Stories from the Global Church

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.

Our last months in Japan

Posted on February 4, 2012 by Hand In Hand

Doug Foster and Sue Wironen Foster are ELCA missionaries in Kumamoto, Japan, where they are ESL teachers.  To support them, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to


Sue Wironen Foster and Doug Foster

Sue Wironen Foster and Doug Foster

It does not seem possible that so much time has gone by since we moved to Japan and now we are planning the reverse move back to the United States.

The second week of January was the start of our last term as teachers at KyuGak. Doug started on his own as Sue developed this mysterious skin infection that required a few visits to the doctors and a few weeks worth of medication. Thanks to fellow missionaries Nathan and Sharonette Bowman the doctor visits were not stressful and Sue is fully recovered.

January is also the start of the Missoula Children’s Theater. This English language play is sponsored by KyuGak every year. Children from the Junior High School at KyuGak and children from various elementary schools try out for the parts. We work with the youngest children and are teaching them their lines and their songs. They are so much fun.

We are also back doing our English Bible study at Murozono Church. We have had as many as 13 students at the class but average eight students each week. What pleases us the most is that we have one gentleman who has been with us since the first day. He is not a Christian and is the most faithful attendee at the class. We hope that someone will continue with this English Bible study class. We have become a very close group and would like to see it continue.

January is also entrance exam month in Japan. We had to stay late with all of the teachers to correct the entrance exams. Students from all over the city come to take the exam to see if they qualify for entry into KyuGak.

Time is going by quickly. We have friends from school and church planning “enkais” (parties) for us to wish us goodbye. I think that is when reality will really hit. There are only eight weeks of school left and then we will be heading home.

‘Entering into the (cold) Jordan’

Posted on January 31, 2012 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary serving in parish ministry in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support Bradn, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to


Plunging into ice-cold water is how some Russians mark the Baptism of Christ.

Plunging into ice-cold water is how some Russians mark the Baptism of Christ.

This year for the extreme-sports-like celebration of the Baptism of Christ (Jan. 19 according to the Orthodox calendar) I joined the crowds that jump into various bodies of blessed ice-water, “entering into the Jordan” as they call it here. I must admit that any deep, spiritual meaning behind this event is still a bit foggy to me — I’ve learned in the last few days that many in the Orthodox church consider the tradition a bit suspect, too.

But what, after more than a decade in Russia, is pushing me to participate in this rather unusual practice? It was jumping out a window.

That’s right. I’ve started jumping out a window regularly in the past few months. It has been part of my weekly trip to the banya (the Russian version of a sauna) ever since winter started. There’s a window from the shower room that gives you direct access to a snow bank, and I’ve found that going out into the snow after sitting in the heat makes the banya even better. While there was no banya on Jan. 19 (there was, thankfully, a heated tent for changing your clothes — they even distributed hot tea inside), going “into the Jordan” was simply stepping it up to the next level.

The reason I write about these rather insignificant and personal experiences is that, for me, they are symbolic of what I want 2012 to be. The last few months have been a time of moderation: The situation in the congregation is stable. The ecumenical situation in Novosibirsk has also been generally positive. The church structure in which I am working shows positive signs, and even the situation in the country has improved, insofar as people have started to make their voices heard and to push for change.

I realize that it would be easy to be content in each of these areas — in some ways, it is already better than one could reasonably expect. Yet, thanks to the snow bank outside  the banya, I’ve been reminded not to start the year ready to settle for “good enough.” Instead, I’m going to try to start it by taking it to the next level, even if that means diving into the shocking cold.

Bradn Buerkle


The gifts of the season

Posted on December 24, 2011 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Nathan and Sharonette Bowman are ELCA missionaries in Kumamoto, Japan, serving in parish and social service ministries. To support the Bowmans, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

Nathan and Sharonette Bowman

Nathan and Sharonette Bowman

Dear friends,

Merry Christmas. As we are preparing to honor God for his compassionate love for us, let us take time to reflect on the fact that it pleased and delighted God’s heart to give Himself, the greatest gift of all, to us.

As Christmas quickly approaches, in the midst of the many Christmas services, we are again challenged to remember the 830 children in children’s homes throughout Kumamoto Prefecture. This year marks the 25th Annual Christmas Toy Drive. By this time next week,we will need to have purchased gifts for these children, most of who are taken from their homes because of relentless abuse. Others are developmentally disabled and cannot be managed by their parents. Sometimes the parent is developmentally disabled. A few have no parents, having disappeared, died or abandoned their children anonymously. (Kumamoto still has the nation’s only “baby shelter.”) The presents that we look for are those that have a connecting function, where the child will need to play with another child to enjoy the gift to its maximum value.

