Early in July, Professor John Pless gave a lecture on Law and Gospel in Confession and Absolution at the 8th International Luther Symposium at our sister seminary, Seminário Concórdia in São Leopoldo, Brazil. The seminary train ministers in one of our partner churches in Latin America, the Igreja Evangélica Luterana do Brasil, or Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil. Prof. Pless taught a course on “The Catechism: A Field Manual for Discipleship.” Two of his books, translated into Portuguese, were also featured at the symposium: “Manejando Bem a Palavra da Verdade” and “Palavra: Deus fala conosco” (“Handling the Word of the Truth” and “Word: God Speaks to Us”).
Like many of our faculty, Professor Pless has a full travel schedule, especially in the summer months. He attended this symposium in Brazil, returned in time to travel south to Tampa, Florida, for Synod Convention (where he also signed copies of his books—though in English this time—at the CPH booth close by the Seminary booth), and left from there to go to South Africa.
Prof. Pless spoke highly of the seminary in São Leopoldo (which is part of one of our partner churches in Latin America, ), from the depth of its theological education to the warm community of faculty and students. As always, we thank God for the partnerships we have with our sister seminaries across the world, and for our brothers and sisters from all nations.
Photos courtesy Filipe Schuambach Lopes of Concordia Seminary of São Leopoldo.
Last week, following chapel on Wednesday, the Rev. Dr. Roosevelt Gray Jr., Director of LCMS Black Ministry, led convocation on the history of Synod’s work with African Americans. Dr. Gray graduated from CTSFW in 1988, receiving an honorary doctorate from the Seminary in 2015.
His first call after graduation was to Houston, where he served until 1994. “Get involved in agencies of the community,” he advised the seminarians in the audience, speaking from his own experience. He’d volunteer to read to the kids at nearby schools, attend local events, and would go to funeral homes, hand them his card, and say, “I can’t do anything about the dead, but I can do something for the living.” Funeral directors would call him when a family who had no pastor needed pastoral care. The church grew by leaps and bounds. “Wow!” Dr. Gray exclaimed, “Evangelism does work!” which got a particularly appreciative laugh from the students.
And though he spoke of the tenacity and love a pastor must have for his community, every time he also came back to the same point: that witness and mercy work is about sharing the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins. “In the Great Commission, Jesus was speaking to Galileans—and speaking to Lutherans,” he said. “We cannot be ashamed or afraid.”
Black Ministry’s history is nearly as old as the LCMS, serving the longest existing ethnic group in our church body (“Besides the Germans,” Dr. Gray pointed out with a laugh, reminding his audience that “We’re all ethnic people.”). In 1877, only 30 years after the Synod had formed, the sixth convention of the Synodical Conference unanimously resolved to begin mission work among blacks, particularly in the southern and southeastern districts where the slave trade had driven African migration to the United States. Mission efforts were educationally-focused, meant to bring the Good News and schooling to a people in desperate need of both. With the Civil War barely in the rear view mirror, freed African Americans were still living in slave-like conditions, denied basic rights under “Black Laws” and without access to education or jobs. They were impoverished, physically and spiritually.
Mission work started with their children. In 1878, a Lutheran Sunday School was organized in Little Rock, Arkansas (St. Paul Colored Lutheran Church would be built in Little Rock years later), and the first black Lutheran parochial school opened in the fall of 1879. Every new mission they started (traveling further and further south) was connected with a school.
In 1889, four black pastors attended the North Carolina Synod convention as voting members. The committee on “Work among the Freedmen” recommended that “the colored brethren connected with this Synod be allowed to form themselves into a synod.” The Alpha Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Freedman in America formed on May 8, 1889 (and would later be merged back into the LCMS). By 1926, the Carolinas had increased from five black congregations to 23, served by 16 pastors and professors (four times the original four), and started seven day schools and Immanuel Lutheran College.
Rosa Young, arguably the most famous figure involved in early Black Ministry (specifically in Alabama), made herself known to the LCMS in the early 1900s. Born in 1890 in Rosebud, Alabama, Rosa was a schoolteacher who saw her people “groping in spiritual darkness.” When the cotton boll weevil invaded Wilcox County in 1914, devastating an already impoverished area, she wrote to Dr. Booker T. Washington for help. He suggested she write to the LCMS for assistance, as he knew of the Synod’s reputation for educational work among blacks in the south.
