Thursday, May 21, 2015

2015: Surprises

We proclaim a God who overturns our expectations.

And here in Nebraska, only a few days into our rural immersion experience, we have already encountered much that has surprised us.

I asked my classmates, our intern guide and our faculty member to share one thing that has surprised them in these first few days in the Cornhusker State. Read on to learn their answers!

There are bison in Nebraska.

Kat, a recently graduated MATS student has seen bison in other areas of the country, but said, “I had no idea they were in Nebraska!” On our first day here, we were oriented to Nebraska by members of the Nebraska Synod's Rural Task Force, synod staff, and interns serving in Nebraska. We watched a short video highlighting the diversity of Nebraska's landscapes, and it included farmers, ranchers, city folk, skyscrapers, rivers, lakes, corn, cattle, and... bison!

A brand new engine recently joined the fleet of the Hooper Fire Department.

Volunteer firefighters don't get paid.

"They're really volunteers," said Terry Baeder, LSTC faculty member. He was familiar with other fire departments that pay their volunteers for the time they are actually called into duty, but the volunteer firefighters we met in the town of Hooper do not receive any financial compensation.

Terry asked the volunteers "Why do you do it?" to which one volunteer simply replied, "We live in community."

We heard incredible stories of the many dangerous situations these volunteers are prepared to respond to at a moment's notice. "It is an incredible investment that people are willing to make with their lives, for free," Terry reflected.

Ben explains how his "whole farm" works, and why he feels called to care for this land.

Farmers' care for creation is Biblically grounded.

“I always thought of farmers as being close to land, but I didn’t realize how much responsibility they felt for stewardship,” said Todd, MDiv student. "It's not just theologians in a class talking about it; they're living it out."

The class spoke with several farmers, including one named Ben who is concerned with what he called "regenerative/restorative agriculture." Ben talked about his work as a farmer as a calling that is deeply connected to his faith. "If we as faithful people can't care for the land, who will?" he challenged us.

Ben and Terry get their hands dirty in the compost pile.

Farmers are well-educated.

Standing next to a pile of compost, three men in blue jeans, ball caps, and work boots talked to us about raising hogs and planting grains. Their hands were dirty and the air smelled like hog manure. Guess how many of these men have postgraduate education? All of them.

"Who would have thought a farmer would have a master's degree?" said Pam, MDiv student. As it turns out, there is a lot more to this than we knew.

Woody shows us what type of produce is growing on this tree on his orchard.

You can grow peaches and pecans in Nebraska.

We visited Woody, a retired businessman who now operates an orchard and a small bed and breakfast on his property. Woody grows several kinds of apples and a variety of different produce to sell at farmer's markets, including pears, quince, peaches, pecans, grapes, blackberries, and rhubarb. He also has broiler chickens in the shed, geese on the pond, crappie and other fish in the pond, and a PVC pipe operation on the side. 

"When I was working, I worked about forty hours a week," Woody said. "Now that I'm retired, I work about sixty."

LSTC student Fanya was amazed that Woody was able to grow some of the specialty produce that is typically associated with warmer climates, like peaches and pecans. "It's the new Georgia!" she laughed.

Our immersion is taking place in the town of Hooper, which is not pronounced like you'd think.
People that live here tell us, "It's like 'hooker,' but with a 'p.'"

There is no public transportation.

Rita, an international MDiv student, noted that there is an evident lack of public transportation in the areas we visited. "People must be well-off and have cars of their own to commute," she said. 

Indeed, we are learning that transportation (or lack thereof) is an issue that affects access to resources in rural communities. Unlike urban areas where services are more concentrated, someone in a rural community might have to travel miles to reach the nearest doctor, religious institution, mental health services, public library, etc. 

Protected wetlands and prairies break up the miles of planted land.

Rural doesn't always mean rigid gender roles.

While gender roles tend to be more rigid in rural communities than in urban, I nevertheless encountered more people than I expected who, to varying degrees defy gender norms. 

Our first night here, we had a dinner to meet our host families, and the very first man I talked to was a registered nurse. Later, I met my host, a man who worked for many years as an art teacher in the public schools and later became a special education teacher. We met a woman with two children who works 60+ hours per week as a physician, and another woman who serves as a volunteer firefighter. And in this geographical cluster of ELCA congregations, three out of four pastors are women.

