Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gifts Given and Received

At the beginning of our voyage, just after Epiphany, I pondered what gifts we might bring to the Christ child we found in the people of Nebraska.

Reflecting upon our trip, I am confident that gifts we brought to them were: a gift of open mindedness; a willingness to learn, to hear their stories, to understand their way of life and their relationships with each other, their land, and God. An extension of this gift is that we will bring this understanding back to the city with us, to share with our families, friends, and future congregations this experience of rural life that is so often misunderstood by those who have not been there.

The magi who brought gifts to the child Jesus in turn were given a gift to bring home with them: the gift of having experienced God incarnate, the ultimate expression of love in the person of a little boy.

Like the magi, we also return with an unanticipated gift to ourselves from Nebraska. Pastor Mike asked us over our last two days in Nebraska, “Where have you seen God at work among these people?” The answer was challenging, only because it was hard to think of times when we did not experience God in the people we met. We experienced God in their hospitality: in sharing their homes and lives with us, we were welcomed. It was Matthew 25:35 personified: they welcomed us as they would have welcomed Christ. We experienced God in their relationships: in the responsibility they feel towards their families, friends and neighbors, the closeness of the community, the pride in their work, the respect for the land, the dedication to their church, and the devotion to God that is inherent in each of these. God is love, and if the ultimate example of relationship is love, then the people whose lives we were blessed to share in embodied the love of God. I am certain we received the greater gift.

Bearing gifts we traversed afar… and like the magi, we also experienced God incarnate: in the remarkable people and beautiful countryside of an unexpected Promised Land… Nebraska.

Many thanks to all of you who have followed our adventures on this blog. It honors and humbles me to have been the teller of our tales. I wish you all Godspeed. Until we meet again…

Spiritual Treasure Seekers

Friends and followers, I give you for a last time the 2011 Spiritual Treasure Seeking team of LSTC’s Rural Immersion adventure in Nebraska:

Thanks for reading the blog, everyone!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

10 Things I Learned from Our Nebraska Trip

One of my favorite quotes is from the great Negro League baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, who said,

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”

Yesterday, I did some of the latter, and quite a bit of the former. Much of it involved considering what I had learned in Nebraska. Somehow, seemingly on their own, the thoughts coalesced into a list. This is by no means comprehensive (if you want comprehensive, read the whole blog). I give you the list, numbered but in no particular order of significance:

1. Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska” is far more depressing than the state actually is.

2. When people say that Husker football is the “official religion” of Nebraska, they’re not kidding.

3. The odor from a feedlot will stick to your vehicle for days.

4. Most churches have big worship spaces, big fellowship areas, and big kitchens.

5. If getting dirty is a real problem for you, think twice about doing rural ministry.

6. Rural and small town ministry can be way more fun than people who don’t know what they’re talking about say it is.

7. Even people from the country have a hard time pronouncing the word, “rural.”

8. Nebraska has potentially the coldest temperatures of any place one can reasonably expect to visit.

9. Jeans and boots are perfectly acceptable clergy attire for nearly every ministerial occasion outside of actual worship services – and may work even in some of those.

10. A person’s life, love, work, church, friends, and family are often intertwined – and that can be a beautiful thing to behold.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Farewell, but Not Really Goodbye

Argh! The last day! How can it have arrived so soon? Didn’t we just get here?

The troops met up at Immanuel-Zion in the morning to speak to parishioners during the Sunday School hour, during which we expressed our profound gratitude for the hospitality shown to us, explained personal highlights from the trip, and described how we had witnessed God at work during our journey (like Steve Bygland bringing us CAFFEINATED coffee this morning!!!). Expect reflections upon the latter category (minus the coffee) later in the week.

Immanuel-Zion's sanctuary before worship.

The “Breaking of the Bread” and “Sharing of Peace” during a celebratory worship service with the IZ folk preceded the “Breaking of the Doughnuts” and “Sharing of Goodbyes” after worship. Many of us were close to tears as we smiled, laughed, and exchanged well-wishes with some of our host families and many others who had helped to make our adventure so memorable and inspirational, including and especially, Pastor Mike and Alison.

Patricia with her last host family, the Lees.

Lyn Bygland, Patricia, Alpha, Kaila, Steve Bygland, and Becca pose for a farewell photo.

Then, for the last time, we piled back into the van (which I swear still smelled like the feedlot) and made the two hour trip back to the Omaha airport, pondering the transition ahead of us.

Lorin, Alpha, and Patricia ponder how the journey just completed may impact the journey ahead.

