Missions Minute: First Lutheran Church

By DIANA PADDOCK

dpaddock@timesobserver.com

The amount of “mission” work flowing from the hearts and hands of Warren County residents is astounding. The following is a partial sample of the financial, practical and prayerful support offered at:

FIRST LUTHERAN CHURCH,

Warren

International

First Lutheran Church supports its “sister synod” in Tanzania, Africa, primarily for a school for girls, according to senior pastor the Rev. David Blank. The school is supported through “a significant contribution from this congregation,” Blank said.

Colleen Witmer has traveled to Tanzania twice, once with her husband for the school’s dedication.

“I have gone to Tanzania twice through First Lutheran Church, Witmer shared. “It was very illuminating the first time I went. I had never experienced anything quite like life in Africa and my life was forever changed because of it. I had never met a people so poor by our standards, but yet so rich in ways we in America seem to have left behind in the name of progress. I was deeply affected by the traditions and tribal hierarchy involved in their way of life. Not to say that it was all positive, but it seemed to outweigh the negative.”

Witmer’s experiences were at times difficult.

“I was appalled by the harshness of life – the poverty, hunger, lack of education,” she said. “These are the reasons that mission trips are so invaluable. The Northwest PA Synod (which First Lutheran Church is a part of) began a campaign and has successfully helped to make possible a rather large girls school (boarding school). These private schools offer a much better education than public schools and provide a good home and proper food and medical attention for the students. First Lutheran also helped in building a new church in Bisheshe. Churches are usually one of the focal points in any village. I was very pleased on my second trip, which was six years later. The progress that had been made in many areas was uplifting.”

Witmer said the local church’s support is invaluable in the region.

“Even though we are not there all of the time, our support means so much to the people of the area,” Witmer said. “They are so proud of their ‘American friends.’ I will be returning to Tanzania this summer, but not to the Karagwe District. I will be going to Arusha to help at the orphanage that McKissocks runs. I am looking forward to seeing another aspect of ‘outsiders’ making a positive impact without trying to change people to ‘our way of life’.”

The Warren church also offers regular prayer for the school and First Lutheran’s sister congregation, which is located in Bisheshe, Tanzania.

The church and synod also support the upcoming Luther 500 Festival in Germany, a celebration of service and education, marking the places Martin Luther served and taught 500 years ago.

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a strong heritage of missions throughout the world, Blank explained.

The ELCA supports pastors, agriculture, theology teaching, community development and more, he said.

The ELCA supports efforts across the globe, in “Korea, Japan, Egypt and Europe and local parishes participate in those efforts,” added the Rev. “Jake” Jacobson, Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod’s assistant to the bishop

ELCA World Hunger provides “health clinics to microloans, water wells to animal husbandry, community meals to advocacy.” ELCA supports “sustainable solutions that get at the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

The church is part of the ELCA’s Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod and gives approximately $45,000 a year in benevolence (financial support for local and national ministries) plus a $7,000 budget for the ELCA’s World Hunger program.

Women of First Lutheran Church have donated more than 15,000 quilts since 1948 to donate to Lutheran World Relief. The workshop was founded by five women who met to sew for the needy. In the early years the group collected used clothing and sent it to Lutheran World Relief. They also knitted and sewed items that were given to local organizations. As the membership grew the main focus was sewing quilts. At first, the quilts were made by recycling old but good clothes, blankets and other fabric items. Most LWR quilts are still made this way, but today fabric samples, remnants and new fabrics are also used. In the last 66 years, the women of the First Lutheran Church workshop have made and donated more than 15000 quilts to LWR. Quilts from First Lutheran Church are sent to a distribution center in Maryland where they are sorted, packed, wrapped in plastic and shipped overseas where they are given for disaster relief and others in need.

Domestic

The church supports the Bethesda Children’s Home in Meadville and the youth serve at the Erie City Mission as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank. The church also provides regular financial support to the Lutheran Home at Kane and to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

Intergenerational

The Rev. Jeff Ewing, associate pastor at First Lutheran Church, accompanies youths on mission trips each year. In 2011, they went to Boston to work for Heifer International, a program of advocacy and education. In 2012, they went to Nashville to assist residents with flood recovery through Lutheran Disaster Response. In 2013, an entourage went to New York City to serve in food ministries and assist with the Hurricane Sandy recovery in the Far Rockaways. This year, they will go to North Carolina to serve folks living on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

“We wanted to do some cross-cultural ministry,” he explained. “Folks from St. John’s Lutheran church will be joining us, too. We are also hoping folks from Luther Memorial in Erie will be able to join us.”