A handwritten sign welcomed us to the Fremont Health Medical Center.

People really paid attention to who we are.

Alma, MDiv intern serving in Hooper, worked with her internship supervisor to put together our itinerary this week. Before we arrived in Hooper, she sent out mini biographies of each of us to the people we were going to meet, telling them a little bit about us and our backgrounds and interests. And the people really read them. 

At several of the places we went, we would introduce ourselves, and someone would say something like, "Oh, you're the one who likes honeybees, right?" Or, "Which one of you is from Elgin?"

It may seem like a little thing, but in a day packed full of new faces and new places, it was really special to feel like our hosts knew us before we got there. "It was really cool," said Alma.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Final Blog:

Tuesday May 27th
The day started with the remaining students taking an early morning hike at SHC with the sun rising. What a beautiful example of the western NE landscape with rolling hills in a pasture full of cattle!

The group left for Gloria Dei Lutheran which is the last church of a four point parish. Lay leaders talked about their strengths and struggles being part of a four-point parish. One particular issue talked about is financial balance between a congregation’s contributions for leadership as it relates to sharing leadership with other participating congregations.  It was mentioned that lay leaders and again connections were vital aspects for doing ministry. At present, the congregation is participating in the call process.

Students took an early lunch and last [planned] stop at Runza for the trip, a local favorite that the group came to enjoy.

The group had the opportunity to speak with Bishop Maas. The conversation partially talked about inclusivity of racial minorities in the life of the NE synod. Bishop Maas generally conceded that inclusivity of minorities is risky, and the current climate is not necessarily conducive to minority leadership. Another point talked about is the general development of leadership in the synod. New perspectives on leadership, such as emphasis on laity and more specialized leadership is necessary. The analogue drawn was comparing church leadership with the medical field; there are many different types of medical professionals and no one professional does it all.

After the meeting, students were able to tour Leyton High School. Greg Brenner spoke of the difficulties and successes of the school. It appeared that there is a high graduation rate and a high post-secondary continuation by graduates. The school continues to deal with small numbers of enrollment which limit some of the extracurricular activities. It appears that solid engagement between the school and community is important for a successful educational system.
Students were later able to meet with Coleen McKay to learn about the Dalton village government. Local government generally reported that most of the work done centers around billing and enforcing property codes. Very few residents attend village meetings, but residents via word of mouth, are well informed of the issues discussed.

The afternoon was spent with Pastor Eric. The group was able to see the Presbyterian and Lutheran buildings that are currently utilized in various capacities by the ecumenical church formed by two different congregations known as the United Church of the Plains. At this time, much of the congregation is still discerning how to consolidate. One of the major issues that the congregation has faced is the issue of membership and how that relates to participation and congregational census. The issue comes from differing historical polities.
The evening concluded at The Hanger for the “mad cow” burger night- when all burgers at half price. The United Planes church’s ministry called The Way was there to talk about their work and to fellowship. Several success stories were shared about how the community ministry has brought engagement with local area youth. Concerns about connecting with youth continue to persist despite having good attendance.

Wednesday May 28th
After saying goodbye to their host families, the students went to Saint Peter’s Church ruins. It was ruined in a fire; there students found a Geo-Cache box and contributed to the log book inside.
For their final stop, students went to the Nelson family homestead which was established in 1886 and has been in the same family for five generations. Kent’s wife Marsha is memorialized there. The five generations of genealogy connecting the family to the site are listed on the monument. Ending the trip with such an important testament of the connection between the land and the people of NE was a fitting capstone for the immersion experience.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sunday May 25th
Two of the students (Michael Oellig and Katherine Tuttle) went to Weyerts and The United Church on the Plains. On the way there, one student was able to speak with Pastor Alm about church structures. He expressed concerns about the ELCA polity structure which is rather prohibitive, particularly in his ecumenical church which is a joint congregation between the ELCA and PCUSA.

Weyerts service, while historically German, was rather low church. The congregation sat in the back half of the building. While at the United Church, the congregation met in the ELCA building.  Since the church is a result of a merger of two local congregations, there continues to be a conflict about which building should be used. The service generally followed a Lutheran context.