It felt so strange to think about plugging back into our very urban existences after ten days visiting churches, driving and walking through corn and soybean fields, and enjoying overwhelming rural hospitality. It was unreal to watch the sea of lights rolling away in every direction as we descended in to Chicago-Midway airport, to realize as we exited the plane into the terminal that there were probably ten times as many people in the airport as there were in the county we just left… and upon returning to campus, it was bizarre to hear a siren for the first time in ten days. Welcome home!

We have two free days for working on final projects, then two days of classes for presenting the projects and collectively reflecting on our trip. Pastor Mike and Bev Adam will be flying out to join us for the two class days.

You, my faithful and diligent readers, can expect at least two more blog entries later this week: one related to the upcoming classes and our projects, and a final wrap-up entry. Stay tuned!

Green and Red

SATURDAY, JANUARY 15 – Rising early again, with a full but less hectic schedule planned, Lorin and I and our host family, the Krohns, had a lovely breakfast at the Albion gourmet coffee shop, the “Brewed Bean.” Yes, even small rural towns can have a gourmet coffee shop!

The major activity for today is the Nebraska synod’s Rural Ministry Taskforce’s annual Faith and Farming workshop, with the theme, “Green Before ‘Green’ was Cool.” The event brought several dozen pastors, farmers, and other interested folk to Zion Lutheran Church in Albion for a day of presentations and breakout sessions centered on stewardship, conservation, ministry in rural congregations, and agricultural genetics.

Patricia (front, in red sweater) and others engage in dialogue during Kadi's class on Stewardship and Tithing.

Our gang and the attendees at our fourm to close the workshop.

Late in the afternoon after the workshop, our group visited via teleconference with the new senior pastor at Zion, David Frerichs, who begins his call there next month. He shared with his perspective on taking a call in a small community after spending the last 8 ½ years in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was clearly excited about coming to Albion, and we all enjoyed his enthusiasm.

After dinner at Subway – yes, they have one of those too – in high anticipation we headed for the Boone County high school to watch the varsity girls and boys basketball games.

We have heard consistently about how much rural communities love their high school sports, and we saw that love personified in the gymnasium.

The Boone Central faithful pack the house.

The stands were packed and there was electricity in the air as we watched the lady Cardinals pull out a victory over their previously-undefeated opponents. The boys’ team, which has struggled this season but came out strong against the number 2 team in the state, ultimately fell to defeat. Several of us enjoyed the nostalgia of attending high school games. We had also heard that it is a meaningful gesture for a pastor to at least make an appearance at the high school sporting events. Most if not all of us enjoyed ourselves so much that we didn’t think that would be a problem at all!
The Boone Central girls get it done against West Point Catholic Central.

The boys won the first half with scrappy play and accurate shooting, but couldn't hold it together to finish the game.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Healing Souls & Bodies, Feeding Us & Cows

FRIDAY, JANUARY 14 – Another early start to another jam-packed day began at 7:45am at the home of our host pastor, Mike Kern, his wife Alison and their energetic toddler Noah. Over wonderful cinnamon rolls, banana bread, and coffee, Alison and Pastor Mike spoke intimately of their hesitations about coming to Nebraska and a rural community, the adjustments they had to make, but especially about how much they have come to love this community and the congregations of which they are a part. As a senior about one month away from regional and synod assignment, I have found words like these to be among the greatest gifts of this visit to rural America.

With Pastor Mike at the wheel, we set sail for the nearby town of Newman Grove (population 700) where we visited with Dave Lapka, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. Among his many inspirational messages, Pastor Lapka explained to us a critical role that a pastor can play in a rural setting by being involved in the civil life of the community, asking the hard, challenging questions, and like John the Baptist, pointing the way toward “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Our next port of call was to the Mid-Nebraska Lutheran Home, a long-term care facility also in Newman Grove that is owned collectively by the three Lutheran churches in the town. It is a pleasantly clean and “homey” establishment that serves a growing need in the area. The social services worker said that one challenge in his work is helping residents who have spent their entire lives on farms through the difficult and frustrating shift to living in a facility.

Becca demonstrates the emotion behind such memorable hymns as "Hold the Fort" and "Fight the Good Fight," as found in the Lutheran Home's hymnal.

Navigating through the rolling snowy fields of corn back to Albion, we enjoyed a tour of the Boone County Health Center, a 25-bed hospital that serves a 60-mile radius around Albion. In yet another stereotype-shattering experience, this tour showed us a clean, modern health care facility that would rival any of the huge hospitals in my home city of St. Louis. As social worker Valorie Schlizoski introduced us to several employees, the message became clear that perhaps the largest difference between this hospital and larger ones in more populated areas is the personal attention that the patients receive, because the workers very likely will know personally most, if not all, of the patients. The health center has eleven general practitioner physicians, and specialists come in from larger cities either weekly or monthly depending on the specialty. Rural communities may be a general state of decline, but this hospital delivered 120 babies in 2010 - a reality that should inspire joy and hope.