The partnership blossomed quickly. She turned her school, the Rosebud Literacy and Industrial School, over to the LCMS shortly after the mission board sent assistance, which then became Christ Lutheran Church and School and the mother church of black Lutheranism in Alabama. Together, Rosa and the pastors and teachers sent to the area ultimately planted 30 schools and 35 congregations in Alabama and Pensacola, Florida. Concordia College in Selma, Alabama, eventually grew from these endeavors.
“I hunted lost souls for Jesus somewhat as I hunted for money to build and maintain my first school,” she wrote in her autobiography. When speaking of the deplorable ignorance of her people and the immoral spiritual leaders who had failed them, she explained, “None of them ever told us: Christ is your Savior, who died for your sins. Believe in Him, then you are saved.”
Dr. Gray explained that there are third and fourth generation African American Lutherans, in places so geographically and culturally isolated (such as St. James in Buena Vista, Alabama, begun by Rosa Young as a Sunday School), that the members there have never seen a white Lutheran. “They think the LCMS is a black church,” he explained, then got another laugh when he immediately added: “Don’t tell them!” His own wife is a fifth or sixth generation Lutheran.
“This [Synod] has done powerful work,” Dr. Gray said, especially considering that the LCMS was still very young and very small when it started reaching out to African American communities. “But we have to revisit that.” Concordia College Alabama has closed, as have other major LCMS institutes that served black populations. The parish he served over 30 years ago has closed too. “Lutheranism is growing faster among Africans than African Americans,” he said.
“The Lutheran Church is the whitest church in America,” Dr. Gray went on, citing the statistics. Fourteen percent of the US population identify as “Black only” or “Black in combination with another race,” but only 3% of LCMS membership identifies as such. With two million baptized members, this means only 60,000 of our membership is black.
“11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America,” Dr. Gray pointed out. “We worship separately. We plant Hispanic churches, Black churches.” Sometimes that’s due to a language barrier, but too often it’s because we simply don’t know how to talk with people from different cultures, ethnicities, or backgrounds.
Black Ministry exists to reach out with the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection, to bring more people into the Kingdom by engaging with those broken, destitute, and trapped by the challenges unique to their background. For African Americans, that’s racism, poverty, discrimination, and family structure. Dr. Gray explained engagement in very simple terms. “Be culturally sensitive to the community you serve. It doesn’t mean you give in—but be sensitive to it, and then get on to serving the Church.”
Much of Dr. Gray’s insights come from his own experience in the parish, especially that first call out to Houston. “Thank God for two elders who taught me how to be a pastor. I learned great, great theology from the Seminary, but gained my experience in that church, learning to work with people who are broken every day. A lot of sinners out there are angry at the Church.”
He recalled one young woman with two children, who came from a rough background and got involved with the church because of their childcare resources. At one point, Dr. Gray was tempted to kick her out. He spoke about it with his elders, who urged him not to, wanting to keep that contact point with her children even if their mother was already lost.
“One of my elders said something I’ll never forget,” Dr. Gray recalled: “’You go fishing, let us do the cleaning.’” In short, they urged him to do what he excelled at (going out into the community to witness, bringing folks into the church), and they in turn would do their part (keeping them in the church, by spending years walking them through their particular issues). “Your elders and your laypeople are not against you, they’re for you,” Dr. Gray said, speaking directly to the seminarians. “And they don’t care about how much you know until they know you care.
“That church taught me how to love people. It’s easy to push people into the well,” he added, then explained how tempting it is to prioritize fighting against the particular sins we don’t like rather than sharing the Good News. “It’s ‘For God so loved the world that He gave…’ not ‘For God so hated sin that…” Dr. Gray pointed out. “The solution to the preponderance of your sin must be the Gospel. The Law does not save you.”
All other solutions also fall short. “The government will not save us. You cannot vote in a Savior, you cannot vote in morality. The Gospel is the only thing that can change hearts.
“Give them Jesus, brothers,” Dr. Gray said to the seminarians, his future colleagues. “The Law has already done the work in their lives. You’ve got to preach the Law,” he conceded, “but the Law won’t change them. I am not ashamed of this Gospel,” he repeated, a common refrain and theme of the convocation. It is a bludgeon against fear and hopelessness.
LCMS Black Ministry began only 30 years after the Synod formed, when they had few resources in terms of both money and men. Only that’s not precisely true. We had – and still have – everything we need. “We have the resources,” Dr. Gray explained simply: “We have the Gospel.”