In the afternoon, two students (Matt Lawler and Steve Bogie) had to return to Chicago to begin CPE assignments while the other students spent the day with their host families in relaxation and reflection.

Monday May 26th
The group started the day by visiting the former site of the Sioux Army Depot. Much of the site has been dismantled, while remaining buildings were re-purposed into facilities such as dwellings, storage, and industry.
The group attended Memorial Day services at Weyerts. The services started with reflection in the cemetery with many of the families who have deep roots with those interned there. The service was held in the sanctuary followed by fellowship augmented with coffee and doughnuts.
Following the services, the students went to the farm of Phil and Kathy Narjes for a tour and a hearty farm banquet. On tour, students got to feed a calf, hold several newly born farm cats, see Phil’s large collection of cars and farm equipment, and gather freshly laid eggs from a chicken coop.
After the time spent eating and experiencing farm life, the students ended the day at Sullivan Hills Camp. 

On Saturday, May, 24, 2014 we visited Pastor Amanda at the First English Lutheran Church in Kimball, Nebraska. Pastor Amanda's willingness to go over key elements of rural ministries was fully appreciated by the whole group. Pastor Amanda has a down to earth type personality, and her insight into rural ministries was exceptionally spot on. We all were entertained and inspired by her wit and skill to articulate how to deal with important issue while working in a rural context as a pastoral leader.

Saturday evening Pastor Eric invited our combined group over to his house to treat us to a wonderful home cooked meal. The hospitality, generosity, and kindness that Pastor Eric and his wife Robin provided made us feel warmly welcomed in their lovely home. Thank you Pastor Eric and Robin for your time, energy, and love and sharing those talents with our group we appreciate your kindness.  

This is my last blog for this trip and I would like to generally thank everyone who has been instrumental to what I feel has been a very successful experience. Although, this is my last post there will be other writers who will carry the torch of this blog by articulating their experiences during the remaining portion of the Nebraska immersion. Through their experiences there will be the possibility of illustrating different points of view that will aid to bring forward new ideas of importance through their perspective.

A beautiful gift given to our group has been the hospitality of the people who worked with us throughout the week which has been absolutely wonderful. One individual who has been instrumental to our group feeling at home has been Kent Miller. Throughout the first week of the Nebraska immersion Kent has been a delightful companion, leader, and friend to our whole group. Kent has made our experiences in Nebraska insightful, educational, and overall very fun. Because of Kent’s hard work our group was comfortable, fed, and felt like we were a part of his family. We all thank you Kent.

People's willingness to take in a bunch of strangers and have them live in their homes or visit them at their work has been truly remarkable and awesome experience. The time, effort, and friendship given by everyone we visited during this immersion truly illustrated a deep sense God's love through the generosity of these people. We are truly indebted to your wonderful hospitality that we all received throughout this week in rural Nebraska. 

It is safe to say that I would endorse that the Nebraska immersion course should be a mandatory experience for any pastoral leader looking to serve in a rural context. Also, I would fully recommend any student to take this course so they could experience how wonderful the people in rural Nebraska are. 

On a final note here is an awesome lemon cookie recipe that the Matthewson family served to us when we visited their ranch on Saturday morning. It is definitely worth trying this recipe because these cookies  are deliciously addictive. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

On Friday, May 24, 2014 our group stayed in Sidney, Nebraska for the whole day. First thing in the morning we stopped off to visit the Natural Resource Conservation Service / Farm Service offices to talk to Kent’s daughter Kristin Miller. NRCS is presently trying to satisfy the future need of supplying food for our growing world. Kris emphasized an interesting perspective on the amount of food needed for future, which is the amount of food needed for the future is the same amount that has maintained the world for the past five hundred years. Therefore, NRCS works with land owning farmers to assist them in conserving their soil for the possibility of sustaining the most profitable growing circumstances with that soil.

