Hand in Hand Blog Digest

Here you will find stories from the global church by ELCA global missionaries, scholars, and churchwide staff, brought to you by the ELCA Global Church Sponsorship team.

Thoughts on the fourth day of Christmas in Haiti

Posted on January 3, 2012 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Paula M. Stecker works with the Lutheran World Federation Haiti office in communications and ecumenical relationships. To support Paula, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to www.elca.org/missionarysponsorship.

 

New members of the royal priesthood.

New members of the royal priesthood.

Often as we walk between the main street, Delmas, and our little side street, we pass by a small soccer match in the middle of the street behind the bakery. These soccer matches are played with a sadly, half-inflated  ball striped with dirty tape. My first impulse was to replace it, but that would probably ruin the sport. You don’t want long kicks when the field is only 4 yards wide and 20 yards long. And if the ball looked too new or too valuable would it remain available to this scraggly crowd? The goalie box is marked by two broken halves of a cement block. There are spectators, of course, who cheer and coach as though we were at a grand stadium. And everybody rushes into the “stands” when a car or truck presumes to clear the field.

The imagination is a great gift. God allows us to see things beyond our present reality — to dream of things yet unseen. We can even practice the moves that we would make should that greater reality come to pass. Like little boys passing a weather beaten soccer ball on a dusty street, we sing our songs of praise and lift your prayers of adoration from our dusty, weather beaten, half-inflated lives, proudly wearing the colors of Christ, which are not yet fully visible to the spectators.

The Bible teaches that “Faith is hope in things unseen.” Like a tiny baby, wrapped in rags and laid in a bed of straw, before whom kings bowed and laid precious gifts and over whom multitudes of angels sang their heavenly choruses. Their hope was in the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who would be a Savior. And it was visible only by faith. Christmas demands our imagination.

Today we baptized five young saints, marked  them with the cross of Christ and welcomed them into the royal priesthood. Afterwards there were some goodies and simple gifts and it was glorious.

The Stecker family, having been blessed to celebrate Christmas together, hope that you will have a blessed and holy imagination into the New Year!

Paula and Carl, Chantal and Valerie Stecker

Christmas in Kenya

Posted on December 31, 2011 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Sam and Cindy Wolff are ELCA missionaries in Kenya. Sam is pastor of the Nairobi International congregation and works with the Dagoretti Swahili Church. To support the Wolffs, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to www.elca.org/missionarysponsorship.

Cindy and Sam Wolff

Cindy and Sam Wolff

We are often asked, “How do you celebrate Christmas in Kenya?”  On a personal level, Cindy and I celebrate much the same way as we always have; worship, Cindy’s traditional Christmas Eve gathering (much more colorful than it was in Europe or the States), Christmas dinner with friends and a few gifts to exchange. This same formula is basically followed in the Kenya culture as well.

WORSHIP: In African society spirituality is an important part of life and it is reflected in the way people live and express joy. But here, Christmas worship is confined neither by date nor location. During this time, people gather together formally or informally to pray, sing, dance and celebrate the moment. Our congregation highlights include our Christmas Eve live nativity, with donkeys, goats, sheep and camels, all indigenous to Kenya. Children, many who are not part of our church,  eagerly await this celebration so that they may be part of the Angel Choir.

GATHERINGS: Next to religion, relationship is the most important African treasure. But gathering can be problematic as travel is expensive, often dangerous and always difficult. This combined with the severe economic crisis will force many Kenyans to miss their cherished gathering, so they celebrate with neighbors or friends. But few Kenyans will be alone on Christmas, such is the wonderful web of African relationships.

CHRISTMAS DINNER: For those who can afford it, the meal will be centered around roast goat. Sweet tea or Tusker beer is the drink of choice, with children getting a soda. The second choice will be a rice and meat dish called pilau. But in many cases Christmas dinner will be the same foods as usual (greens, maize meal and beans), but on this day, perhaps a bit more will be available.

