By Sarah Schafer
Participants indicated that a series of mercy conferences in Latvia, May 17-23, opened doors to new ministry opportunities between The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL).
More than 100 Latvian pastors, chaplains and lay members attended the conferences organized by LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WR-HC) at the request of ELCL Archbishop Janis Vanags. Each conference took place at a church in one of the three ELCL dioceses — in Daugavpils, Riga and Liepaja.
“The key message was the theology for mercy,” said Deaconess Grace Rao, co-organizer of the conferences with Inta Putnina, who oversees ELCL diaconal work in Riga, Latvia.
LCMS First Vice President Rev. Herbert Mueller served as keynote speaker, focusing his presentation on the biblical explanation for acts of mercy.
“The majority of [conference] participants were women already involved in diaconal (mercy) work,” Mueller explained. “They are responsible for feeding people, helping the poor with various needs and requests. We were helping them understand the theological framework for what they’re doing.”
Other presenters from the LCMS who donated their time in Latvia were Dr. Bryan Salminen, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in St. John’s, Mich., and a professor at Michigan State University; Rev. John Fale, interim executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care; Deaconess Sara Bielby, who serves Immanuel Lutheran Church in Macomb, Mich., and University Lutheran Chapel in Ann Arbor; and Rev. John Pless, professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Besides serving as an LCMS pastor, Salminen is a licensed psychologist who specializes in marital counseling. He spoke in Latvia on the theology of passion and the body, a topic he admittedly called a “personal and intimate topic” but that he said participants found helpful.
“It was inspirational for me to listen to mature Christian men teaching about diaconal (mercy) work,” said conference participant Gunta Irbe, who continued that their “teaching about sexuality was very important to the work I’m doing with Lutherans For Life. Sexuality is a subject rarely spoken of publicly in the church, but vitally important.”
Vanags asked for a copy of Salminen’s presentation to share with a group of medical doctors who claim to be atheist and criticize the church for not teaching about such topics.
Rao indicated that women conference participants were particularly interested in the presentations on deaconess ministry. The ELCL does not have a deaconess program but is considering establishing a one-year deaconess diploma program.
“I am grateful that the pastors and laypeople of our church have experienced the mercy conference,” Vanags said. “It was very informative, motivating and empowering.”
Vanags compared the mercy conference and fellowship between the LCMS and ELCL to plum trees in his garden.
“Each separate tree bears fruit if some other tree pollinates it. The fruit of the mercy conference will be a more credible message of our church, and will help proclaim the love of Christ not only in words but also present in deeds of love, Vanags said. “It is especially necessary to the people of Latvia in these hard times.”
Despite more than 40 years of oppression under communist rule, the ELCL — an LCMS partner church since 2001 — is now active and vibrant, according to Mueller. WR-HC began supporting mercy ministries in Latvia in 2001 with more than $400,000 in grants for the care of street children, crisis care for women and children, financial and material support for church workers and a soup kitchen.
While worshiping at Jesus Lutheran Church in Riga, conference presenters watched a surge of parishioners move toward the altar for communion. That prompted Mueller to reflect on what many elderly members in Latvia have suffered for their faith.
“I thought of what all those folks have been through, … the cost to being a Christian in their society, and yet here they were,” said Mueller.
Today, 113 ELCL pastors and 86 evangelists serve 333,700 members in 293 congregations. Last year, the church body gained 3,700 new members. The ELCL also has begun missionary work. In fact, a Latvian missionary pastor serving in Ireland attended a mercy conference and plans to post content from it on his website.
The ELCL is considered “land rich but cash poor,” said Rao, who explained that the conferences were held in three locations to reduce travel expenses for participants. She added that, on average, Latvian pastors make just $200 a month.
She also emphasized that the LCMS is committed to continuing partnerships with the ELCL, offering its support and resources. Rao said that conference planners are considering the possibility of another mercy conference in Latvia two years from now, along with the prospect of a weeklong theology course for women there.
WR-HC assisted the Latvian church in translating and publishing five booklets from its Mercy Insights series. Presentation materials from the mercy conference series in Latvia also will be published.
“More of our people need to get to know their people,” Mueller said, referring to LCMS and ELCL Lutherans.
Salminen said that his congregation, St. John’s, is examining just how to do that, especially in partnering with the Latvian church and sharing money, time and talents.
“Through this conference, the doors of ministry were opened,” said Salminen.
Sarah Schafer is a freelance writer in Fairfax, Va.
Posted June 23, 2011