Later in the day we visited the Sidney courthouse where we were treated to an engaging conversation about domestic violence. There were presentations from Health and Human Services, officials from the courthouse, and the Doves program where each presenter emphasized the importance of a pastor’s role in stopping domestic violence. Each presenter illustrated that pastors in most cases are the first line of defense against domestic violence. This is because people feel that they can confide and trust in pastors with sensitive information. The officials of the justice department made it clear that we all work together as a team in providing care towards stopping domestic violent situations.

After lunch we embarked on a journey to visit the funeral home in Sidney. The funeral home presentation gave us a glimpse of casket types, body preparation, embalming materials, and the relationship between funeral directors and religious clergy. The dominant theme the presenter emphasized with relationships between funeral home staff and clergy was that is should be maintained as a respectful partnership. This is especially true when each party is trying to fulfill the duty of their vocation within the funeral service.  

After the funeral home we visited South Platte Natural Resources Center to hear a presentation on water conservation. There were two wonderful presentations that emphasized the importance of conserving water in various methods that helps to preserve water in Nebraska and for North America.

Finally, we ended our day by visiting the Sloan Assisted Living Center to partake in some conversation with some very special hosts. Our visit was a good exercise in Clinical Pastoral Education, which a good portion of the group involved with this class will have to complete over this upcoming summer. Some of us were treated to stories about World War II, military life, fishing, and the good meals the staff makes for the guests that live at the facility. Our visitation to Sloan Assisted Living Center was an excellent reminder of the joy of maintaining relationships with people who have vast lifetime of experiences.  


Saturday, May 24, 2014

A New Day In Nebraska

Our group has been delighted by the wonderful scenery that Nebraska has to offer. On Wednesday, May 21, 2014 we traveled to the Kingsley Dam and saw some awesome views of Lake McConaughy. Lake McConaughy is Nebraska’s biggest lake and largest reservoir in a four state region and is built on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Then on Thursday, May 22, 2014 we traveled to courthouse/ jail rock in Bridgeport near the Nebraska Panhandle. These formations are amazing and are defiantly worth the while to stop and take a look. 

We continued enjoying seeing some sites when we traveled to Scottsbluff National Monument in the Scottsbluff County, Nebraska.

Yet, it seems the most special part of the day was when our group went to visit the Lakota Lutheran center in Scottsbluff County, Nebraska. The Lakota Lutheran center is a small congregation that bases itself on social ministries, youth education, providing meals for those in need, and pastoral care within the community. This amazing center strives to bridge the gap between the Lakota people and the residents of the local community. We had the luxury to spent time at this center getting to know the social climate of the Lakota people in this area. We found out that their socioeconomic situation within the community can be extremely oppressive for a number of these people. Jail is sometimes the unfortunate reality that is part of some of the lives of the Lakota people in Nebraska. A main reason for jail time for some Lakota people is because of use of drugs or alcohol. When people are caught engaging in a drug or alcohol crime they can be bound to a life of being subjugated by their local justice system. This is because individuals who do not have the financial resources to help themselves out of their circumstance must serve the fullest penalty for their crime. Although, the Lakota center is operated by providing hope to those who seem to have no chance of being freed from their situation by providing programs for those who feel persecuted by their crime. The Lakota center was a sobering experience of social justice that seemed to affect us all. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

I did not mention in my last blog about the house hosts who are providing for Matt Lawler and I (Steve Bogie) a place of shelter and rest during our stay in Nebraska. Matt and I are tremendously  fortunate to be invited to stay with Jerry and Glea Haupt. The Haupt's are two of the sweetest people who treat us both like family.

On Wednesday, May 21, 2014 we visited multiple rural church communities such as, Keystone interdenominational, Grace Lutheran, Saint Mark’s Lutheran, and Berea Lutheran church. Each of these churches had special offerings of survival in rural contexts by working together as a combined community.


A unique example of a combined community working together for survival was demonstrated by Keystone interdenominational church. Keystone exemplified Lutheran/Presbyterian backgrounds that worked together hand in hand with Roman Catholic traditions in one building for the combined practice of worship. The need for a church in the community outweighed the denominational differences that typically would separate these traditions. Yet, as demonstrated in this church community one of the best traits of Nebraska is that the people happily figure out ways to work together as a community even through difficult situations. 

