Saturday, January 14, 2012

Seeing yourself in Nebraska

There are several recurrences that have risen to the surface during the course of our immersion in Nebraska and truly stuck me.

The first thing people want to know is where you come from – more precisely, what place on this planet – outside of Nebraska – helps to make up the your cells and your soul? A strong sense of place is as innate and instinctive here as my ability to detect any hint of crisis in the voices of my children. There is no separating the soil, the air, the waters of Nebraska from the people who come from the towns and rolling hills we've visited.

My standard line has become, “Well, I'm from Chicago originally, but I've lived in Michigan most of my life and feel most connected to the Upper Peninsula.” They'll nod with tacit approval. My response is acceptable for now, but I have the feeling that if I were here for the long haul there would be more efforts to determine if I really have an unbreakable connection to the place I call home. The fact that I have moved around a lot in my life might undermine that ultimate determination. I think the way Lake Superior has changed me and, in part, made me who I am today may be at least similar to the way the people here feel about the incredible expanses of land that surround us tonight like waterless seas waving and whistling in the winds.

The second thing I'd note is that I've witnessed three men cry in the course of this rural experience. Each time it is somehow connected to relationship with the land – the ability to pass the stewardship and legacy of the land on to children; watching helplessly as the Missouri River rises up and swallows crops row by row until it is 17 miles across and mistaken by passersby for a lake; pouring hard work and vast amounts of expertise into the vocation of farming only to be dismissed and misunderstood by people who may too often make assumptions about what it really means to be feeding the world.

There are always many angles to a story. Nothing is as black and white as we might like to be, especially where people are concerned. Divisiveness, I once heard a wise man from Rwanda say, is born of failures of conversation. We need to have a lot more conversation in this world and start working as hard to understand each other as we do to build fortresses around our opinions.

Finally, many people, particularly those working in rural ministry already, have asked us something like, “What has surprised you most about Nebraska and what has caused you the most concern?” Typically the conversation roles around to the topic of whether or not a seminarian studying and working toward ordained ministry in Chicago, can see himself or herself in a place like Nebraska. A place where, in the more populated parts of the state, your nearest neighbor might be half a mile away. Or you might be an hour away from a place to buy good fresh produce. Or an initial trip to visit a shut-in from your congregation may lead you down unfamiliar, unpaved, unnamed roads where you have to flag down a gravel truck driver to help you figure out where you are and where you are trying to be. A place where stewardship of God's creation comes up in daily conversation at the local filling station/breakfast cafe. A place where breaking bread together happens many times each day. A place where your absence is noticed in real time.

I don't know if it's what the Spirit has in store for me, but my answer to that possibility over the last over the week or so has become, like Samuel in this week's Old Testament reading, “Here I am!” We shall see what happens.

Blessings from the Heartland, Ann

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Runza Experience!

Today began with breakfast provided by Pastor John Sipf. After a wonderful breakfast, we listened to Pastors John Sipf and Andrew Chavanak, tell us about the difficulties of rural ministry. John spoke especially about the intricacies of two-point parish ministry. Then we received a tour of Pastor John's parsonage, and heard about what it is like to work with a council trying to make changes to a parsonage.

Then it was time to leave for text study. We drove down to St. Thomas, the local episcopal church. Here we got to meet many of the local church leaders and participate in the weekly, ecumenical, clergy text study. This gave us an opportunity to begin to see how important ecumenical partnerships can be to rural ministers.

After text study, it was time for another meal. We headed to the local Runzas, where Zak and I had our first experience with a Runza. After hearing countless stories of Runzas, we were pleased to finally have our own Runza and frings. After yet another delicious meal and wonderful conversation, we were ready to move on.

We met up with Richard Martin, the head of the chamber of commerce in Falls city. He spoke with us for an hour and a half about working with the chamber of commerce in a rural community. It gave a great chance to learn about commerce in rural settings.

We got a short tour of Falls City, seeing both the new medical center and the library. After that we headed for Rulo. From there, we headed over the river into Missouri and made our way to Big Lake, here we were able to survey the damage from the flood last year. As we drove through Big Lake, population 274 pre-flood, our hearts began to break for all those affected by last years flood. Five miles from the river, we could see water lines eight-foot tall on the trees and houses. While we had been hearing stories of the flood from those affected, we did not understand what we heard until we saw what could have been mistaken as the Indiana Dunes in the middle of fields. Our hearts and prayers go out to those who have been, and continue to try to put their lives back together after they were devastated by the 2011 flood.

