Dear Partners in Mission:
Monday May 25th we as a nation recognize Memorial Day. Observed since the end of the Civil War as “Decoration Day” it became a national holiday in 1971. It is a day we remember those who gave, in Lincoln’s words, the “last full measure of devotion” to their nation and their comrades. Tradition held that on this day families and neighbors would go and decorate the graves of loved ones, particularly those who had fallen in service. So today we remember all who in service to their nation gave their lives and in so doing we fulfill the promise that their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
One cannot help but note that this year’s Memorial Day commemorations are different. The COVID-19 crisis has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, changed us and impacted every facet of our lives and these changes come quickly and with intense feeling. Friday afternoon May 22, 2020 was such a moment. Filled with news about our President, essential services, public gatherings, and how that impacts houses of worship. Partisan sides were quickly drawn and the news traveled so fast within 18 hours I received email from Bishop Moses Kobba Momoh in Sierra Leone with concern we had sufficient precautions in place to enable such in-person worship be held safely. I am grateful for his pastoral concern for you given the work the ELCSL has done fighting Ebola and continues to do in this crisis. Their wisdom and accompaniment is a reminder that we are not alone in this work. From conversations I have had I know you take this very seriously and have responded faithfully to our duty to serve the most vulnerable in our midst.
The church is not and has never been closed. You are at worship and work in many and various ways, adapting to the opportunities and challenges of our time. For your maturity and patience I am grateful. You will come together in-person when your leaders have conferred and prayerfully discerned it is contextually prudent and wise within our Lutheran understanding of Christian freedom as duty to neighbor. On this memorial day that understanding of duty to neighbor is vital. Remembering the sacrifice of lives given by men and women in service to their nation should encourage in us to sober and reverent evaluation of any sacrifices we might be asked to make.
I have seen in social media and other outlets complaints wondering why congregations might choose not to worship in-person while shopping malls and restaurants open. This helpful article discusses various levels of risk by activity. It reminds us that risk is impacted by the amount of time, number of people, use of facial masks, and location (indoor vs. outdoor). Church worship services, in the way you are accustomed to experiencing them, are higher risk activities because of their location (usually indoors), activity (including singing), and the time spent in one space with the same people. In order to reduce that risk many of our NT-NL congregations, drawing on the guidance given by our TX/LA bishops in April and continuously updated, have put extensive and thoughtful plans in place that reflect your context and community. I appreciate the seriousness with which you have taken this work and I am grateful for your focus on the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, honoring those who have died in this pandemic, and partnering with front-line healthcare workers to not overwhelm our hospital capacity.
Duty to neighbor also means we as the church must be intentional about raising up leaders for the work of proclaiming the gospel. These leaders are both lay and ordained and serve in a number of capacities. NT-NL has for many years made leadership development a priority and we are experiencing the fruits of that emphasis. The Escuela Secundaria de Educación Teológica (ESET)/Secondary School of Theological Education (SSTE) is one of those fruits.
This week’s Zoom interview features NT-NL pastors Edy Santos and Gus Vinajeras as well as Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod pastor Alvaro Nova who have helped pilot this program. As they describe the program is intended as a bridge between our very successful parish lay ministry academy and seminary education. To provide competency based education for lay leaders to serve in their current contexts or consider future study and leadership opportunities. This program developed in partnership with NT-NL, A-Ok synods and Wartburg and LSTC seminaries and is an innovation being recognized and noted across our church including in the ELCA Churchwide Synod Assembly Video that was released this month (if you are impatient skip to 3:35 in the video to see Bishop Patricia Lull from St. Paul handing off the baton to our DEM Pastora Irma Banales). NT-NL is innovating and leading.
Our investment in the ESET/SSTE is supplemented by an investment from the ELCA Domestic Mission Unit and our seminary partners. We are #InMissionTogether and we do this work together. Pastora Banales also is leading our Stewardship Team which has done amazing work in 2019/2020 in growing connection and awareness of stewardship as we grow together. The results of this work means more congregations are contributing mission support and participating in the life of the synod. This includes our work ensuring our synod’s investment in Briarwood Leadership Center pays dividends.
The leadership of Briarwood has been assessing the landscape for in-person camping ministry this summer. However, we know that the work of Briarwood extends far beyond summer camp. This awareness of our wider mission was made known in your overwhelming response to the Briarwood online gala experience on Saturday May 16th. The gala exceeded it’s goal of raising $50,000 for this ministry and due to the reduced costs associated with hosting this gala online more money will go directly into ministry. Thank you for your generosity and for understanding about the importance of this work we do together. Dr. Robert Smith, Briarwood director, continues to develop programming and engage our communities in thinking critically about Christian freedom in these times. A theme that will be extended at our fall Leadership convocation, October 19-21.
How we understand our vocations as Christian’s living in society at this time is critical. We must take seriously the Lutheran mandate that Christian freedom comes from the assurance of baptism and is lived out in service to neighbor. As synod, #InMissionTogether, we do this in a variety of ways including supporting local congregations and leaders through ESET/SSTE, Briarwood, Parish Lay Ministry Academy, planting ministries, developing local leaders for congregations, supporting campus ministry, and a host of other opportunities to proclaim the gospel in our contexts. As leaders in context you are living this daily in your vocations. On this day when this letter is released, Memorial Day, when we remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many given in the sake of our nation this call and vocation are even more pronounced.
The polarization of our society around issues of religious freedom are a call for us to do this gospel work of unity and service. Of prioritizing others. When opening churches for in-person worship or wearing masks becomes enmeshed with partisan politics we must acknowledge the challenging context in which you live and serve. For your faithfulness in working through these challenges I am grateful. My office is here to serve and assist you in this work. God bless you all and know you are daily in my prayers. I close with a prayer for a time of Civic Mourning from our ELCA Prayer Book for the Armed Forces.
God our creator, through whose providing care we enjoy all goodness and life,
turn our eyes to your mercy in this time of confusion and loss.
Comfort this nation as we mourn; shine your light on those whose only companion is darkness;
and teach us all so to number our days that we mayapply our hearts to your wisdom;
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.