If you would like to learn more about the history of Black Ministry, you can click on the following articles:
You can also learn more at www.lcms.org/blackministry.
On March 5, Dr. K. Detlev Schulz (Director of PhD in Missiology Program and Co-director of International Studies here at CTSFW) was in Himo, Tanzania, visiting St. Peter’s Seminary there together with the Bishop of the Lutheran Church of East Africa (LCEA).
Dr. Schulz is third to the right, standing to the left of Bishop Angowi of the LCEA (in purple). On the far left is missionary Rev. Jonathan Clausing, who teaches at the seminary. He and his wife Anita have nine children, and live in Moshi, Tanzania.
The LCEA is only 20 years old, the church body having formed in 1999. Much like our own CTSFW, students attend their seminary for four years before ordination. St. Peter’s Seminary’s location in Tanzania allows these men to remain close to their homes and the congregations that they will serve as they enter the ministry.
Another faculty member taking advantage of the quarter break to teach beyond the city of Fort Wayne is Professor Pless. He is teaching a two-week intensive catechetic course on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS) in Pretoria (Tshwane), South Africa. The class began on February 25 and ends tomorrow.
He is also working with the St. Philip Lutheran Mission Society to expand and remodel the current library at LTS. The society was formed by CTSFW students following the spring of 2008 (now pastors themselves), after they traveled to LTS and saw not only the present but also future impact the seminary will have on confessional Lutheranism in Africa.
LTS serves students from several African countries, who are educated in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and then return to their countries for ordination in their home communities. The Mission Society raises financial aid in support of LTS, and funds have been secured and designated for this library project. Construction is expected to start in the near future, and Prof. Pless had the opportunity to present new books for the library.
You can learn more about LTS in Tshwane/Pretoria at www.lts.ac.za.
Dr. Don Wiley is another of our faculty members busy over the quarter break. We most recently spoke of him on our Facebook page in relation to his presentation to the women of the Seminary Guild regarding his work with the SMP–Español/English program. And thanks be to God, on Sunday, February 24, the Rev. Robert Winston was ordained and installed as assistant pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church/Iglesia Luterana Nueva Vida in Springfield, VA, the very first man in the SMP-Español/English program here at CTSFW to reach this point. “The Lord of the harvest has added another laborer in the Gospel ministry of Word and Sacrament,” Dr. Wiley wrote on his Facebook page.
Dr. Don Wiley was near enough to the area to attend the ordination and installation because he and four seminarians were in Baltimore for a nine-day Urban Immersion Experience in the city. Hosted by the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and Martini Lutheran Church, in conjunction with the Wyneken Project, they have immersed themselves in both the work and the city. From Dr. Wiley’s Facebook page:
“Today we learned about the mercy work of Lutheran congregations in Baltimore through the Lutheran Mission Society Compassion Place. It’s one more way that the congregations reach out to their communities with Christ’s love and Gospel. We had the pleasure of meeting the Executive Director, Rev. Dr. David Maack and ran into one of our Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne-CTSFW students currently on vicarage, Bob Etheridge.”
The seminarians also had the opportunity to plan, purchase food, prepare, and finally serve a meal to the needy. In Dr. Wiley’s words: “[They] served it up in style and with great compassion at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer…Great job, men!”
With the students on break we have no convocation today, so instead will highlight the topic from last week: “Visiting the Imprisoned: Making the Case for Jail Ministry.” You may be familiar with the work of our presenters already; they were featured in a “Lutherans Engage” article and video, which you can read and watch here: https://engage.lcms.org/jail-ministry-fall-2018/.
The presentation began with Deaconess Carole Terkula, called as a deaconess to St. John Lutheran Church in Columbia City, Indiana, while her husband finishes his fourth year at the Seminary. One of the congregation’s outreach programs is their ministry to the inmates at the local jail.
Deaconess Terkula began with the Biblical foundation of jail ministry. She quoted first Matthew 25:36 and 40 (“‘I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’…and the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’”) then 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
“Many [of the inmates] have never heard the pure Gospel,” she explained, adding that others in jail had fallen away from the church years before. “They need to be reminded of who they are in Christ—of their Christian identity.” And for all that St. John’s is active in jail ministry, it takes only three to four hours out of their week to go to the jail and minister to inmates in the form of Bible studies. “We it do it out of love for Christ, overflowing to our brothers and sisters.”