After finishing our surveying of the land we headed back to the library in Falls City to hear the story of how pastor spouses deal with first calls, and to debrief on our day. After we leave the library, we will be going to dinner somewhere in the city, and hopefully ending the evening at the local bowling alley.

Blessings from Nebraska,


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Days of High Adventure...

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure…in Nebraska today. We started out with coffee at the local gas station in Johnson where we met with Pastor Catherine Burroughs as well as Gary and Larry (no relation to Mike and Ike), who were volunteer EMTs for the area. We talked about their role in the community as volunteers and the joys and difficulties that come along with it. As per tradition we were offered an opportunity for coffee, tea and breakfast if we so choose. Lois our host and resident breakfast expert at the Johnson Quick Stop presented us with some local comedic relief. After offering drinks she conned me out of a quarter that she had gotten me to unknowingly offer up to her, and ended our visit with a quick witted joke that left me in suspense…and this was just the first stop.

A picture of the Lois

We then toured the local K-12 school Johnson-Brock with superintendent Jeffery Koehler. We were offered doughnuts and coffee…as per tradition, and it was amazing to see a school with clear hallways and lock free lockers (which made me wonder is a locker still a locker if it can’t be locked!?!). We next headed to the Whiskey Run Creek Winery where we learned about and sampled the wine whilst conversing with Bishop David DeFreese of the Nebraska Synod about the needs and issues of the rural church. We then traveled to the Indian Cave State Park to survey the flood damage. As we drove around it was shocking to see the destruction as the trees and fields that looked as though they had been through intense warfare. It was truly moving to see this destruction, which became even more apparent as we later traveled to St. Peter church in Barada Hills to speak with a farming couple that lost their crops and farm to the floods last year.

A picture of the destruction from the floods.

We traveled down the road to Fall City where we had dinner at A & G’s with Pastor Andrew Chavanak and Pastor John Siph and their spouses along with the Honorable Curtis Maschman in Fall City. We had a wonderful meal with enlightening conversation, which lead us to Pastor Andrew’s congregation (St. Paul) in Fall City where we experienced confirmation class…oh boy! We talked about why Jesus was baptized and this included a picture treasure hunt of baptismal reminders (some of which were interesting choices, but reminded us nonetheless!) and Jesus’ Life themed Pictionary. Talk about a whirlwind day! And speaking of whirlwind days the weather today turned very cold and windy…very windy and we also got our first Nebraska snow experience (just a bit).

Our Busy, Busy Nebraskan Days

So, you might think that life in rural American is kind of laid back and carefree, but you'd be wrong. These folks are busy and they are keeping us busy and very engaged in learning about day to day life in southeast Nebraska, especially in regard to what it means to be in ministry here.

We started our day having coffee with some folks in Talmage and got a bit of an inside look into the things like the challenges that go with managing cemeteries that have been in use since about the 1880s … sometimes with little or no accurate record keeping of where people were buried. Then we were off to a cluster meeting of pastors who are in many stages and types of ministry to our Nebraskan brothers and sisters and Christ. One pastor serves as an interim anywhere he may be needed throughout the statewide synod, a couple of them were first call pastors, another was a pastor who has been in her first call for 15 years, still others were brought to Nebraska specifically for their multicultural perspectives, or to serve very small congregations or growing churches and the list goes on. They were gracious enough to take the time to tell us how they came to rural ministry and what it means to them, what they've learned about themselves and the communities of people they serve. Overwhelmingly, despite challenges big and small, they have found the experience “rich” and feel it's truly a gift to have the opportunity to provide ministry in the Heartland.

We also had the opportunity visit Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, an impressive hotel, restaurant, conference center, farm, conservation and family activity complex in the middle of a relatively small Nebraska Town. We learned about everything from J. Sterling Morton, who founded Arbor Day about 120 years ago, to how the Lied Lodge on the property uses scrap lumber to efficiently heat and cool the facility in an innovative and sustainable manner, to how trees often go unrecognized for the key roles they play in many movies.

Then we returned to our growing circle of familiar faces at St. James (Long Branch) Lutheran Church near Humboldt to visit with women who gather weekly from January to Easter all day on Tuesdays to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief. They typically send off 100 quilts a year from this tiny corner of the world to keep people warm and wrapped in Nebraska quilted love and compassion.

Finally, we were off to a experience some high school basketball in Beatrice. Basketball, like many other sports, are an important point of community gathering in these communities. Our host Pastor Amalia Spruth-Jannsen commented that St. James will often have youth on different teams in the area so when the rural pastor goes to basketball games they often have to cheer on all the teams.

