As many of us are still struggling to make sense of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I have been reflecting on what it means to truly be present for people in the midst of their tragedy, to walk with them, to accompany them. These questions brought to mind the recent ELCA delegation to the East Coast to express our solidarity with those affected by Superstorm Sandy.
From November 30 and December 2, the delegation visited communities and congregations affected by Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey. What stuck out to me and what made this visit particularly momentous was that it is the first time in our church’s history where the delegation was accompanied by leaders from three Lutheran church bodies from around the world. Representing the Lutheran World Federation as the “living letter of comfort and hope” were the Bishop Elisa Buberwa of the Northwestern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania; Bishop Cindy Halmarson, of the Saskatchewan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; and the Rev. Dr. Veikko Munyika of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia.
As a member of the ELCA delegation, I feel particularly honored to have had the three leaders riding with me during those four days. It was a privilege to get to know them on a more personal level and to deepen my appreciation for their dedication to being the “living letter” of accompaniment. To begin with, all agreed to take part in this delegation and its intense schedule with very short notice and graciously embraced the very packed visit, despite their jetlag. But what most moved me was in every congregation and community we visited, these three leaders would listen and listen and listen, listening and embracing the pain, anger, uncertainties and the hope expressed by those who were directly or indirectly affected. Joining Bishop Hanson and our ELCA colleagues, they would ask the questions: What has changed for you in the last few weeks? What has given you hope? What do you want to see in the near future?
In thinking through the experience several moments came to mind that highlighted the impact and importance of the trip:
Bishop Halmarson addressing Metro New York bishops conference.
- Bishop Halmarson from Canada was actually a native of Connecticut. Her down to earth style and affinities with the affected communities made her pastoral embrace particularly effective and meaningful for all. On a number of occasions, she commended the ELCA for the willingness to accept our vulnerability by receiving the pastoral visit from leaders of the Lutheran communion. Such actions help deepen the meaning and reality of accompaniment throughout our worldwide communion. On a more personal level of accompaniment, Bishop Halmarson took on the role of navigator, guiding me through the busy streets and bridges of New York and New Jersey as I drove the unfamiliar terrain.
Bishop Buberwa addressing Metro New York bishops conference.
- On the first day, Bishop Buberwa was the preacher for the morning worship service at the pastor’s retreat of the Metropolitan New York Synod (MNYS), with which his diocese has a companion relationship, before our visit to affected areas. Before he preached, Bishop Buberwa gently presented a check to Bishop Rimbo on behalf of the people from his Diocese in Tanzania. That simple act of giving by fellow Lutherans from across the globe saw a lot of teary eyes around the room. The next day, I joined Bishop Buberwa at the same table when we gathered at Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island to listen to the community. In the middle of the conversation, he asked a very simple yet important question in his soft spoken and compassionate voice, “How about the children?” That question generated rounds of very lively discussions among those around the tables. It is heartening to hear the resilience of children and how all of them learn to care for others in the aftermath of the event.
Rev. Dr. Munyika surveying the damage on Staten Island.
- Dr. Munyika from Namibia was on his first trip to the U.S. and expressed it was very impactful for him. He recalled how he and his compatriots felt extremely isolated during their struggle for independence several decades ago. In the midst of feeling completely shunned by the world community, he discovered members of the ELCA and our predecessor bodies were actively supporting their cause. That act of accompaniment gave them hope and renewed their strength. For this visit, he promised to share what he heard and saw with the wider Lutheran Communion when he returned home – not only the stories people heard from the news media, but more importantly the stories of those whom he touched and heard.
It is always good to know that we have friends, not only in our neighborhoods and backyards but also in all corners of the earth through our Lutheran communion and beyond. Through these individuals and communities the presence of Christ is made manifest in our lives as we walk in the valley and the shadow. These acts of accompaniment are truly a gift.