Sharing the Gospel is a particularly easy thing to do in jails and prisons, where there’s no hiding from the law—an inmate knows that he or she is a captive, bound by their sins. By drawing people to repentance and God’s forgiveness in Christ, jail ministry can also help stop the revolving door of release and incarceration, benefiting not only the individuals but their families and community.
The individual successes, when they do happen, are incredibly triumphant. “Don’t get hung up on numbers,” Deaconess Terkula advised. “We’re dealing with people. [The numbers] may be discouraging from a human perspective, but we have done what God has asked us to do.” Her presentation finished on Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Rev. David Mommens, pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, next covered some of the practicalities of prison ministry and what to expect. Prison/jail ministry is not a popular program across churches (in Indiana, only 6 out of 236 congregations have outreach to jails or prisons), many citing a lack of volunteers, training, finances, no knowledge of where to start, already busy with other ministries, or see no need for it (because their own parishioners are not in jail), and he hoped to remove some of the anxiety and reluctance by explaining St. John’s experiences.
First, he explained the difference between jail and prison. A prison houses those who have committed felonies, the inmates often hardened criminals. Jails are for the less serious offenses, like DUIs and petty theft. “These are pretty much ordinary folks,” he explained. In small communities you often know the inmates personally; maybe you went to school with them, or know their parents from local events. Violent flare-ups are incredibly rare. In all the years he’s been going to the jail, he’s only seen some posturing between two inmates that got shut down by the guards in about 15 seconds.
Next: “Get to know the Sheriff.” He is the man who knows all the regulations, rules, and holds ultimate accountability, so he will need to understand your intentions and the details of your ministry. Some of the rules you can expect: don’t take anything in or out (including information, like notes), remove all staples from materials, no hardbound books. After a background check (which is looking for felonies and violent crimes; they don’t care about your traffic ticket) you receive a badge.
Some of his other suggestions: if you bring (softbound and approved by the jail) Bibles, sign them and put their names inside so that it becomes personal property that an inmate can take with them when they leave. “By the time they get out,” Rev. Mommens noted, “[the Bibles] are well used.” They enjoy the explanations, the printed maps, and all the information provided within.
He has also found that a Bible study that starts out with only three or four attendees usually ends with every seat filled and guys standing along the walls to listen. Many of these studies end up being about Baptism, because of its strong Gospel assurance for those in jail. While some inmates ask to be baptized just because they know it will make them look good, Rev. Mommens has found that it is an excellent opportunity to get into the meat of the Gospel. Why do you want Baptism? Do you understand the promises attached to it? Over 30 baptisms have resulted from St. John’s prison ministry.
The next to speak was Rev. Geoff Robinson, Executive Director of Outreach and Human Care in the LCMS Indiana District. His experience in this type of ministry was to those in prison, rather than jail. “You literally have a captive audience,” he said, “very open to hearing the Gospel.”
Rev. Robinson didn’t serve the prisoners as a chaplain but as a teacher, teaching science to his incarcerated students at both minimum and medium security facilities. While he was not allowed to bring up religion himself, the rule stood that if a prisoner asked him anything about religion, he could answer. As such, Rev. Robinson wore his collar to every visit (uniforms are a major part of the prison world, and his collar was immediately recognizable as the uniform of a pastor), which was a great way to encourage prisoners to come to him with religious questions—which they did, and often.
“It’s rewarding work,” he said. It’s also difficult. “They’ll challenge you with lies. Answer with the truth. Every prisoner has a story. They always tell you they’re the victim. Try to get them beyond that and teach true repentance.” He smiled. “I didn’t allow them to take advantage of me either.
“I was never afraid,” he added, though the first time that door locks behind you is “eerie,” he admitted. He didn’t go anywhere without an escort and always followed the rules, even if they didn’t make sense to him. That, and he respected the chain of command. “Don’t argue with the Warden.”
The presentation ended with the perspective from three students, involved with the prison ministry at St. John’s as a part of their fieldwork experience. “[Inmates] hear God’s Word and it does its work. They’re sinners and they know it,” Rob Schrader, Sem II, explained to the room. “Some I have seen brought to tears because of the grace of God. You can see God and the Holy Spirit working in these people. You can see it on their faces that they’re being changed. We don’t often see that in people.”
Second-year deaconess student, Kate Phillips, added that when she first heard about prison/jail ministry during a Prayerfully Consider Visit (before she was a student here), she immediately thought, “That’s not for me.” But then she discovered that jail ministry was really just leading and teaching Bible Study. “Oh!” she said she realized. “I can do that.” She added that it was a blessing to herself as well. In teaching the Bible to inmates—many of whom have never or rarely heard much theology, particularly based in Law and Gospel—she had to get back to basics. “I had to define the big words we throw around.
