Dear Sisters and Brothers,

My name is Matthew Ley and I am the Program Interpreter for ELCA Disaster Response. Last week I had my first trip to Minot, ND to check in on the progress made since the flooding from this past summer and to host a respite retreat for the local ELCA pastors. It was a bit of a roller-coaster event emotionally as I learned about and saw first-hand the devastation caused by the flooding. However, because of this event I was able to connect with an amazing set of ordained and lay leaders of this church. I figure the best way to get across what happened is to walk you through the days.

Tuesday, Jan 24, 2012
My first introduction to Minot after the airport was arriving at Sherie & Pat Heine’s house around 11:30pm. With hotels being booked solid with oil workers and people working around the disaster, my search for rooms were met with either no’s or price tags upwards of $160/night. And so Sherie, Western North Dakota Synod Vice-President, and her mother, Pat, graciously agreed to house me during my time. Although it wasn’t official until Toughy, their dog, made sure I passed muster.

After a long day of travel it was great to start my time met by welcoming faces and an hour of relaxing conversation. The best part of my time in Minot was coming to realize that these welcoming faces are as abundant as the destruction is wide-spread. It is humbling to be a stranger so well-received as welcomed neighbor and brother by a community in the midst of grief and trauma.

Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012
Starting nice and early, Sherie and I attended a 7am meeting of ecumenical partners for Hope Village. Hope Village will be located on the grounds of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) an ecumenical effort to streamline and share the process of hosting and registering volunteers. When it opens in April 2012 volunteers will have the option of housing and food offered by the ecumenical community in Minot. Also all work orders will funnel through Hope Village, helping to create efficiency and transparency in the process. To learn more check out their website, and to volunteer call the toll free number, 1-855-720-9804.

After the meeting and an important stop for coffee, Sherie, Katie Nesdahl (Greater Minot Area Strategy Coordinator) and I visited Bethany Lutheran Church. This congregation was unaffected as it sits just up the hill from the crest of the flooding. Since that time it has hosted the staff and congregation of Christ Lutheran Church which sat in the midst of the flood plane. Here we met Pastor Janet and Pastor Gerald of Bethany Lutheran as well as Pastor Dave and Pastor Mike J. of Christ Lutheran. Pastors Dave and Mike had agreed to give us a tour of the flooded areas.

The tour was an eye-opener as we continued to drive while the area of damage went on, with block after block of damaged buildings. Listening to them point out particular houses and buildings and give personal stories of the occupants drove home that even though this damage is wide-spread–each of these buildings has a story that stretches back to June 22, 2011 and beyond. “Here’s Pastor Jon’s house.” “That resident had lived their for 50 years.” “The dike at the school was just 2 inches short of the crest.”

Sanctuary of Christ Lutheran. They had to choose either to keep the roof or the pews. When it came time to decided they chose to keep the roof. Just one of the many hard decisions that come with disaster recovery.

They also walked us through Christ Lutheran to show us the extent of the damage to their building. The congregation had already invested around $250,000 just to get the building to a place where they can now make a decision as to what to do next. It was a theme I heard many times during my visit. With the flood plan for the community not yet determined and with the continuing influx of oil workers, people at times are investing time, talent and treasure towards unknown futures. This is probably why I heard and felt such a strong sense of faith in the community. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” takes on a deeper meaning in a place like this.

Lutheran Disaster Response staff hard at work. Left to right: Rhonda, Shirley, Becky.

I spent the afternoon meeting with the Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) staff working in Minot. The team consists of Rhonda, Marcy, Terry and Becky and functions like a well-oiled machine. I also got to meet Shirley, Director of Lutheran Disaster Response in North Dakota, while she was on one of her many visits to the area. One of the great joys of the visit was getting to reconnect with Terry. Way back in 2008, Terry and his wife Jacki led a youth trip to Chicago for which I was their counselor. Small world! I was very impressed by watching the team in action as they attended the local Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) meeting, worked out of their FEMA trailer in the Our Savior’s parking lot or had impromptu meetings in the cafeteria at the hospital. It really drove home the LDR saying of where Lutherans respond to disaster, that is Lutheran Disaster Response.

We finished up the day with a great home cooked meal by Pat consisting of noodles enough to feed an army!

Thursday, Jan 26, 2012
Pat and her programmable coffeemaker quickly topped the list of my new best friends as yet again a hot and ready cup of joe was awaiting me in the morning. This really helped sustain me through a long day. It started with the LDR staff gaining even more appreciation for how well they work together as they continue to find the best ways to connect all the working pieces of disaster response.

I then had the privilege of lunch with Bishop Mark Narum, Sherie and Katie. Bishop Narum is one of those people that fully embody the title they carry. His presence is calm, his responses insightful and his heart about as big as North Dakota. The three of them really helped me understand the role of the synod within this response as they look to care for pastors, churches and congregants hurting. Western North Dakota is truly blessed with their leadership.

Pastor Heather showing the old insulation they are removing from the walls. It's pretty much paper thin.

In the afternoon Sherie took me see the home of Pastor Heather who lives in Minot but serves two rural congregations unaffected by the flood. Pastor Heather showed us around and shared that over 100 volunteers had come through LDR to help with their house. She said this flood has really shown her what it means to be the Body of Christ. She’d known how to preach it before but now she was getting first-hand experience as to how it was lived. After our time with Pastor Heather, Sherie took me around to see the rest of the churches we had not gotten to yesterday. We saw Zion Lutheran and Bread of Life, two non-flooded churches both which have hosted flooded congregations. During the drive we talked about the ups and downs that come from congregations sharing space. One of the most enlightening pieces for me was how interconnected, aware and interdependent the pastors and congregations were. More about this in my thoughts on the Respite Retreat.