As we were also planning for next year, we came across some amazing toy patterns from some wonderful people at Toymaker Press ( Nathan hopes to build some of these for the children in any spare time he may have next year.

Looking back on this year, together with the rest of the nation, we were stunned by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, for which many of you gave generously. The relief work continues among those who have been devastated.

We had the joy and honor of being able to visit with some of you this last summer. Our next scheduled Home Assignment is in the summer of 2013. As soon as we returned to Japan, it was like we had never left. The opportunities for ministry are vast, and we try to be faithful to our Lord, Jesus Christ, as we serve on behalf of you. Thank you for your partnership in the gospel this year, for your prayers, support and encouragement.

May you find delight, joy, strength and the love of God in the gift of Jesus Christ.

Nathan & Sharonette Bowman


Clean hands do make a difference

Posted on October 29, 2011 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Deborah and Joe Troester are ELCA missionaries in Baboua, Central African Republic. Joe is a technical adviser for PASE, which provides clean drinking water and promotes good hygiene and sanitation to villagers. Deborah teaches at the Theological School in Baboua. Their daughter, Christa, attends ninth grade at Rain Forest International School in Yaoundé, Cameroon. To support the Troesters, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

Marie Gbayina pours water for Rodrigue Koulagne to wash his hands.

Marie Gbayina pours water for Rodrigue Koulagne to wash his hands.

October 15 was Global Hand Washing Day.  Why have a day dedicated to the prosaic act of washing one’s hands? Hand washing holds the key to preventing many serious diseases both at home and around the world. Remember when your mom told you to wash your hands before eating? It was good advice.  According to the International Water Institute in Stockholm, diarrheal illnesses could be reduced by 45 percent by washing hands with soap after using the toilet and before eating. Many other diseases can be passed from one person to another by people who don’t wash their hands. Hand washing is an important defense against the spread of cholera, typhoid, and even the common flu virus, among other diseases.

PASE, the Water Management Project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic (CAR), is working to provide clean drinking water to villages in CAR and also to teach good hygiene practices to villagers, such as the importance of hand washing. Providing clean water is only one part of preventing water-borne diseases. Hand washing is a crucial element in the equation.

This year PASE will be constructing latrines and hand-washing stations at schools and health centers in CAR in order help the “hand washing habit” take root.

Joe Troester

We’re all in this environment together

Posted on October 25, 2011 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

The Haitian Pine Forest was once so thick you could not see the sun.

The Haitian Pine Forest was once so thick you could not see the sun.

I just returned from what is left of the Pine Forest, a few hours west of Port au Prince high in the Haitian mountains, at 6230 ft. It is still beautiful, but much thinner. Residents easily remember when if they stood in the forest, the trees were so thick that you could not see the sun. Today, that is not a problem. The forest has shrunk from 32.000 hectares to 9,000 hectares.

There is a whole sector of development and humanitarian aid that is called disaster risk reduction, which works with communities to be prepared for disasters that are likely and to mitigate the risks they would bring by altering the state of the environment. For example, in Haiti, that has meant planting trees, protecting remaining cloud forests and assisting those in the mountains (two-thirds of the nation) to terrace fields and build drywalls to conserve the soil. Even offering alternative livelihoods is a great means to protect the environment by discouraging people from cutting down slow-growing native trees to make charcoal or planks. Avocado trees and coffee trees can be planted to help hold the soil and to offer other revenue sources.

Unfortunately, the politics and economics surrounding these lands get complicated and often the environment gets the short end of the stick.

Not long ago, I read in a local newspaper that the North (U.S. Canada, Europe, China, Japan…) have finally figured out that it is worth paying the poor nations, in which these cloud forests are found, to rebuild healthy forest cover to reduce the ecological damage of the North’s destruction of the ozone by their industrial pollution. That’s probably not enough in itself. There are still companies from the North exploiting woods and metals in this tropical zone, ripping open the land where there had been rich ancient forests. But it helps us see that the cloud forest is not just Haiti’s problem, it is the world’s problem. What are we going to do about it?

Paula Stecker

Respect for the elderly in Japan

Posted on October 22, 2011 by Hand In Hand

Patrick and Jacqueline Bencke serve at Kyushu Lutheran College, a college of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kumamoto, Japan. Patrick teaches English and Jacqueline works in the music program. In their recent newsletter, they offer some thoughts on respect for the elderly. To support the Benckes or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

Mr. Taniguchi, senior, gave a testimony at a recent outreach concert where Patrick and I performed.  As a youth he experienced the typical raw anger toward Americans during World War II, but after receiving Christ and the gift of baptism, he has become a rock of faith in the Kumamoto community.