The Boone County Health Center sign.

This gorgeous stained glass window depicting the four seasons in Nebraska dominates the hospital chapel.

The main entrance to the hospital.

For lunch, we finally we made the long-awaited visit to RUNZA! For those of you who are not from Nebraska, a Runza is ground beef and cabbage wrapped in a roll and baked. Unfortunately, we all remained a bit leery of beef and no one ordered an actual Runza. The employee who filled our order insisted that we could not leave Nebraska without having a Runza, and so she brought us one for free, cut into bite-size pieces, of which most of us partook – though I’m sorry to report that none of us were particularly impressed. Maybe it’s an acquired taste?

While at Runza, we were joined for lunch by Kim Young, a reporter who interviewed us for an article in next week’s issue of the Albion News. They’ve promised to send us copies.

After lunch, Pastor Mike had us hitting the ground running again to make up for our “lost’ day on Monday, so we headed to the Boone County Schools for a tour and meeting with the superintendent, Cory Worrell, before spending time discussing the local economy, prospects for growth, and roles of the churches in town at the Albion City Hall with Shannon Landauer (economic development), Andy Devine (city administrator), and Jill Anding (chamber of commerce).

A quick tour of the Albion grain elevator, operated by Cargill, was next on the docket. If it seems that Cargill comes up a lot, we found out that it is the largest privately owned company in the world. The local elevator was built in 1979, and in 2010 it handled approximately 44 million bushels of corn, nearly all of which went to the ethanol plant just across a field.
Albion's Cargill grain elevator from a distance.

This is what 700,000 bushels of corn looks like.

This is what one pastor, one professor, and six seminarians in front of 700,000 bushels of corn looks like.

The hits just kept on coming. Our last and most… odiferous tour of the day was to the Niewohner feedlot, where cattle are fattened before being sent to the processing plant, most commonly to the very plant we visited in Schuyler the day before. The Niewohner’s hold around 80,000 head of cattle between their three feedlots. Mark Niewohner, operator of the lot we visited, showed us the different types of feed that the cattle eat, and then led us to watch the actual feeding process in which a specially designed truck drops the feed all along a trough that runs the length of the corrals. Mark was kind enough to spend some time with us after the tour to answer any questions we had.
A sample of the thousands of cattle corraled at the feedlot.

The grain loader invented by the Niewohner sons.

This cow won the popular bovine version of "King of the Mountain."

Cows doing what cows do at a feedlot.

Dinner with our host families was a treat, as always. Lorin and I are spending our last three days in Nebraska with John and Sheena Krohn, and their infant daughter Kasey. For dinner, Sheena prepared homemade potato and chicken noodle soups that we could not stop praising, so much so that she wrote out the recipes for us. They are a delightfully friendly couple with such refreshing good humor. As with nearly everyone we have spent time with in Nebraska, the Krohns have overwhelmed us with their depth of hospitality. What a blessing!

Meat, Greet, Retreat, and Eat

THURSDAY, JANUARY 13 – Ah… today’s main activity was the one we had probably most anticipated/dreaded of any in our entire journey: a tour of the Cargill meat processing facility in Schuyler (pronounced “skyler”), a community about an hour south of Albion. Our guide for most of the day was Ruth Boettcher, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Schuyler, who joined us for the tour. Upon exiting the van at the plant, we were immediately assaulted by an overpowering odor that one of our group described as “sickening,” and another pronounced as “chunky.” Mmmm.

A distant photo of the massive Cargill meat plant in Schuyler (photo from Wikipedia)

After signing in we were introduced to Christian Perversi, a Cargill manager who was our personal guide through the facility. I’m afraid that cameras were not allowed and thus I have no photos to share, and for the sake of brevity (I know, I know – none of this blog has been brief), I will omit some details that you will probably be just fine with leaving unsaid.

According to Christian, the Cargill plant at Schuyler processes 1.3 million head of cattle per year, or about 5,000 head per day. Per head, the process takes 500 gallons of water, of which 80% is reclaimed and recycled by the plant.