Pastor John showing us the damage and rebuild of his home. His wife, Glenda, shared that the water nearly reached the stairway landing. Left to right: Noah, Glenda, Pastor John, Sherie.

Then we were lucky enough to catch Pastor John from Zion Lutheran at home where he was working with his family on their flooded home. He told us about how the water was up to the step just below the landing on their stairs, about 5 feet deep on the first floor. As he shared his family’s story I was again reminded that all of these homes I was seeing have a story like Pastor John and his family.

We then visited Peace Lutheran in Burlington, about 7 miles from Minot, where we saw even more flooded buildings. We were led around by Diane, a member of the congregation who also had her home flooded. An amazing woman giving time out of her own tragedy to support the church she loves. Peace Lutheran had its basement and much of its youth space flooded. They have been working with Mission Builders to start work on an above ground addition that would be less prone to future flooding.

To close out the day we visited First Lutheran which sits very close to the river but was saved from the flood waters by the emergency dikes built just outside its doors. Unfortunately, the back up from flood waters reversed the flow in the plumbing and flooded the basement. As Pastor Mike P. walked us through the damaged space I was struck by something both Sherie and Mike said. “It smells clean down here.” I realized I’d heard it a few other times during our visits to damaged homes, many of which had sat in water for weeks. This had led to a lot of mold build-up. For many residents a clean home was not just something you saw but something you smelled.

Friday, Jan 27, 2012
This was a day of transition as I moved from the act of situational update to the pastor’s respite retreat, hosted and Metigoshe Ministries, about 2 hours from Minot. I was able to have a fuller conversation with Pastor John in the morning at the local coffee shop to hear more of how things have been going on the ground. It was a valuable time and helped me in gaining more perspective on the situation.

I then picked up Greg, the speaker for the retreat, from the airport, introduced him to the LDR staff and collected some supplies before heading up to Metigoshe. We then enjoyed the two hours which come from putting a psychologist and a theology student in the same vehicle! A great set of conversations to say the least.

After arriving and setting up in the beautiful retreat center at Metigoshe we began welcoming the arriving pastors. It was great getting to meet them and their families as they came in. We started our time together with a great meal prepared by Angelina, reminding me of the camp meals I ate while working at Sugar Creek Bible Camp which was very fitting since one of the pastors at the retreat, Pastor Taryn, was someone I knew from our times working at Sugar Creek. It was a joy to reconnect with her, meet her husband Pastor Christoph, and their gorgeous new baby girl, Maggie.

After dinner we had a short devotional focusing on Jesus and his ability to take respite amidst the turmoil of ministry to help set the tone for the retreat. This was then followed by what was probably the highlight of the retreat for me a rousing game of Kooties. I’m not going to lay out the rules in total but suffice to say it involves rolling a dice, drawing a “Kootie”, doing some higher level math and yelling “KOOOOTIE!!” It was a lot of fun and really helped set a relaxed mood. Thanks to Pastor Janet for sharing the family game.

Saturday, Jan 28, 2012
This was a very relaxed day with a little structure. Greg led the group through a morning and an evening session on stress, trauma, grief and resilience that led to some great group discussions. As stated above what I most gained from these sessions was a sense of how through this disaster the pastors had come to know each other, share of themselves honestly and realize the power in interconnectedness and even interdependence. What I really appreciated was seeing how this intense situation had not driven them to take interconnectedness in the direction of cloistering, where those from the outside are kept at bay. They are stronger for the connections forged through tragedy and were still open to allowing Greg and I to join the process. What a gift to be a truly welcoming community and to be one truly welcomed.

The rest of the day was spent doing whatever one’s heart desired. It was great to see parents skating with kids on a little pond, a lone sledder out on the hill, couples just taking a walk on the snowy trails, a few started and abandoned puzzles, some intense card games and just great, relaxed conversation. I myself started to feel the sense of respite.

In the evening we had a small prayer service that served to close out our official time together. It was a very simple service that involved some singing and readings. The liturgy includes a set of short bible readings that the worship leader can choose to read from. I figured it wasn’t my place to say what would speak to the experience of those gathered so I left it open for people to read as they felt moved. What followed was very powerful for me as nearly every passage and a few psalms were read, by a pastor here, a spouse there and their children. God’s word is a powerful foundation on which we build.

Pastors and their families relaxing at the end of the respite retreat.

Sunday, Jan 29, 2012
In the morning we had another wonderful camp breakfast and then had a rousing worship service with Metigoshe Lutheran and supporters of Metigoshe Ministries as they installed the camps new executive director, Pastor John Halvorson. It was a treat to hear Bishop Mark preach and see Pastor Gerald of Bethany Lutheran light up as he presented Pastor Halvorson. The service was also filled with camp songs from the ages that brought me back.

After a celebration lunch it was time for me to say my goodbyes and to accept the gracious offer of Pastor Michon of Augustana Lutheran to drive me back to the airport. The ride was of course accompanied by another great two hour conversation on life, ministry and wood carving in shop class. Then it was onto the plane to head back to life in Chicago.

A wonderful experience and one I am extremely grateful for. Thank you to the Western North Dakota synod, the local clergy in Minot and the staff of LDR. In the midst of responding to disaster the light of Christ is shining bright in Minot and the surrounding communities.