Saturday, January 16, 2010

Capping off the Week

Our host church, Trinity Lutheran in Hartington, organized a rural ministry workshop today entitled “Rural Ministry: What’s Working?”. In attendance were members of the Nebraska Synod Rural Ministry Taskforce; local pastors, both Lutheran and from other denominations; and lay people. It was a neat way to cap off our immersion, bringing together much of what we had learned. We heard presentations from Martin Kleinschmit, whose organic farm we visited on our first day in Hartington, and Charles Shapiro, a professor of Soil Science and Crop Nutrition at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. We were also able to attend small group sessions on various aspects of rural ministry, such as stewardship and programming.

It was fun to spend the evening with Teens for Christ, the youth group at Trinity, as they had a lock-in at the church. No, we didn’t stay up all night with them because we have a plane to catch tomorrow, but we did stay until 9pm. The event was run in part by a group of college students from Augustana College in Sioux Falls. They helped to organize activities, worship, and bible studies for the teens. They brought a lot of great energy to the event. I guess that their energy was infectious, as I turned into a stone-cold competitor during a game of “Slide Your Bum,” according to Carmen. Who knew I had a competitive edge? We also finished off our week-long marbling with an awesome potluck. This was a true Lutheran potluck, my friends. Check out that awesome spread of crock pots in the kitchen, as well as all the desserts.

We take off tomorrow morning for Omaha where we’ll catch a flight back to Chicago. Although our time in Nebraska is nearly finished, we’ll be reconvening this Wednesday and Thursday for further processing and debriefing of the experience. We’ll be sharing our final projects with each other. We’ll also be joined by our host pastor, Bob Bryan, as well as Pastor Brenda Pfeifly, who came to Chicago before the trip to prepare us for the experience. Stay tuned later this week for more updates on the interesting projects that people are putting together. I’m also in the process of assembling some great videos for you guys to watch from our trip, as well as a photo album of our time in Nebraska.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cows, Cows, and More Cows

We started the day with a jaunt out to a wind farm. Nebraska is fertile ground for harvesting energy from wind, and many companies have begun to invest in this technology. This particular wind farm is situated along a ridge where the wind is almost always blowing. It’s difficult to understand just how big these wind turbines are from the pictures, but the distance from the end of one blade to the end of another blade is 100 yards. Pretty amazing!

We made a quick pit stop in the town of Lindy. The town officially has a whopping population of 14 people, but there are really only eight people who live there, according to the town’s Lutheran pastor, Kelly Pedersen.

We visted Pastor Kelly’s church, Good Shepherd, which recently added on to its sanctuary and fellowship hall. The church even raises its own cattle. Last year, the church raised 50 cows, making a profit of $10,000! Whoever said that all rural churches are dying or lacking innovative forms of ministry needs to see some of the churches that we’ve encountered on this trip.

We had a great time attending a cattle auction in the town of Verdigre. More so than ever before, our attempts to blend in with the locals were foiled. We joked that everybody turned their heads, including the cows, to look at us when we entered. I’m not sure what it was, but I think that Sally’s rainbow scarf gave us away.

Here's a little video of the cattle as they are being prepared for the auction. The sounds and the smell were intense as I prepared this video. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I wasn't able to bring you the smell, but you can at least hear how loud it was out in the yard with thousands of cattle.

And here's a little snippet of the auction in progress.

We received a wonderful tour from the owner of a local feedlot, the home of 7500 head of cattle being fattened up for eventual slaughter. The owner of H&H Cattle gave us great insights into the meat industry. In a previous post, I mentioned the debate regarding whether cows should be grass-fed or grain-fed. The owner made a good point that, as long as we demand beef on a year-round basis, we have no option but to raise cows on a diet consisting primarily of grain. There is simply no grass for the cows to graze from September to May, so unless we change our demand for beef, it will be difficult to eliminate corn and other grains.

We also had the chance to step aboard a John Deere tractor. Talk about rolling in style! This thing is fully enclosed with A/C.

BTW, check out this picture from the feedlot. It's an interesting juxtaposition to see this huge mound of distiller's grain, the byproduct of ethanol, a controversial source of energy, against a backdrop of wind turbines, another emerging and controversial source of energy.