Mr. Taniguchi, senior, gave a testimony at a recent outreach concert where Patrick and I performed. As a youth he experienced the typical raw anger toward Americans during World War II, but after receiving Christ and the gift of baptism, he has become a rock of faith in the Kumamoto community.

September is the month when Japan observes Respect for the Aged Day. Elderly people are respected for their wisdom and experience, and this holiday (yes, it’s a national holiday, so there’s no mail service) is usually celebrated on a small scale within the family, with kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids coming together to honor the more mature members of their families. Often, the traditional Japanese foods are served for meals instead of relying on the more recent additions of fast foods and more highly processed foods.

At our church’s observance this year all the members of the congregation who are 75  or older were recognized and given a small gift at the end of the service. Interestingly, I was shocked to learn that some of the women who were honored were 75 or older – not just because they have a good hair-coloring jobs but because they are so healthy and active!

One thing I appreciate about Japan is how every day is sort of Respect for the Aged Day. This is evidenced by the polite language used to address older people and how so often students or young adults will give up their seats on the bus for folks who are a little older. It is heartening to see this, despite the ever changing society that seems to be drifting from its traditional values. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have such a holiday in the U.S.?

Patrick and Jacqueline Bencke

Celebrating freedom in Slovakia

Posted on October 18, 2011 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Arden and Janna Haug are ELCA missionaries based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Arden is the ELCA’s regional representative for Europe. They have two sons, Vitali and Alexei. To support the Haugs, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

Arden and Janna Haug and their son , Alexei, their most recent high school graduate.

Arden and Janna Haug and their son , Alexei, their most recent high school graduate.

Dear friends,                            

For the Lutheran high schools in Slovakia, the beginning of the school this year was a particularly momentous day. September 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the schools. During the early years of communism, the government closed all religious schools. Church supported schools would allow too many questions to be asked of the communist state.  When the Evangelical Lyceum in Bratislava was re-opened in the fall of 1991, ELCA volunteer teachers were invited to teach English and share the gospel through the English language worship. For 20 years now, ELCA volunteers of all ages have been welcomed to share their gifts in the Slovak Lutheran schools. Today, an entire generation of students has been raised with no memory of communism.

September was also  a new beginning for me personally.  In addition to my work in Bratislava, I am the director of the ELCA Wittenberg Center  in Wittenberg, Germany. As we near 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it felt both important and timely for the ELCA to re-establish our presence at the “birthplace of the Reformation.”  I have been traveling frequently to Wittenberg for years, but during the course of the fall, the office of the ELCA Regional Representative will be relocated to Germany. On Reformation Day, October 31, I will preach at the Castle Church, where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. Luther is buried in the church. This can make the preacher a bit anxious about the “sinner/saint” turning over in his grave.

We are thankful for your prayers, your interest and your financial support. These continue to be difficult economic times for many ELCA congregations and for many personally.  It is hard to make financial commitments in a time of uncertainty.  But as we pray for the ELCA Global Mission, let us remember the historical tradition of service around the world which has been at the very heart of our call as a church.

Peace, Arden and Janna Haug


‘Community’ and the church in Japan

Posted on August 27, 2011 by Hand In Hand

Dana Dutcher is an ELCA missionary stationed in Tokyo. She teaches conversational English and works with several ministries of two congregations, Koishikawa Lutheran Church and Hongo Lutheran Church. To support Dana, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

Dana Dutcher compares getting to know people in Japan to cracking coconuts.

Dana Dutcher compares getting to know people in Japan to cracking coconuts.

One biggest hindrances to developing the Christian church in Japan is the sense of “community.”

Japanese people tend to be like coconuts, hard on the outside, layer upon layer of hard exterior, taking forever to crack into. And I have cracked a coconut before — trust me, it’s hard. But once you finally get through all the exterior hardness there is a soft fruit and milk on the inside where a friendship can form.

Americans on the other hand tend to be like peaches. Soft and easy to penetrate on the outside, but once you get into the core, we get harder to crack. Americans easily open up their group and accept you in, instant friends. I have met people on airplanes and heard their life stories before takeoff. But Japanese people on the other hand , it takes years to really get to know someone. They are guarded and careful with what they share. This characteristic can make it difficult when trying to integrate people into new groups, as in bringing people into the church.