GIFT GIVING: Those who can afford it will generally give gifts, but the holiday is not nearly as commercial as it is in Europe or the Americas. The emphasis is more on the religious aspect of celebrating the birth of Jesus than it is on gift giving. The most common thing bought at Christmas is a new set of clothes. Many Africans are not able to afford presents for their children and there aren’t too many toy stores in rural Africa anyway. If gifts are exchanged, they are usually school books, soap, cloth, candles and other practical goods.

DIFFERENT AND YET THE SAME:  Rich or poor, east or west, turkey or goat, eggnog or Tusker, we join together to celebrate the birth of our Saviour.

Blessed Christmas,
Sam and Cindy

 

 

Christmas in Russia

Posted on December 13, 2011 by Hand In Hand

Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support Buerkle, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to www.elca.org/missionarysponsorship.

The First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar.

The First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar.

Despite the fact that at least 90 percent of those Russians who celebrate Christmas do so on Jan. 7 (due to using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar) that doesn’t mean that the country is far behind the West when it comes to preparing for the holiday season. Christmas decorations have been up in some stores since early November, and Christmas trees are starting to go up in squares and parks around the city. Here are just a few reasons why it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Snow:  After many years of freezing rain and slush in St. Petersburg at this time of year, it is a bit of relief that we know that the snow is here to stay until April or May. And shoveling snow from the church courtyard has been a good way to work off frustration, I’ve found — though I’ll admit that by spring I might be feeling differently.

Christmas bazaar:  This past weekend, the local German cultural center (together with the German consulate) hosted their annual First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar. Our congregation always has a table there were we talk with the guests (there were over 1,000!) and sell crafts and baked goods. We had fun and raised a bit of money for the church, which the council intends to use toward repairing our building’s foundation next spring.

Midweek Advent services:  I decided that for Advent, I would start every Wednesday with morning prayer and end with evening prayer, inviting congregational members to come at any time to pray together or just to talk. It is still too early to say whether this will meet the spiritual needs of those in the congregation, many of whom live far from the church, but yesterday morning a few of us did pray together, followed by an almost hour-long hymn sing. Fellowship time is important, so I hope that people continue to come.

“Miracle”: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” “Wonder” in the sense of “miracle.” The news organizations here lately have reported on the astounding number of people who have made their way to the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow to visit the “the Belt of the Theotokos.” This Orthodox relic, supposedly woven from camel hair by the Virgin Mary so that she might wear it during her pregnancy, is usually found on the monastic mountain of Athos in Greece. In the past month, however, it has traveled through Russia so that the faithful could venerate it. When the belt was in the capital, lines stretched to incredible lengths, with reports that some people waited 15-20 hours and with more than 80 people needing hospitalization after standing out that long in the cold.

Christmas Important for Christians and Muslims Alike in the Holy Land

Posted on December 29, 2010 by Hand In Hand

There’s nothing like a quiet visit to the Church of the Nativity a few days before Christmas, before the crowds take it over.  The church has several churches and chapels within it, the most important being the little cave-grotto you descend into where several spots mark the birth of Jesus and where he was laid in the manger.  Old Orthodox lanterns and the smell of oil and candles hang thick in the tiny sacred space.  Usually there is a line to get in, since each group gathers to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem or some other well-known carol, and the sound will echo throughout their memories forever.

But this day I found myself sharing the upper church with four young women, probably in their late teens.  One sat on the empty steps leading up to the sanctuary while another snapped her photo and then a second moved into place.  Then a sudden pause as they spied me standing among the columns on the perimeter– me, just another visitor, but me wearing my black suit and clerical collar, me, as far as they were concerned, a representative of the religious establishment.  After they offered an “Are we going to be in trouble for this?” look, I responded with a smile and nodded for them to continue.  Quickly, the third young woman took her place sitting on the step, posing for the camera, but looking my way hestitating.  I nodded to continue. Then the fourth followed suit.

I decided to walk over to the photographer.  Four figures froze where they stood, offering a worried look.

“If the four of you like, I can take your photo with all four of you together,” I volunteered. 

