By Kim Plummer Krull
When a magnitude 8.8 earthquake and tsunami killed more than 700 people and affected lives in nearly half their country, leaders of the self-described “very small” Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile (IELCHI) questioned how they could help after such a huge disaster.
“Some people who were hurting the most were very, very far from us,” said the Rev. Cristian Rautenberg, IELCHI president. “But we knew we had to try and put Christ at the [quake’s] epicenter.”
Twenty months later, Rautenberg and the Rev. Carlos Schumann, former IELCHI president, spoke at the first International Disaster Response Conference for Lutherans, Oct. 18-20 in St. Louis, telling how Chileans in the hard-hit Maule Region are now learning about Jesus in Sunday school and a first-ever confirmation class.
That disaster epicenter is now a center for ministry, with the IELCHI planting congregations in two communities with no previous Lutheran presence.
“When the earthquake came, God put us in these places,” said Rautenberg, whose presentation “Sharing the Gospel in the Aftermath of a Disaster” detailed how Lutheran pastors and volunteers took “not only material help but also Christ” to suffering families.
“But we could not do this alone,” Rautenberg said, referring to crucial support the IELCHI received from Lutheran churches around the globe “and especially from the Missouri Synod.”
The Chilean Lutherans’ story of disaster response as ministry was one of many spotlighted at what was hailed as an unprecedented gathering of some 80 Lutheran leaders from more than 15 countries. In addition to Chile and the United States, represented countries included Japan, Haiti, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa, India, South Korea, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
(To see pictures and video interviews from the conference, visit http://tinyurl.com/3z7ovaz and http://youtu.be/5TMT8TmyTwU. Additional conference coverage and disaster-response-related pictures and interviews are posted at www.Facebook.com/LCMSWRHC and www.YouTube.com/MercyTubeWRHC.)
Sponsored by the Synod’s Office of International Mission (OIM), the conference offered a unique opportunity for fellowship and networking among ministry leaders serving “in the midst of unparalleled disasters spanning the globe,” said the Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of Disaster Response with the OIM.
The conference also represented what Merritt called a first step toward building a Lutheran international disaster-response network.
“What works on the national level, I think, can work internationally,” said Merritt, referring to the congregation-based disaster-response initiative developed after Hurricane Katrina.
Armed with technology and “our unique Lutheran theology,” Merritt encouraged the Lutheran leaders to “think globally and be prepared to respond globally.”
“We now know about the impact of a disaster thousands of miles away within an instant of time, and we now have the capacity to respond just as quickly,” Merritt said.
But the church is not a social-service or governmental agency, Merritt stressed. “The call of the church is ministry and mercy,” he said. “It is our theology that separates us from others that respond to disasters.”
Dr. Albert B. Collver III also emphasized the church’s theological foundation with an overview of “Witness, Mercy, Life Together,” the new emphasis built on the church’s three core functions. In disaster response, Collver said, witness and mercy “go hand in hand.”
“We start with the household of God, and that leads us to help others,” said Collver, director of Church Relations and assistant to the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, LCMS president. “We go out and help our neighbor, and there are opportunities to answer questions [such as] ‘Why are you helping us?'”
Sharing mercy moments
Over three packed days, church leaders recapped headline-making quakes, tsunamis, floods and famine, including grim death tolls and pictures of devastation. But instead of misery, they focused on ministry and mercy.
A few snippets from interviews with church leaders whose presentations illustrated the conference theme, “Sharing Moments of Mercy, Touching Lives Forever,” include:
- Yuko Endo, with Japan Lutheran Emergency Relief (JLER), and the Rev. Masahiro Ando, director of the Japan Lutheran Church disaster support team, told how relief work since the March 11 quake and tsunami continues to touch lives in their predominantly Buddhist country. New recovery plans in the works include scholarships for needy students and camps to give children a respite from the Fukushima area, where worries continue since the nuclear power accident. “They [Japanese families assisted by JLER] call us ‘Luther-san,’ which means we are like a friend, like a neighbor,” Endo said.
- The Rev. John Halakhe, general secretary with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), and the Rev. Isaiah Obare, an ELCK pastor, related how grants from LCMS World Relief and Human Care and disaster-response training led by Merritt helped equip Kenyan pastors to better meet needs in a country now suffering from a tragic drought and famine. “They [pastors and congregations] are distributing food in areas where no one else is helping,” Halakhe said.