We began at the end of the process, so as to minimize the possibility of dragging harmful bacteria from the beginning of the process (you know what happens at the beginning, right?). The two and a half story high automated sorting and distribution system organizes packed boxes of meat and sends it to specific pallets based on the specifics of the particular customer’s order. Our vantage point for the rest of the tour would be from catwalks about 12 feet above the floor. Next was the cutting room, in which large portions of beef are gradually sliced by specially trained workers to create specific cuts of meat that are then vacuum-packed before being sent via conveyors into boxes and then into the automated system described a moment ago.

We were led next to the slaughter floor. When it comes to details of this area, it might suffice to say that “less is more.” Live cattle come in one end of the room, and hideless sides of beef go out the other end to the cutting room. We all watched the entirety of the process, and none of us left unaffected by what we saw. I believe we all were impressed by how humane the slaughter process was, how critically important animal welfare before the slaughter is to the company, and how extensively the meat is cleaned to minimize harmful bacteria. We could not say enough about the graciousness of our tour guide, Christian. He explained every process in detail, and told us in precise detail about what we were about to see, and offered us the option not to if we so chose. Some of us became more committed or recommitted to vegetarianism, while others appreciated knowing the process of how the beef they enjoy as food comes to be on their tables. Regardless, it was clear that we would all be taking a break from beef eating for a few days at least.

Shellshocked, not really hungry but in need of nourishment, we adjourned to the Schuyler Senior Center for lunch and a meeting of the local ministerial association. We found out at Cargill that 90% of the employees are of Hispanic origin, and of Schuyler’s population of 5500, 60% are Hispanic.

After visiting the Schuyler Chamber of Commerce and having a quick tour of Pastor Ruth’s lovely little church in Schuyler, we headed four miles north for an all-too-brief visit to a Benedictine retreat center. After the events of the day thus far, I think we all enjoyed the quiet beauty of the retreat center.
The entrance to the chapel at the Benedictine retreat center.

Lorin contemplates the mystery of the cross.

Becca and Brian looking reverently Catholic in front of St. Benedict's statue.

Boarding the Magic Bus once again, Lorin shuttled us the 25 minutes over to the city of Columbus (population 20,000) and Hope Lutheran Church, a mission start now entering its sixth year. We met with some lovely representatives from the church, including Linda Shepherd, a licensed minister serving as their pastor, and we were also joined by Chris McArdle, a personal friend who is a pastor at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, whose members have been strongly supportive of the mission community. We were inspired by the faith, love, and yes, hope, that the members expressed that sustains their community and gives them the strength to continue despite small numbers.

Joined by Pastor Chris, we ended our day with a fabulous meal at a local restaurant, The Picket Fence, which not only provides a number of vegetarian options (which we were in the mood for!), but also serves slices of some incredible pies! It was a perfect ending to an exhausting day, with another promised for tomorrow.
The gang hunkers down after a great dinner at the Picket Fence.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Boarding School, Bishop, & Bundles of Energy in Genoa

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12 – Our Band of Brothers and Sisters mounted up this morning for a short trip to the town of Genoa (pop. 1000), about 25 minutes from Albion. The tour guide for the day would be Juliet Rasi, pastor of Genoa’s Augustana Lutheran Church. A native of Syracuse, New York, Pastor Juliet is two and a half years into her first call. With contagious excitement and energy, she spoke to us about the interesting challenges of coming to a small town as a single woman, and the first female pastor in Augustana’s 100 year history. The parishioners quickly won her over, and on our visit she simply could not talk enough about how much she loved her congregation and the people in the community, in spite of and often because of their eccentricities. Like Pastor Mike, Pastor Juliet is a wonderful lesson to all of those future pastors who have anxieties about moving to a small town.

She led us to visit the town co-op, where we learned how a “cooperative” works. Cooperatives centralize purchases, storage, and distribution of farm inputs for their members. By taking advantage of volume discounts and utilizing other economies of scale, supply cooperatives bring down members' costs. Supply cooperatives may provide seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, fuel, and farm machinery. Some supply cooperatives also operate machinery pools that provide mechanical field services (e.g., plowing, harvesting) to their members. And, cooperatives can provide the services involved in moving a product from the point of production to the point of consumption. Juliet explained that locals take a lot of pride in their cooperative and it is considered a center point of the town.

Next we visited the museum dedicated to the Genoa Indian School, which operated from 1884 to 1934. This was a boarding school to which the government and school operators would bring Native American children – often against their will – from their parents and villages in order to “civilize” them. It was a sad reality that we reflected upon, then tried to make the best of our visit.
The original blacksmith and sewing building.

The ethereal glow around Pastor Juliet reflects perfectly her energetic personality.

Our tour guide explains to Kadi and Patricia that the modern furnace is not in fact one of the artifacts on display.