We ended the day by attending a high school basketball game in the town of Wausa. Sports are an integral part of the culture in rural towns, providing activities for the youth and a social venue for the people to gather. The women’s varsity team pulled off an exciting win against Coleridge, once again the home of our very own, Phil Hefner.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Social Ministry in Nebraska

It’s interesting how certain events sometimes converge in a very meaningful way. Before we had even arrived in Nebraska, we had planned to spend today in Norfolk learning about different social ministries that are available. Our schedule included trips to the Norfolk Rescue Mission, Kids against Hunger, and the Orphan Grain Train. For years, the latter two organizations have provided food, clothing, and other resources to impoverished communities and nations throughout the world, including Haiti. On Tuesday, the earthquake in Haiti hit, devastating the island nation. Little did we know when our itinerary was put together that we would have the opportunity to contribute to the relief effort.

We packaged up boxes of food for the people of Haiti at Kids against Hunger. The organization packages a nutrient-dense meal of rice, vegetables, soy, and chicken flavor. In less than an hour, we were able to prepare enough food to feed over 1700 people. The food that they send provides essential nutrients that the people often lack in their diet. Malnutrition and starvation are common occurrences in Haiti but are more widespread than ever since the earthquake. Food is often so scarce that people resort to eating cookies made out of dirt. Read this article to learn a little bit more about "mud cookies" and food shortages in Haiti: (Sorry that the link doesn't work. Just copy and paste it into your address bar.)

We were also able to box up shipments of clothes at Orphan Grain Train:

We all wish to extend our prayers to the family and friends of Ben Larson, a seminarian at Wartburg Theological Seminary, who was killed in the deadly quake. We’ve been receiving email updates for the last couple of days detailing the unfolding situation in Haiti, and while we rejoice for the many people who have survived the earthquake, our hearts grieve for the families and friends of Ben and the countless others who have perished. Merciful Creator, your Holy Spirit intercedes for us even when we do not know how to pray. Send your Spirit now to comfort us in these days of need and loss, and help us to commend all who have died to your merciful care; through Jesus Christ, our savior and Lord. Amen.

We ended the day with a delightful supper with the bishop of the Nebraska Synod, the Rev. Dr. David defreese. We heard about different opportunities for ministry in the Nebraska Synod, and Bishop deFreese was kind enough to field our anxious questions about candidacy and the assignment process. Hey, it’s not every day that you have an audience with a bishop. All in all, it was a fitting end to a very meaningful day.

Bishop deFreese kindly shared a personal greeting with our little team of Nebraska adventurers and all those who are following our travels online.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Taking a Little Breather

We journeyed north of Nebraska today into Yankton, South Dakota, just across the Missouri River. Yankton is the home of Tom Brokaw. I learned today that television stations used to seek out broadcasters from the central plains region around Nebraska because the people were deemed to have the plainest, least noticeable accent of any region in the country. Johnny Carson grew up in nearby Norfolk, Nebraska, whose residents also exhibit the same accent.

Although it was closed for the season, we were able to tour the Gavin’s Point Dam. The dam regulates the flow of water on the Missouri River and is an important source of energy for the local area. The dam formed Lewis and Clark Lake, an important area of recreation for the region. The trees which line the river are a popular place for bald eagles to nest. I saw my first bald eagle ever. For your blogging enjoyment, I attempted to snap a photo, but the eagle spread its majestic wings and soared away before I could get a shot. We also visited the Lewis and Clark visitor center. This region was an important stopping point on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, where the explorers made contact with the Sioux nation.

We enjoyed lunch at the Hartington Senior Center with many local residents. We also met with the Hartington Economic Development team. They outlined a broad vision of where they see Hartington moving in the future. They envision Hartington as an affordable place to run a business and a safe, nurturing community to raise a family. A theme that we consistently here from all the locals is that the people make Hartington a special place. The locals appreciate that everybody in the town knows each other and are able to support each other in both good times and bad times.

We got our first real break of the trip this afternoon and were able to just wander around downtown Hartington. We visited some local shops and enjoyed the relatively warmer weather. It’s funny…after only being here for four days, people are already recognizing us as we walk around town. Even people that we had never met asked us if we were the group visiting from Chicago. Now I understand how everybody knows everybody in a small town. It was great to get out today and just decompress after a very intense schedule the last few days. We have certainly been immersed in the local community with all that we’ve been doing. Many of us were very tired and had been trying to catch some ZZZs whenever we could, especially on bus rides between locations.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Important Day

Remember that picture of all of us sitting on the bus? We’ve been trucking around the last few days in that very bus unable to figure out how to properly work the heater. The first few days we didn’t know how to turn off the heater. It felt like a sauna in there. Then somehow the heater got turned off and we drove around for a couple of days with no heat. It was so cold in the bus that we actually brought blankets with us. Today, we finally figured out how to control the heat by flipping a nondescript, inconspicuous switch somewhere on the front panel. Praise the Lord! Now we’re traveling in style!