- Ravi Jesupatham, country coordinator with LCMS World Relief and Human Care in India, and the Rev. J. Samuel, president of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, told how emergency relief kits distributed after massive flooding in Andhra Pradesh led to the start of a mission field where Indians are now hearing about Christ. “With no big presentation or sermon, we were able to say this help comes from people who love Jesus,” Jesupatham said.
Representatives from some 20 LCMS districts also took part in the conference. Several are pastors and district disaster-response coordinators who served on the front lines of recent U.S. calamities.
The Rev. Ed Brashier, director of Shepherd’s Heart Ministries, spoke about managing volunteers who continue to help with cleanup after more than 70 tornadoes caused “massive loss of life and property” in April in northern Alabama and the LCMS Southern District, where he serves as disaster-response coordinator.
The Rev. Gregory Mech, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Joplin, Mo., spotlighted how the congregation began reaching out “within hours” of the May 22 tornado that decimated a third of its city. Immanuel continues to help with rebuilding efforts, including through a warehouse that will serve as a volunteer center and “place for ministry to happen.”
“Again and again, the generosity of people has touched my heart and impressed me,” said Mech, who paused with emotion during his presentation. “Our church body has marvelous agencies and resources that we all need to know about and share.”
Between sessions, the Rev. Paul Krueger, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Minot, N.D., spoke with Mech about needs for rebuilding in Minot. Spring floods damaged some 4,100 homes in that community, including those of nearly 300 families from LCMS congregations and the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
“This conference is brilliant timing for me to learn about what works and doesn’t work [in disaster response ministry],” Krueger said.
Keys for ministry
Heads nodded knowingly when the Rev. Carlos Hernandez, a director who works with the Synod’s Office of National Mission in Church and Community Engagement, addressed the toll disasters take on pastors serving as caregivers when they, too, may be victims.
He offered keys for sharing Christ’s mercy with people whose lives are turned upside down, including:
- Provide a listening ear. “People want to tell their stories,” Hernandez said.
- Check on needs in the local congregation and beyond. Support Lutherans so they are strengthened to assist their community.
- Guard against burnout and “compassion fatigue.” Understand that no one person can shoulder every burden when disaster strikes. Ask for help.
In his greeting to ministry leaders, Harrison noted that the group included many “who have been through the mill.” The Synod president thanked them for caring for “real people” with “love and in deed and truth.”
“It’s wonderful that we can learn from you and capitalize on the wonderful capacity we all have when we work together,” Harrison said.
The Rev. John A. Fale, interim co-executive director of the OIM, called minstry leaders “with strong theological and practical experience” a blessing to the church around the globe. “We welcome your partnership as we continue to serve together as Lutheran Christians bringing witness and mercy in times of disaster,” Fale said.
Before delivering the conference keynote address, Dr. Kurt Senske, chief executive officer of Lutheran Social Services of the South and a member of the LCMS Board of Directors, noted the Synod’s “long history of being there in times of disaster and still being there long after everyone else is gone.”
Senske noted one recent example close to home: a grant from LCMS World Relief and Human Care that’s helping the LSS agency assist families who lost homes and possessions in this summer’s Texas wildfires. He called the church’s disaster response a vital ministry that provides an opportunity to serve as Christ “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Likewise, church leaders expressed appreciation for LCMS support of body-and-soul ministry to disaster survivors worldwide who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Their presentations included how Synod ministry leaders arrived onsite to walk and pray alongside them during some of their countries’ darkest hours, providing a “ministry of presence” and grants for emergency needs and long-term recovery.
Rautenberg spotlighted how disaster-response training led by Merritt and Hernandez in Chile encouraged and equipped a handful of pastors to “share Jesus with our ears, our tears and our hands” after the quake and tsunami. To date, Merritt said, the Synod has provided disaster-response training in seven countries for partner churches and throughout the U.S. in LCMS districts.
Looking ahead, conference participants agreed “overwhelmingly” to pursue formal organization of a Lutheran international disaster-response network, Merritt said, and to meet again. Despite their different languages and cultures, conference attendees said they were grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences and learn from fellow Lutherans.
“It is important that we continue to work together,” said the Rev. Marky Kessa, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti. “We go home to our different countries … but we all have the same need to help the suffering.”
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
This story replaces an earlier one that was posted Oct. 20, 2011.
Posted Oct. 20, 2011/Updated Oct. 24, 2011/Updated Oct. 26, 2011/Updated Nov. 1, 2011