Alpha rings the bell to signal the start of class.

Patricia is right at home at the teacher’s desk.

These kids never pay attention in class.

Lunch came next at the only restaurant in town, where we were graciously welcomed by the owners and employees and joined by the bishop of the Nebraska synod, David deFreese, another area pastor (and LSTC alum!) Bob Bryan, and Mitch the Synod Communications Guy. Bishop deFreese, a native of the Cornhusker state, warmly welcomed us and was very interested in our stories and backgrounds, and what we have learned and enjoyed about Nebraska. He shared with us his own impressions of rural ministry, and through his words his love of rural communities shone through clearly.

Unfortunately, ours may be the first immersion group to meet with the bishop and not take his photograph. We’re hoping Mitch the Synod Communications Guy can help us out of this embarrassing development!

Following lunch our gang adjourned to the spacious home of Eugene, one of Augustana’s prominent members. We entered to a living room filled with about 20 members from the church who had gathered to join us for coffee, conversation, and desserts. We each had the chance to personally visit with a number of folks, getting to know them, their stories and their experiences in the church, and to share our stories in turn. Approximately the last hour was spent in a “round table” discussion with all of us and the members, each asking pertinent questions about the other. We all enjoyed so much the relaxed and jovial atmosphere, and especially the incredible sense of community shared among the people and the obvious love they feel for their pastor, and she for them. It was a beautiful experience that I believe will stand as one of the highlights of our journey.
Our group had a splendid time with the Augustana members!

What a "Steel"

TUESDAY, JANUARY 11 – Things are happening pretty quickly here in Immersionland, and it’s getting more difficult for Yours Truly to keep up. After our day off on Monday, we were back to a rapid-fire schedule of events on Tuesday. We managed to dodge small snow drifts and challenging prairie winds en route to the city of Norfolk (pop. 23,000), which is actually pronounced, “Norfork.” This is not some language oddity but is due to the fact that the town originally named itself “North Fork,” but they just wrote “Nor-Fork” on the application to receive a post office and the government assumed they had simply misspelled “Norfolk.” Sigh.

Our first stop was to St. John’s Lutheran Church, where we had an inspirational conversation with the pastor, Edgar Schambach, about both his extensive experiences in rural ministry and also his methods of building up the spiritual dimension of a congregation.

After the delightful soup lunch served to us by the church, we joined up with Norfolk’s Dr. Jim Merritt who served as our tour guide for the rest of the day. The biggest event was a guided tour of a Nucor steel mill ( Nucor is one of the largest employers in Norfolk, and the company over all is a major force in the world steel production. It is also one of the largest recyclers in the world: the Nebraska location alone recycled over 1.9 billion pounds of scrap steel.

We had to wear special outfits for our protection. For some reason, they made me think of the old sitcom, “Laverne and Shirley.” “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Schlemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated.

We’re gonna do it! Give us any chance, we’ll take it. Give us any rule, we’ll break it.

We’re gonna make our dreams come true. Doin’ it our way!”

Okay – I’m alright now. Sorry about that. So… we were told that we couldn’t take photos inside the plant itself, and thus I urge you, dear readers, to check out the Nucor website to see depictions of the process. I can tell you that we saw virtually the entire process of recycling steel, from the raw scrap brought in on rail cars to its being melted at over 3,000 degrees F and finally re-formed into raw steel that will be turned into everything from hammers to wind mill parts. We all enjoyed the look behind the scenes of the production of something we use every day, and at an industry that is employs a significant percentage of this Nebraska town.

Next it was off to visit the offices and warehouse of the Orphan Grain Train.

The Orphan Grain Train is a fantastic organization begun in 1992 and based in Norfolk that ships clean clothing, food, and medical supplies to where they are most needed in America or around the world. More than 63,000,000 pounds of supplies have been shipped thus far. Their warehouse occupies space the size of several football fields.

To end the day, after driving by the boyhood home of Johnny Carson and making a quick stop at the mall, we had dinner at Leon’s Mexican restaurant with Becky Beckmann, who pastors a three-point parish not far from our home base of Albion and spoke frankly to us about the challenges, frustrations, and moments of joy and satisfaction in such a ministry. We drove back to Albion and spent our first evening with different host families. Another busy was planned for Wednesday. This is an “intensive class” after all!

“Nothin's gonna turn us back now,
Straight ahead and on the track now.
We're gonna make our dreams come true,
Doin' it our way.”

Today’s blog prayer:
Dear Lord, in my blog entries for the rest of this trip, please help me to come up with more relevant pop culture references than “Laverne and Shirley.” Amen.