By Sarah Schafer
ARLINGTON, Va. — Marking the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion for any reason, more than 240 Lutherans — adults and youth from coast to coast — gathered at the first-ever LCMS Life Conference Jan. 25-26 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel here.
LCMS Life Ministries organized the Synod convention-mandated conference, which coincided with the Jan. 25 national “March for Life” in Washington, D.C.
Drawn from 1 Tim. 2:1-4, the conference theme was “Lutherans and Pro-Life Advocacy — Good and Acceptable Service.”
The conference offered tips for individuals, groups and congregations on pro-life advocacy at the local, state and national levels and facilitated discussion of theological motivation, encouragement and practical suggestions for becoming more active in the public arena.
It was for these reasons that Kristen Muehler of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Va., a longtime Lutherans For Life member, attended the conference with her husband, the Rev. Craig Muehler, a military chaplain. She said she hoped to make new connections and obtain new tools for her pro-life “tool box.”
Speakers on the second day of the conference included LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison; Dr. Robert Benne, author of Good and Bad Ways to Speak about Religion and Politics; Mollie Hemingway, a Lutheran journalist and blogger based in Washington, D.C.; and other Lutherans involved in pro-life advocacy. Many session videos will become available online Feb. 8 at www.lcms.org/lifeconference.
In his keynote address, Harrison spoke about the church’s engagement in the public square through witness, mercy, and life together.
“I’m pleased to see the vast rise of mercy ministries … efforts to care for the needy on the continuum of life’s path,” said Harrison, but he pointed out the church body’s lack of involvement in the political arena, which he says it is free to do under the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms.
Harrison said the federal government is increasingly impinging on freedom of religion — as evidenced by the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, the IRS “dogging” Lutheran schools about their ministerial tax-exemption status, the HHS mandate regarding health-insurance plans and and more.
“We’ve got to engage in D.C.,” said Harrison. “This is where God has placed us. Step up and serve.”
According to Maggie Karner, director of LCMS Life and Health Ministries, the LCMS will make strong efforts to include the Synod’s voice in the public arena.
Harrison’s message struck a chord with Redeemer Lutheran High School sophomore Josh Hanley of Verona, Pa., who volunteered with the recent U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania. Hanley participated in the March for Life to “show the government where I stand,” and believes politicians on Capitol Hill pay attention to the sheer number of its participants from across the nation.
“Keep speaking out, communicating with your elected officials,” said Hanley.
Benne, who is director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., also encouraged conference attendees to advocate not only by fully exercising their Christian vocations, but by making their voices heard in the political arena. He urged conference participants to write or call their legislators, particularly on the state level where great strides are happening for pro-life issues, and toparticipate in events like the March for Life.
‘Where the LCMS stands’
“There is little doubt where the LCMS stands,” said Benne, a member of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), who praised the LCMS’ clarity and courage regarding life issues.
During his conference presentation, the Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, associate professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., shared accolades for long-time Lutheran pro-life champions. They include Rev. Dr. James Lamb, executive director of Lutherans For Life, and Dr. Jean Garton, author of Who Broke the Baby?, which Scaer credits for helping the pro-life movement gain traction in the LCMS.
Yet Scaer criticized the LCMS for being slow to come to the pro-life movement. “We must move beyond abstract truths,” he said.
Scaer argued against cultural mindsets: women are not liberated by the pro-choice movement, he said, and the “Contraception Nation,” where children are devalued in pursuit of money and career, only divides women from relationship with men and children, and deters men from caring for their families.
“Everything I say is so that you will begin to think about it, which you have, because you’re here,” he said.
Later, two presenters — the Rev. Jonathan Fisk, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and “Worldview Everlasting” video blogger, and Hemingway — offered strategies for using social media to engage in pro-life advocacy.
“You can’t think about changing minds without listing using social media of some sort,” said Fisk. But, he also warned that institutions often overestimate the power of social media to manipulate.
Hemingway encouraged conference attendees to be courteous and specific when contacting media sources about inaccuracies in stories, to share positive stories that humanize the pro-life cause, or to make reporters aware of upcoming events.
“It’s important to engage people who don’t agree with you,” said Hemingway, to prevent creating a “cocoon effect” where everyone in a social media circle is pro-life.
Just as Harrison, Benne and others encouraged LCMS members to enter the political sphere, Hemingway encouraged LCMS members to become journalists who strive to report the issues accurately and fairly.
A youth track with special breakout sessions for high-school and college students was also offered on the second day, which Karner said she hoped would harness the growing participation of LCMS youth in life issues over the past few years.
The Rev. Dr. Terry Dittmer, director of LCMS Youth Ministry, said he was pleased with the “number of kids that showed up.” He said that at each National LCMS Youth Gathering, youth are surveyed regarding abortion. In 2010, 75-percent claimed to be pro-life. The other 25-percent, “reminds us that we have work to do,” said Dittmer.
For the third year, Annie Cecil of Chantilly, Va., a freshman at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., walked in the March for Life with Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW) students, but stayed for the conference because she wanted to know more about the subject and how to minister to people.
Outside the comfort zone
“Students are a big part of the pro-life movement. Why not ask people to step outside their comfort zone,” said Cecil, who said she found strength from Rebekah Barnes’ conference youth-track presentation.
As Northwest Regional coordinator of Students for Life of America, Barnes shared some effective ways to fight the difficulties pro-life students have been facing at high school and college campuses.
Cecil’s take-away: Be courageous and prepared for a negative response, but knowing that sometimes, good things can come of it.
Taylor Brown, freshman occupational therapy major at CUW, came with friends, thinking of the trip as a cheap vacation to D.C., but admitted she gained so much more. She also referenced Barnes’ presentation. “We can approach people, not in judgmental way, but with kindness,” she said.
Scott Klusendorf, director of the Life Training Institute, taught youth conference-goers to engage their peers in a way they might understand. Scaer and Fisk also shared presentations with the youth.
LCMS Life Ministries worked alongside LCMS Youth Ministry and the Higher Things youth organization to collaborate on ideas to address the needs of young people attending the conference — just one example of LCMS Life Ministries’ partnership with a variety of Lutheran organizations to host the conference.
“Our youth are passionate about this issue,” said Karner, who asked the adults at the conference to thank our “young army of pro-lifers,” to pray for them and encourage them.
Adult participants also said they were excited by the knowledge, skills and relationships from at the conference.
The Rev. James Kress, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Englewood, Fla., said he was energized to return home and seek out opportunities for his congregation to be involved in pro-life advocacy, looking in his community, connecting with his district and Synod offices, as needed.
Marilyn Winter of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Altamont, Ill., acknowledged there’s much room for growth in her congregation and the groups she works with. She planned to share her newfound knowledge at her next LWML meeting.
“Now that I have this firsthand experience, I feel more empowered to help others,” said Winter.
For complete LCMS coverage of the conference, including photo and video galleries, visit www.lcms.org/lifeconference.
Sarah Schafer is a freelance writer based in Fairfax, Va., and a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Springfield, Va.
Posted Jan. 30, 2013