Today was a very important day for all of us. We began the day by meeting with the people of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Dakota City. This church supports an Asian ministry which ministers to the large Asian population in Siouxland. Many Asians immigrated to this area as far back as the time when the transcontinental railroad was being constructed and continue to immigrate today to take entry-level jobs in meatpacking and other similar industries. The Asian ministry is led by Pastor Soriya Roeun, who fled Cambodia as a refugee in the 1970s. Pastor Soriya also works as a chaplain at the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City. Tyson Foods normally does not grant tours to outside groups, but Soriya was able to secure a tour for us. Although he was able to gain access for us, cameras and other electronic media were strictly prohibited, so I’m unable to share any photos with you.

We were all struck by the sheer volume and enormity of the meatpacking operation. The plant employs 3800 people. Every day, 4884 cows are slaughtered and packaged for delivery to stores. Except for the actual moment of death, which is performed by driving a metal spike into the cow’s brain followed by the slicing of the cow’s jugular artery, we were able to witness nearly all aspects of the slaughtering process. The process is very methodical, using hooks, conveyers, chutes, ETC. to move the cows from one end of the plant to another. As the cows move along, they become progressively smaller and smaller, becoming the cuts of beef with which we’re familiar. This mechanized process is assisted by the 3800 employees, who slice and dice with knives and incredibly sharp cutting tools which I’ve never seen before in my life.

We reflected upon the experience throughout the day, and we all concluded that it was very sobering to watch the process. Although the overconsumption of meat in the North American diet poses humanitarian concerns, overall I’m not ethically opposed to the killing of animals for food; at the same time, watching this highly mechanized process made me realize how removed I am from the sources of my food. The industrialization of food has created a disconnect between the animal and the end consumer. When all we have to do is go to a store and by a package of meat, we forget that the meat was once part of a living, breathing creature, whose life was taken for our sustenance. When we no longer have to kill our own food, we lose sight of the fact that that the taking of another life, even animal life, is a profound event, a moment not to be taken lightly. The experience at the meatpacking plant made me yearn for a deeper connection to the earth and all its creatures, one in which I am more intimately involved with the sources of my food.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Touring the Local Industries

Today was very informative and gave us a good view of rural life, as we spent the day touring many of the local industries. We started off the day with a tour of the local veterinary clinic. Considering that the clinic is in a rural community, they specialize in much more than your typical urban veterinarian. They offer services for both house pets, such as dogs and cats, and farm animals. They also specialize in horse embryo transfers, which have helped many local farmers and ranchers breed their horse populations.

We continued the day at an ethanol plant. Ethanol is simply pure alcohol, 200 proof. Ethanol is produced from corn and then used as an additive in gasoline. Almost all Nebraska gas stations sell E10 Unleaded gasoline. It’s a controversial energy source. Many people see it as a great way to utilize the corn crops that are grown in the Midwest, while others argue that it’s no cleaner than regular gasoline and also question whether we should be burning food as a source of energy. Also, the byproduct of ethanol production is a substance called distiller’s grain, which many farmers use to fatten up their cattle. This is also a source of controversy, as organic farmers argue that cows should only be grass-fed and that grass is just as effective at fattening up the cows. The beauty of this trip is that we’ve been hearing people on both sides of many different debates. As small as many of these communities are, there is a diversity of opinions on these subjects. The picture below only gives you a glimpse of the enormity of this ethanol plant.

I know, I know, we look awesome...

We also had the opportunity to visit a local hydraulics plant and a machine shop. The hydraulics plant produces many parts which are used to produce farm equipment, and the machine shop fixes up a lot of farm equipment and other machinery when it breaks down. Both companies together employ a significant number of people from Hartington and other surrounding towns.