Grace Lutheran:

Grace Lutheran Church provided a sobering perspective for our group with the difficulty of keeping a small church community together in times of struggle. Grace has a congregational size of eleven to nineteen parishioners on an average Sunday for worship. Vonnie Brown explained to our group the history of this congregation and its ability to continue forward even without a called pastoral figure. Vonnine shared with us about her father's life as the pastor of this community and his subsequent passing which led her to take over the responsibilities of leading this community to keep it afloat. Vonnie explained to us about a PMA which and helped us understand what type of role the Parish Ministry Associate embodies. A PMA is a ministry leadership role that is unique only to the Nebraska Synod. A PMA is trained to serve in a ministry role that allows them to preach and administer the sacraments in a single parish. PMA's can do most things in the church like a called pastor, but PMA's are not allowed to sign marriage certificates.    

Saint Mark's Lutheran:

Saint Mark's is a gorgeous church that is lead by Brenda Tophoj a PMA who is filled with a beautiful fire and energy to serve God as well as her parish. Brenda emphasized to us that being part of a small community parish is a great gift because people of a small community work together through thick and thin. Brenda took over Saint Mark's as a PMA when its previous pastor left accepting a new call at a different church community. Brenda was a wonderful host filled with insight about how special it is to be part of rural ministries in Nebraska.   

Berea Lutheran:

Berea Lutheran is an absolutely beautiful church that we as a group were fortunate to be able to visit. Berea and Saint Mark's Lutheran Churches are part of a four point parish community. Brenda Tophoj is the PMA for the congregation at Berea as well as at Saint Mark's. Members of Berea's congregation spent at least an hour with our group conversing about their outlook of rural Nebraska. We as a group were able to embark on conversations about school, social life, shopping, the police and fire departments, and crime in rural Nebraska. The conversation we had with these congregational members provided exceptional insight into the lives of the people who live in rural Nebraska. One member lived in Denver at one time in his life and at the end of our conversation he emphasized how happy he now is living in rural Nebraska. 

It seems that life is good for the people who live in rural Nebraska. All of our hosts emphasized how happy they are living in rural communities of Nebraska.    

First Post

Each student that is taking part of the Leadership and Mission in Rural Congregations course has different interests they want to learn about while being immersed in the countryside of Nebraska. Yet, as we spend time together as a group we have started to understand the importance of building strong relationships by working side by side by embracing our differences in personal desires. A strong image that has been present since the first day of traveling to Nebraska is that God’s work gets done by relationships that communally work together regardless of the diversity in personal interests in that community. As this group walks together unified there is a hope in finding a deeper and richer appreciation of God’s presence in the midst of Nebraska’s rural environments. Therefore, each day will be a blessing for this group in our pursuit of understanding how God’s work gets done in rural Nebraska regardless of its diversity.            

8:00 a.m. Tuesday, May 20, 2014 we began our adventure to Nebraska.

Dr. Terry Baeder  /  Katherine Tuttle /  Matt Lawler             

Michael Oellig /  Louis Tillman                                          

Steve Bogie 

We arrived by car to Midway Airport before 9:00 a.m., went through security, and waited patiently to board our plane for Denver International Airport.

It was a smooth and safe flight to Denver International Airport.

Next, we met Kent Miller who drove us from Colorado to Nebraska. The three hour trip from Colorado to Nebraska allowed some of us a moment for some needed rest.

 Kent / Matt / Katherine / Michael                                                                                 Bev / Terry/ Louis
Kent is immensely hospitable he made sure that we felt welcomed, taken care of, and provided all our meals throughout the day.
Lutheran Church Of Our Redeemer                                

We then visted Kayla Hochalter for a short pitstop in Fort Morgan, Colorado at Lutheran Church Of Our Redeemer . Kaila provided excellent insight about relationships within rural ministries and what it is like being a pastor in that context.

Louis / Steve / Terry / Matt / Katherine / Kaila / Bev Michael

After our meeting with Kayla we hit the road again, and after a long trip from Colorado we finally crossed the state line into Nebraska. Soon after crossing the line we met our house hosts and settled in to where we were staying for the duration of our immersion.

Some of us took a walk around the neighborhood and found out that even though we all are a long way from Chicago, Illinois there is a piece of home in Nebraska.