Many of you reading this have been Christians your whole life. We’ve been surrounded by Christianity our whole life, so for us being a Christian is easy. I didn’t lose anything by being a Christian. My family didn’t disown me; my friends didn’t leave me. I didn’t bring shame upon my ancestors. But for a Japanese person who converts, these are some of the issues that they face. Turning your back on hundreds of years of tradition to become a Christian isn’t easy. Leaving the community of your old friends and family to join a new community of Christians is not something that happens over night here. It can take years, even decades, before someone feels their ties are strong enough to a new group to commit themselves. This is where the challenges for the church in Japan arise.

You can read more from Dana at her blog, The Land of the Rising Son.

The ELCA’s best-kept secret: YAGM

Posted on August 2, 2011 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Fred and Gloria Strickert are ELCA missionaries in Palestine. Fred is pastor of the English-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. To support the Strickerts, a Young Adult in Global Mission coordinator or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

YAGM particiapnts see the world through different eyes.

YAGM particiapnts see the world through different eyes.

We have been blessed this past year here in Jerusalem with six amazing, dedicated, and talented young adults (we call them YAGMs) who have impacted our lives and the lives of the Palestinian church, while taking a giant step that means they will never see the world in the same way as before.

The YAGM program remains the ELCA’s best kept secret—even after 10 years.

I still remember the day 12 years or so ago when my academic advisee, Brandon, walked into my Wartburg College office announcing that he had decided to take a year off from college for this new ELCA program in England called “Time for God” — that was what the program was called that first year. I tried to talk Brandon out of it. “I’ll never see you again,” I told him. “You’ll just drop out of school.” Instead, Brandon returned a year later a different person, a new and improved Brandon, a Brandon who had new eyes for his academic work, a Brandon with a strong sense of calling for work in the church.

Over the next years, I found myself encouraging students to apply for this new YAGM program. Hearing about their experiences, I learned a lot about the world and the global church. I also came to realize what a gem the ELCA has in this life-shaping program.

Consider the impact that 419 YAGMs have had on the church returning from a year of service over these last 10 years — 40 to 50 every year.

Now after a year, we have said our farewells to our six YAGMs, who living and working side-by-side with Palestinian Christians have changed the perceptions about Americans while having their own eyes opened about people mostly neglected and often inaccurately maligned in the media.

By now, our six YAGMs — Janelle, Sarah, Abby, Trena, David and Luke — have arrived in the States, readjusting with culture shock but energized, and realizing they will never be the same. Two are heading to seminary this fall, one to grad school in social work, one to Lutheran Volunteer Corps, one to a community art program, and one to serve as a recruiter for ELCA Global Mission before later enrolling in Dental School.

In Jerusalem, there is an empty spot without them. By the end of August, however, we will be welcoming Michelle, Sara, Megan, Alma, Courtney, and Laurin-Whitney as they begin a year as Young Adults in Global Mission.

So we invite your prayers for the entire YAGM program throughout the world and especially here in Jerusalem.

Fred and Gloria Strickert


A joyful step toward self-sustainability

Posted on July 19, 2011 by Hand In Hand

Mary Beth and Bayo Oyebade are ELCA missionaries in Nigeria. They now serve with the Mashiah Foundation to provide services for those who are infected with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Mary Beth leads the women’s sewing program which helps women with HIV and AIDS earn money to provide for themselves and their families. To support the Oyebades, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

The women praise God when they receive the sewing machines.

The women praise God when they receive the sewing machines.

In early December the Self-Sustainability Department of the Mashiah Foundation gave out new treadle sewing machines to five of the women in our program. Over the years we have given out more than 100 sewing machines. This is an incredible gift to the women as it allows them to do much of their work at home without always having to pay transport to come to our sewing center. The machine is a big step on their road to being able to take care of their families.

These are always times of great joy — and always kept a secret until the staff come dancing out with machines. The recipients are often overcome with emotions. I haven’t seen Nigerian women cry very often in public, but many times this gift is so overwhelming that their tears just pour out.

The women’s immediate response is to praise God for their new machines. It’s a time of pure jubilation. I also love how friends rejoice with those who receive.

Another example of striving for self-sustainability is a woman who does not have the use of her legs due to having polio as a child. Consequently, she can’t use a treadle sewing machine. She comes to our program from time to time. I’m always reminded of the Bible story of the persistent widow whenever I see her. She kept telling us that she wanted us to help her buy firewood so she could be selling it at her house. In January, we paid for a load of firewood which she is selling from her compound. Ideally, by the time she finishes selling the wood, she will have capital to invest in another load of wood as well as some income to feed herself and her child.

She was so happy that day when some of our staff members visited her in her home and took the money to her. We will be following up with her to see how her business venture is going.