with poignant and joyous hymns,” Hoger said.

The deaconess is survived by a brother and sister-in-law, Ron and Barb Middelstadt of Elk River, Minn.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Lutheran Deaconess Association, 1304 LaPorte Ave., Valparaiso, IN 46383, and the Self-Help Network Center, c/o Wichita State University, Department of Psychology, P.O. Box 201, Wichita, KS 67260.

Posted Aug. 27, 2007

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