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Welcome the stranger

by Carol Schersten LaHurd

The Rev. Bonnie Sparks was close to retirement when she took a short-term call to help a congregation celebrate its 175-year anniversary—and then close its doors.

But, as she told me, “God didn’t get the message this church was supposed to close.”

Through a series of encounters and relationships—and a willingness to love the neighbor— Salem Lutheran Church thrives today as the new African National Ministry in Indianapolis.

How did this happen? One Sunday morning, Sparks noticed a newcomer among the small group of regular worshipers and invited him to introduce himself. This Pentecostal Christian from the Congo explained that he had found the congregation on the Internet. He liked what he experienced and soon began to bring more African Christians.

Inspired to serve new immigrants and led by Sparks, Salem Lutheran Church then created a clothing bank and an English as a Second Language program. Soon there were English classes led by a Muslim from Senegal and attended by people from India, Japan, Iraq and many African countries.

We can thank the Holy Spirit for the fruits of these encounters. But we can also thank the congregation’s readiness to move out of its comfort zone to welcome new members from another continent and to see immigrants from diverse religious backgrounds as neighbors we are called by God to know and to love.

Years ago our family of four left small-town Pennsylvania for a year in Damascus, Syria. My husband lectured to English classes of 600, our young children made friends from 45 countries and I taught English to adults (surprised to find that our family was a lot like theirs). We all experienced the stresses and rewards of life among our mostly Arab Muslim neighbors.

Reflecting on this inter-religious immersion experience, I remember my growing-up years in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The World War II “Manhattan Project” had created a community of people from all over the United States and beyond. Many of the scientists and their families were involved in local congregations. Some of my childhood buddies attended the one Reform Jewish synagogue in town. As I watched them prepare for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I discovered the Hebrew roots of my own Christian Bible.

Our tradition is enriched

In the many decades since, I have come to embrace fully the relational aspects of life and faith. As a college and seminary professor and ELCA congregational educator, I have also come to appreciate how much we Christians can learn about and better live out our own tradition by encountering religious others.

Carol Schersten LaHurd is a lecturer in world religions at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She coordinated the ELCA Middle East peacemaking campaign from 2006-2010. She and her husband, Ryan, have two children and four grandchildren.

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