Teams from First Lutheran Church also have participated in Bread for the World in Washington, D.C., food distribution in Uniontown and the Hosanna Industries in Pittsburgh, at which a group of more than 20 people took on projects for Pittsburgh residents in need.

“First Lutheran has done many other mission trips throughout America,” Witmer added. “We do an intergenerational mission trip almost every summer. This year’s trip will be to Cherokee, N.C., where we will work on the Indian reservation. In previous years we have gone to NYC to work in soup kitchens and do Superstorm Sandy relief work; gone to Savannah, Ga., to do work for low income families; done flood relief work in Nashville, Tenn.; done advocacy work in Washington, D.C.; and more.”

Part of the strength of the mission groups has been their diversity.

“No two groups have ever been the same,” Witmer shared. “Our oldest participant was 84. Our youngest, 12. There is always something for everyone of any age to do.”

No matter the age or skill set, Witmer said, the mission experience is irreplacable.

“The general feeling of participants is that putting ourselves to work for others is one of the best ways available to live

out our faith,” Witmer said. “It’s very easy to say the words, but much more rewarding to put those words into action. I’m just so very passionate about sharing the gifts God gave us with others. I always say that there are never too many helping hands out there – and sometimes the most helpful hand is the one that holds the hand of another who needs it.”

Youth trips

Every three years, youth of First Lutheran go to ELCA Youth Gathering “for high school-age youth takes place every three years and is about faith formation, worship, study, fellowship, service and play,” according to the church. The next one will be in Detroit, Mich., in 2015. During the event, over 30,000 participants will rotate through work experiences in and around the city, a mission to residents of each community.

The 2012 trip, to New Orleans, La., to assist with continued Hurricane Katrina clean-up, was a great experience for local youths. Although damage was several years old, there was still plenty of work for volunteers.

“We divided into three groups,” Ewing explained. “Two groups painted houses, and one group cleared a vacant lot from storm debris.”

Also in New Orleans in 2009, the youth gathering’s focus was hurricane relief and the gathering and distribution of children’s books to all the schools in and around city.

Mission teams “were able to provide each classroom with a small library,” Ewing explained.

“I think sharing the love of God they have with others” is valuable, Ewing explained of youth mission trips. “It makes them focus outside themselves and gives them an opportunity to see where God is working and where we, as God’s hands, can serve.”

During a trip to New York City, the youths took granola bars to hand out, and the gratitude was palpable.

“One of the guys’ eyes lit up when he said ‘thank you’,” Ewing explained. “At the soup kitchen in Manhattan,” the youths got a round of applause.

In Washington, D.C., the entourage had a whole bag of celery and carrots (nobody would eat, Ewing said, smiling). They gave the bag to a homeless man, and he said, “Oooh. Me and my friend are genna eat good tonight.”

It’s great for the kids, all agreed.

It validates “their own self worth,” Jacobson explained. “It’s important for the kids.” They think, “I can help. I can serve. I can make a difference.”

Mission trips usually are followed by a presentation to the church, Ewing explained. The kids share their experiences.

Interestingly, it’s “not the kids you would see sharing normally,” Ewing said.

Local

First Lutheran Church supports The Sharing Place, a meal for the hungry served each Thursday at First Presbyterian Church, Warren. First Lutheran has two teams who rotate (with five other local churches).

First Lutheran, along with other local churches, also supports two group homes in Warren.

Special Offerings are given to The Salvation Army, WASU, Sharing Place, The Crossing and House of Hope, and Family Services.

First Lutheran is also in partnership with the Lutheran churches in Pleasant (St. John’s) and Sheffield (Bethany), sharing Sunday preaching and pastoral care.

The congregation is also working with Second Harvest Food Bank to provide a “Produce Express” food ministry in Warren. “We hope to begin this new outreach within the next few months where 120 families will be able to get free fruit, vegetables, bread, etc.” every four to six weeks. We hope this will be a ministry that all the local churches will support.”

The support of missions from the First Lutheran Church congregation is phenomenal, all agreed.

One of the financially challenged synods, comparatively, the local synod “continues to be the first in giving per capita,” Ewing said. “Those who have less, give more. It serves as great witness.”

Churches which would like to submit a round-up of their missions efforts may do so to dpaddock@timesobserver.com. Please include photographs to enhance the story.