Tomorrow we head out for another fun-filled day of Nebraska life and we are all looking forward to the new insights and people it will bring. Here's a little photo essay our adventures today. It starts with a lovely little angel ornament in the morning sun at the home of our host family for the last couple of nights, Kim and Terry Hahn and their three children. Each year they put up their "Angel Tree" to remember family members who have died. The next two photos are from Arbor Day Farm ... a grand old Burr Oak tree and Josh and Zak at the top of a tree house. Then there is a little montage of the quilting operation we had a chance to visit at St. James. Prof. Swanson even pitched in to help create one of the quilt tops. The last photo is from the basketball game, which, by the way, ended with a sweet Hail Mary three-pointer at the final buzzer. You don't get to see too many of those!

Sweet Dreams & Blessings from Nebraska, Ann

Monday, January 09, 2012

Going to Prison: the less glamourous side of ministry

Today we packed our things, left the Blecha home, and headed for tecumseh…after Marvin made us enough pancakes for ten people. While we were sad to leave the Blechas behind, we were ready for the day ahead.

The day began at the Belle Terrace nursing home and the Ridgeview Towers assisted living facility in Tecumseh. We were unable to enter Ridgeview because of a stomach flu bug, but received a nice tour of Belle Terrace. We then had time to eat donuts and visit with some of the residents before devotionals. At that time we met Annette, the sweetest old lady in the world. Annette told us all about herself and got teary eyed as she told us of her painful transition to the nursing home. And during devotion we learned that the elderly woman that I was sitting next to was present at Jesus’ baptism.

After the nursing home we toured the town hospital, which is the only hospital around that delivers babies. We talked with department heads and learned all about the hospital.

By that point it had been well over an hour and a half, so we went to lunch at Frazier’s CafĂ©, with the Lutheran volunteer ministers at the Tecumseh prison. The portions were, not surprisingly, enough for two people to eat.

After lunch we meet the local sheriff and saw the inside of a jail cell. Then it was time to go to prison. After making our way through the metal detectors and pat downs, we were ready to enter the Tecumseh prison. We were given a tour of all the offices in the prison, and the hospital section of the prison. After that, we walked across the yard were there was nothing separating us from the inmates. We were allowed into the substance abuse cellblock were we were shown the inside of a cell and got to ask an inmate about his rehabilitation program. We were also given the chance to speak with the death row chaplain about his job before leaving the prison, and as it turns out he does not receive a prison cell as a parsonage. This was a great reinforcing experience for my interest in prison ministry.

Then it was time to eat. We headed for Luther Memorial church in Syracuse for dinner. There we had dinner with Pastor Mike Widner and three members of the congregation. The members were all third generation farmers and talked to us about their views of farming.

Now Ann and Dr. Swanson are at the home of Kim and Terry Hahn, and Zach and I are staying at the home of Lori and Jeff Broady where, in case we had not eaten enough today, we were given more snacks than we could eat in a week. After four days, more miles than we can count, and more food than we ever imagined we could eat, we can’t wait to see what more is in store in the week to come.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Wonderful Ooze?!?

What is tired, immersed (rural-ly of course) and well-fed all over? Answer, all of us! Here we are in just our third day in Nebraska and I feel as though we've been here for months. After the excitement of tractor rides and endless food yesterday, today was filled with church services and guess what...more food. This morning we experienced a Sunday worship at St. James and it was wonderful. A service including "baptism Remembrance devices" (including but not limited to fonts, bathtubs and yes of course squirt guns) and some great Epiphany/Christmas hymns were the highlight of the service. Following the service there was a Q & A session with the congregation where the joys and perils of rural ministry were discussed amongst treats and snacks. Shortly after this session was some fellowship shared over...wait for it...another meal (Chinese cuisine to be exact)! An afternoon of rest and a video concerning the wonders of corn (which let me tell is indeed full of wonders!). This evening was a community gathering for worship and music in the "Singspiration" service at St. James. What a show of talents to be followed by more snacks and fellowship (because after a few hours of not eating we were obviously withering away). My favorite part of the fellowship was being told that we as a group have a "wonderful ooze" (we took it as a good we should!). This may be our last blog post "from the outside" as tomorrow we shall be put in prison (or at least visiting Tecumseh prison, same difference)...although to be honest no prison can hold a group of LSTCers determined to be immersed rurally!

A picture of "the crew" including Pastor Eric and Pastor Amalia Spurth-Janssen