We finished the day with a visit to an agronomist, who specializes in helping local farmers increase their yield. He is able to scan crop fields and map down to three-foot intervals the yield of each small section. This helps farmers to see where they are maximizing their yield and where they need to focus greater attention to improve their yield. We also learned a great deal about the use of herbicides and pesticides in farming. Again, this is a very controversial issue which divides conventional and organic farmers. Throughout the trip, we’ve heard a number of different perspectives on this issue. Our class has been enriched by being able to talk to so many people on both sides of the debate

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local favorite, Jimmy’s Hilltop CafĂ©. I want to give an extra special shout-out to our fearless professor, Ben Stewart, who, in his effort to eat lightly at lunch, thought that the scalloped potatoes would be a good option. He polished those off like a champ. We’ve heard numerous times on this trip about how the best cows have nice marbling. After enjoying such great hospitality, we’re going to return to Chicago with some nice marbling of our own…

A Full Day

Yesterday was our first full day in Hartington, so it was jam-packed full of activities. We were busy from early morning until early evening, as there’s no shortage of people and places to see on this trip. We started the day with worship at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hartington, one of the parishes of our host, Pastor Bob Bryan.

Afterwards, we enjoyed some great conversation and fellowship in true Lutheran style by gathering in the church basement. I mention the church basement because it’s always something that I’ve heard about, but we don’t have any basements in California, so I’ve never experienced fellowship down there. We had an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the entire church and tell them where we’re from. The fact that I’m from southern California but visiting Nebraska during the worst winter storm in 30 or 40 years is always good for a few laughs. We also skipped over to Pastor Bob’s other parish, also named Trinity Lutheran Church, in the nearby town of Crofton, where we had a chance to mingle with the people.

During the afternoon, we visited the Argo Hotel, a restored Victorian-era hotel in Crofton. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and is widely known as a haunted house because it was once used as a sanitorium for cancer patients. I can’t report any ghost sightings, but numerous people have reported seeing ghosts and spirits over the years. We also visited another local farming family. This gentleman and his wife are in their mid-eighties and still going strong in keeping up the farmstead. It’s very impressive how the hard-working farm ethic never really leaves people.

We kept ourselves hydrated throughout the day by enjoying some delicious chocolate milk and strawberry milk from a local dairy. We just took the bottles with us from site to site and drank them as we went. How did we keep them cold, you ask? Look around, as there is no shortage of snow.

A couple of quick pictures…here you can see just how high the snow has built up. As I said previously, the locals are saying that this is the worst storm that they’ve seen since the late sixties.

Also, I’m staying now for three nights in the town of Coleridge, about ten miles outside of Hartington. The town has a population of about 600 people. Phil Hefner, professor emeritus of systematic theology at LSTC, traces his roots to this town; in fact, he still has numerous family members who live here. A relative of his owns this shop.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Diving In to Rural Life

We made it to Hartington safe and sound yesterday. The roads were a bit hairy in parts. I made the mistake of telling everybody that I had never seen a snow drift before...boy, did I regret that statement. Needless to say, I now have a very clear idea of what a snow drift looks life after my classmates pointed out every snow drift that we encountered for a couple of hours. Some of the snow drifts were large enough that roads were closed or reduced to one lane. That's us making the trip from Omaha to Hartington in our borrowed bus.

Upon arrival in Hartington, we had the pleasure of visiting the farm of Linda and Martin Kleinschmit. The Kleinschmits have made their livelihood through sustainable, organic farming, as opposed to more conventional, commodity-driven farming. Martin enlightened us to many of the differences between organic farming and conventional farming. Organic farming seeks to utilize the resources that are already present in the earth, as opposed to using chemicals and pesticides. The Kleinschmits encourage sustainable farming because it promotes greater harmony with the earth’s resources and is more sustainable than a model in which the only measure of success is the constant push to grow larger. In addition to helping around the farm, Linda also advocates for smaller farmers by working on policy matters. The Kleinschmits ultimately see their work as care for God’s creation, being good stewards of what God has given us.

I had the privilege of enjoying the hospitality of Kelly and Steve Grube last night. Unfortunately, I’ll only have that one evening with them because we arrived to Hartington a day late. It was wonderful to stay at their place, enjoy a hot-cooked meal, and engage in good conversation after being on the road all day. Kelly is the third-grade teacher in Hartington, and Steve works for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). One thing you quickly learn in a rural town is that everybody knows each other and is intertwined in some way. Through his job, Steve helped to provide funds to the Kleinschmits when they were transitioning between conventional and organic farming. The transitional period can be very costly for farmers, and the work of the Kleinschmits and Steve Grube has helped to establish a permanent government subsidy for farmers who are making the transition.

If any of you are interested in following our trip in real time, one of my classmates, Carmen Retzlaff, is twittering. You can follow her at