By Jack Damien
They thrived through it all. Laughter and weeping, jubilant growth and frustrating decline, courageous stances and gnawing anxiety. ELCA members are part of the ELCA’s quarter-century journey, and they have the stories to prove it.
“I was a real mess. Recently divorced, drinking too much, kind of lost, and really down,” Richard Stasenko, 70, said of his life before the formation of the ELCA in 1988. “Then I came to know people who were so loving, generous and good by being part of the Lutheran church,” Stasenko said of Shishmaref Lutheran Church in Shishmaref, Alaska, which has over 600 baptized members. “I thank the Lord for this church, and the Holy Spirit’s work. He took me along the narrow path and made my life so blessed.”
In the warmer climate of the classic New England village of Westborough, Mass., lies Good Shepherd, a congregation of over 700 members in a state renowned for its liberal and revolutionary spirit. Jeffrey Goodrich, associate pastor, sees a spirited ferment in the ELCA’s 25-year presence in New England. “I greatly value (Presiding) Bishop Mark Hanson’s leadership in calling the church to work on behalf of the poor, needy, oppressed and powerless in our culture,” said Jeffrey, who was 4 when the ELCA was born. “That’s incredibly important as the next generation comes up and as people in their 20s, like me, are looking for places that are committed to social justice.”
Far west of the Mississippi, three charter families of the 90-member Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Casper, Wyo., sliced roast beef sandwiches during lunch as they dissected 25 years of their ELCA history. Three years before the birth of the denomination, Good Shepherd was losing members, after major energy companies pulled out of the region, according to Larry Erdman, council vice president. The congregation fought hard for years to retain members with many bumps along the way.
The congregation is now growing with a renewed focus on cordiality and the Lord, according to Bill Clark, 65. “Are we supposed to be arguing and bickering, or talking about (the Lord’s) way and his word?” Bill counseled. The three charter families seek a renewed focus with the synod and its new bishop, James Gonia.
“We would love to meet and greet Jim soon, as well as introduce him to Good Shepherd and our beautiful city of Casper,” said Maxine Anderson, 75. “We look forward to a fruitful and enjoyable partnership in the years to come.”
In the vast prairielands to the north, Jessica Arneson, president of the 740-member Martin’s Lutheran Church in Casselton, N.D., has a striking personal recollection from her congregation’s journey with the ELCA.
“Our congregation is inclusive, accepting, forgiving and unconditionally loving,” said Jessica, 34. “It’s a second home that keeps members involved and connected beyond Sunday services.” Jessica was sledding with church members one of those “beyond Sunday” afternoons when she missed a curve. Six broken ribs later, she regained consciousness and felt “crackling” whenever she breathed. “My pastor, Paula Mehmel, was praying for me,” Jessica said, “and for three weeks after that, families from the congregation brought blessings and hot, homemade meals to our family every night for supper. It was a very humbling experience and a strong showing of God’s love through others.”
Some final advice on showing “strong love” during our landmark anniversary came from 12-year-old Hayden Erdman of Las Vegas. “We should throw a big party!” Hayden said, smiling. “Let’s invite everyone to come, donate a lot of money to the church, talk about the troubles we’ve been having, and then talk about our happy times.”
You might also want to read:
Spirit of Joy
Celebrating your congregation’s anniversary
25th anniversary of the Constituting Convention of ELCA