A sign of relief. Then the four of them took a pose before the altar, the cross, the sacred space recognized through the ages by Christians, while I captured a digital memory for their visit on this Dec. 23, when my visit just happened to intersect with theirs.

Did I mention that the four young women were Muslim?  Dressed in bluejeans and headscarfs they thanked me.  “Merry Christmas!” each one said in turn. 

“And Merry Christmas to you!” I said knowing the importance of the Prophet Isa to their faith and the significance of the virgin birth for them.  Then I added, “You are always welcome here!”

Christmas in Bethlehem is, of course, like no other place in the world.  At Christmas Lutheran Church, the service is usually in several languages, illustrating that indeed this message is a light to all the nations.  Then the atmosphere out in the streets is more like Mardi Gras than like a somber Christmas atmosphere.  People are laughing, welcoming strangers, all under festive lights in ”Manger Square,” the plaza in front of the Nativity Church.  Once you have experienced Christmas in Bethlehem, a piece of your heart will forever remain there on Christmas Eve. 

Pastor Fred and Diaconal Minister Gloria Strickert serve Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem.
Follow them in their blog, Walk in Jerusalem.blogspot.com.

Images of Christmas in the Holy Land 

The gifts

Posted on January 26, 2010 by Hand In Hand

This gift-in-a-story is drawn from a communication the Rev. Charles Fredrickson sent to sponsors.  Pr. Fredrickson and his wife, Elizabeth Borstad, are ELCA missionaries serving in Japan.  Learn more about ELCA Missionary Sponsorship at www.elca.org/missionarysponsorship.  Enjoy!
On Christmas Day morning I was tempted not to answer the intercom for our front door downstairs.  My mother was visiting all the way from Texas and we were near the end of opening Christmas presents.  There were other factors, too, none of which worked in favor of answering the door.
I answered the door “Hi, moshi, moshi” in Japanese.  An answer came back in English over the intercom, “Hello!  This is Ichiro.  I would like a bicycle.”
Ichiro is a young medical doctor from Mongolia who received a scholarship from the Japanese government to work on a doctoral program at a medical university here in Nagoya, Japan.  Ichiro had recently moved into a building across the street from our church and had seen on our sign that we had English worship.  When he first came to our worship, just the week before, he reported that it was only the fourth time he had ever attended a Christian worship service.
Then it came back to me: on Ichiro’s second visit to the congregation—Christmas Eve—I had mentioned that we had an extra bicycle that he could use.  It had been left behind by a former attendee of our English worship service.
That fact that the bicycle had been sitting outside for over a year did not deter Ichiro. Together we got the bicycle out from where I had put it that afternoon after a family from Kentucky left it on the church parking lot before returning to the US.  Out it came from under the tarp, where it had sat neglected, now revealing its rust and two flat tires.
I went back into the church to get a tire pump, some WD 40 to spray on the rusty chain and sprocket, and a wrench to lower the seat for his smaller stature.  As he watched me and provided assistance when he could to get the bicycle in working order, we had a chance to talk.  I found out that his older brother had become a Christian in Mongolia several years ago.  Ichiro had attended worship once or twice with his brother and had witnessed his brother’s baptism.
After the bicycle was more or less serviceable I apologized for its “state” but told him that it now belonged to him.  This was not a rental; I did not want it back, it was a gift.  At that, he smiled broadly and his smile grew after he got on the bicycle and went around in circles, first slowly and then faster as he tested out the hand brakes and the handlebar gear shifts—completely new technology for him.  Before he rode off to go to the university library, he stopped and thanked me and said, “Thank you for my first Christmas present!”
I was somewhat taken aback because from the time I had debated opening the door, and while watching Ichiro riding in circles in front of me, I had momentarily forgotten it was not just any day.  It was Christmas Day, and here I had given him a “present.”
As I walked back upstairs to family, coffee and our Christmas celebration, I gave thanks for Ichiro, for a hand-me-down bicycle, and the opportunity to make God known.