By Pamela J. Nielsen
By all appearances, it was a typical theological gathering of churchmen and women on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. (CTSFW), when 170 pastors and lay leaders assembled for the LCMS International Disaster Response Conference, Sept. 23-26.
Yet this was a first — with participants from five continents and multiple states coming together to consider Christ’s mercy in the midst of unspeakable loss and suffering. In stark contrast to the chaos and uncertainty that is part and parcel in a disaster, these men and women gathered around the sure and certain Word of Christ, focusing on His mercy, feeding on His Sacraments and learning from those who know all too well what it is to be the Church in a time of disaster.
LCMS Disaster Response Director Rev. Ross Johnson and Manager Rev. Michael Meyer hosted the conference, which had as its theme “Standing with Mercy in Times of Disaster.” They also organized an array of speakers and topics, including “Theology of Suffering,” “Worship in Times of Disaster,” “Mercy as Witness in Our Life Together,” “Theology of Mercy,” “The LCMS and Disaster Response,” “Self-Care for Church Workers” and “Sharing the Gospel in Times of Disaster.”
Representatives from the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile (ILC—Chile) shared their experience as a church body (with five pastors and 400 members) responding to three major disasters in recent years: an earthquake in 2010; and twin disasters — another earthquake that struck April 1 this year, followed by the Great Fire of Valparaiso just two weeks later. The Rev. Cristian Rautenberg, president of the ILC—Chile, shared efforts to bear mercy and plant Lutheran churches in the affected regions.
“We had heard we are one communion — united — but these were only words until the earthquake and then we learned what this means,” said Rautenberg, sharing how LCMS Disaster Response, Lutheran Hour Ministries and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina came alongside the IELCHI when disaster struck.
Struggling to hold back his emotions, the Rev. Nick Renare of Christ Lutheran Church in Tacloban City, on the Philippine Island of Leyte, recounted in vivid detail living through Typhoon Haiyan — one of the strongest typhoons on record. The storm came ashore with full force Nov. 8, 2013.
“Sometimes even as a Christian, you may feel horrible, even then we may be hopeless, but we are not without hope,” said Renare. “We plant Christ,” he continued. “We tell them that Christ is always there in the midst of it.”
The Lutheran Church in the Philippines (LCP) — with the help of the LCMS and other organizations — provided food and temporary shelter immediately following the storm and is now coordinating the building of homes and restoration of livelihoods for hundreds on the island. That work will take many more years to complete.
Fadi Khairallah, director of Middle East Lutheran Ministry, and Eric Gates, regional director for Africa and the Middle East with The Lutheran Hour, spoke about a different kind of disaster — one caused by humans. Reporting on relief efforts in Lebanon among Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS-controlled regions, they described the desperate situation and the work to distribute packets with much-needed supplies and tracts teaching about Christ and His mercy for all.
Vicar Tom Cusanelli, who serves as the LCMS Atlantic District Sandy recovery coordinator, described the district’s efforts following Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the eastern coastline of the United States in November 2012. He said that on Oct. 29, the “Hope and A Prayer Center by the Sea” in Far Rockaway, N.Y., would be dedicated and open as a worship and gathering place for the community, in a location where no Lutheran presence previously existed.
The theology of mercy was at the heart of LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison’s conference address. He taught the meaning of the Greek word leitourgia, from which we derive “liturgy.”
“When you come to the altar [for the sacrament] you lay your burdens on Christ and the gathering community and when you leave, you take up the burdens of the community,” Harrison said, emphasizing that “when we don’t care for the needs of others, we are denying what Christ’s body and blood is for us. Virtually every aspect of the faith drives us out of ourselves to our neighbor.”
Theologians from both LCMS seminaries echoed the mercy theme through presentations on worship, preaching and pastoral care at times of disaster.
“The Gospel requires words, for it is through Jesus’ words — words that are spirit and life — that faith is created and sustained,” said the Rev. John Pless, assistant professor of Pastoral Ministry and Mission and director of Field Education at CTSFW, who urged participants to do more than simply be present at a disaster. “We are to proclaim the deeds of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light, and this is nothing less than preaching the word of the cross …,” said Pless who underscored that, “In the face of inexplicable suffering, we proclaim the promise that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and that even in these events God is at work for the good of His children even through we cannot understand how this is so.”
Johnson outlined the structure of LCMS Disaster Response and provided an overview of the many new resources for churches and schools in the midst of disaster. He urged participants to use the materials and to have as many people as possible in their districts take the Lutheran Early Response Training (LERT), which hones volunteers’ knowledge and skills for immediate response when disaster strikes.
“The International Disaster Response Conference brings together leaders of confessional church bodies in an academic and practical setting where they can learn how to apply the Theology of Mercy in the midst of disaster,” said Johnson, as he reflected on the benefits of the conference. “Many of our church partners are taking useful information back home — information they can use to help show the love of Christ to those who are in desperate need. They were able to learn theology from leading scholars, from case studies taught by other pastors who have been in the midst of disaster, and these will enable them to better bring Christ to the suffering and lost,” Johnson said.
LCMS Director of Worship Rev. William Weedon taught conference goers not only to know, but also to sing, Lutheran hymnody in time of disaster. Citing the hymns of Paul Gerhardt and Philip Nicolai, he said, “These hymns sing of Christ. They fling the comfort of Christ against the darkness; they hold tight to the joy that shall be when Christ renews all things. They proclaim,” he said, “Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.”
The Rev. Scott Spiehs, district Disaster Response coordinator for the LCMS South Dakota District, described the benefit of attending the conference: “As a district coordinator, having just gone through my first disaster in the state, it helps to prepare us for the next one and see what others have done in their disasters.” Spiehs continued, “It … gives us some resources we might be able to use. So it’s been very good and resourceful.”
A conference highlight was the presentation of an original work of art by Lutheran artist Edward Riojas of Grand Rapids Mich., to the Rev. Terry Malkin, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pilger, Neb., whose church was destroyed by twin tornados that struck earlier this year.
Titled “Even Winds and Sea Obey Him,” the painting depicts a different moment in this familiar text. “Scorning artists’ usual take on the subject of showing a boat adrift during a raging storm,” said Riojas, “I wanted to show the power of God around that boat. I did not want white caps. I did not want receding waves. I did not want ripples,” he said, continuing: “The God who spoke creation into exuberant existence was the same God who could speak it into utter silence. I wanted the sea to be like glass. Yes, of course, there would be funnel clouds, but they would be distant reminders of what was.”
The painting will hang in the to-be-rebuilt St. John’s Lutheran Church.
“In those first days following the tornado, we were busy cleaning up our mess. My wife and I were busy picking up pieces out of the rubble. … As I walked about, the townspeople were busy picking up the pieces of their lives,” said Malkin. “And the message that I gave them was the same message that I give every Sunday: it’s the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding,” he said, declaring, “I believe that this painting depicts that peace.”
Each international guest received a print of the painting as a remembrance of the 2014 Lutheran International Disaster Response Conference — a weeklong feast of God’s mercy provided in worship,teaching and life together.
In addition, Riojas is making available for sale giclée prints (from a high-quality inkjet printer) of the original painting. Half the proceeds from those sales will go to LCMS Disaster Response. To order a print, click here.
Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen is the associate director of LCMS Communications.
Posted Oct. 16, 2014 / Updated Oct. 21, 2014