By James Heine
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Yankton, S.D., was honored recently by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) for its support of Guard or Reserve employees called to active duty.
The congregation received the DOD’s Pro Patria Award at South Dakota’s annual “Legislative Dining Out” event Feb. 10 in Pierre. The award to St. John’s is for “going above and beyond their responsibility as an employer of a deployed service member,” according to a news release issued by the Public Affairs Office of the South Dakota National Guard.
The “service member” is Rev. David Gunderson, St. John’s senior pastor and a lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Army National Guard. Gunderson was deployed to Afghanistan with the Sioux Falls-based 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade last May.
The Pro Patria Award is presented annually on behalf of the DOD by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Committee (ESGR) of a state or territory.
“The Pro Patria Award is the highest statewide award presented by ESGR,” said Don Kelpin, South Dakota ESGR state chairman. “We had 20 excellent nominations this year. And St. John’s Lutheran Church in Yankton stood head and shoulders above all of them. It was phenomenal.”
From the outset, St. John’s response to Gunderson’s deployment “has been noteworthy,” observed South Dakota District President Rev. Dale L. Sattgast.
“Rather than accepting his offer to resign his call, they saw his deployment as a mission opportunity for St. John’s, through one of its called pastors, to reach out to the ends of the earth with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He added that the congregation’s response was “especially significant” since St. John’s was still rebuilding after its church had been severely damaged by fire a year earlier. (See related Reporter Online story at www.lcms.org/?15086.)
“At a time when it would have been easy to be inwardly focused, the Lord provided St. John’s with a great mission opportunity, and St. John’s responded beautifully,” Sattgast said.
According to Sattgast and Rev. Steve Weispfennig, St. John’s associate pastor, the congregation has provided school supplies, blankets, baby quilts, clothes and shoes (more than 1,000 pairs, according to the Public Affairs Office of the South Dakota National Guard) for humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. Also, the congregation has supplied copies of Lutheran Service Book that Gunderson uses in worship and devotions. For his fellow soldiers, the congregation provides care packages that Gunderson can distribute or leave in the Soldier Care rooms of the bases to which he is assigned.
In addition to Gunderson, Weispfennig noted that St. John’s, with a confirmed membership of more than 900, has 15 members on active duty or attached to a Guard or Reserve unit. “Several have been activated at least twice,” Weispfennig said.
For members of the Guard or Reserve, whether pastors or laypeople, this is familiar territory. In the news release announcing the Pro Patria Award, the South Dakota National Guard’s Public Affairs Office noted that the nation’s Reserve components — the total of all National Guard members and Reserve forces from all branches of the military — comprise approximately 48 percent of the nation’s available military manpower. This means Reserve forces will spend more time away from home, defending the nation, supporting demanding operations and training to maintain mission readiness. It also means civilian employers play a critical role in the defense of the nation by supporting workers who serve in the Guard or Reserve.
In acknowledging the award, Sattgast wrote the congregation, commending members for their faithful witness and support: “By your example of support for Pastor Gunderson and the mission he is doing for the Lord’s work, for those in the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, and for both our nation and the nation and people of Afghanistan, St. John’s is giving a wonderful testimony of the message of the Gospel of Jesus both in word and action. … Your support of Pastor Gunderson during his deployment is a noteworthy example for other congregations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (and other denominations as well).”
Gunderson is scheduled to return home in May, Weispfennig said. Upon his return, St. John’s will provide a month of “R&R” to allow Gunderson to re-acclimate to civilian life.
Posted March 2, 2011