Second-year deaconess student, Mika Patron, finished off the presentation with a simple directive, and a powerful truth: “Hear their stories,” she said. “It’s a great honor to bring the light of Christ into the darkness and loneliness of a jail cell; the light that cannot be overcome.”
Yesterday at the Seminary Guild’s monthly meeting, Dr. Don Wiley presented on the role and importance of Spanish Language Church Worker Formation in the Church. Dr. Wiley joined the faculty just this past May for this reason (also serving as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions), though his first introduction to the Spanish language occurred in his own student days at Seminary, when he was unexpectedly given the opportunity for a two-year vicarage to Panama. “God gifted me to learn quickly and well,” he added, noting that the only other language he’d studied before those two years was German while getting a degree in engineering.
First, he explained the difference between Hispanics and Latinos. “Hispanic” refers to all native Spanish speakers, of which there are about 500 million worldwide (the second largest group behind Mandarin; English is 4th, though it’s a common trade language and often people’s second language). A Latino (or Latina, for women) is someone who can claim Latin America as their origin. Most Hispanics are Latinos, but not always: someone from Spain is Hispanic but not Latino, while a Brazilian (who speaks Portuguese) is Latino but not Hispanic.
However, both share this: they’re a cultural category, not a racial or ethnic one. Hispanics and Latinos can be white, black, native, Central America; even Irish and German. For example, Sergio Fritzler, who joined our ordained staff last May (he and Dr. Wiley were welcomed together), is a blonde, blue-eyed Latino of Germanic origins. Spanish is his native language, the Dominican Republic his home. Ultimately, whether a person prefers to be called “Hispanic” or “Latino” differs by region.
Dr. Wiley also shared some statistics on why Spanish language formation is such an important aspect to ministry: in 2003 Hispanics become the largest minority in the US and in 2018 they made up 18.1% of the population (about 58.1 million people). It is estimated that by 2020 minority children (of all ethnicities) will outnumber the majority, by 2045 minorities overall will outnumber the majority (Dr. Wiley used the term “Anglos” to refer to Caucasians, emphasizing the idea of culture and origin rather than race), and by 2060 nearly a third of the country’s population will be Latino.
Unfortunately, as of 2015 only 0.5% of our LCMS membership is Hispanic. “We must be intentional about reaching out,” Dr. Wiley urged. It’s the second fastest growing demographic in America (Asian is the fastest, but much harder to proselytize to the entire group because they splinter along many language lines, while Hispanics certainly have different dialects but ultimately speak the same base language), and a large mission field within our own borders.
The Spanish Language Church Worker Formation that takes place through CTSFW began in earnest in 2015, but overseas in Buenos Aires where we worked with our partner Church of Argentina. Thirty international students began taking online courses. In 2016, we began our Specific Ministry Program-Español/English (SMP-EsE) with two men here in America. One of those men unfortunately had to drop out, but the other is about to be ordained and installed at Nueva Vida in Springfield, Virginia. Dr. Wiley is hopeful that we’ll have three new men in the coming year.
We have also been working to develop the seminary in the Dominican Republic. Seminario Concordia El Reformador was inaugurated in August of 2017; both Dr. Just (who we featured before for his part-time mission work in that rea of the world) and Dr. Wiley are familiar faces there. The seminary has 15 international faculty, including Drs. Just and Wiley.
Dr. Wiley also explained the SMP-EsE program at CTSFW, which was specifically designed around a Latin America system. It’s structured on a four-year format, with introductions to the New Testament, Old Testament, and confessional doctrine in the first year, with the following three years expanding on the same list of classes: Gospels (featuring both Old and New Testaments), Baptism, Preaching, and the Lord’s Supper. Students are usually ordained between their second and third years.
Costs for the program are also kept extremely low. Why? “Often Anglo congregations are very desperate at that point, and ready to reach out to the Hispanic community that has sprung up around them,” Dr. Wiley explained. The churches have no funds, and neither do the students, who are usually immigrants. The program can’t happen without the support of the Church.
As to Spanish language development among our current students, Dr. Wiley does Spanish Greek Readings, encourages additional incorporation of Spanish into coursework, and is looking into Spanish Language Distance Deaconess Program. He also holds a weekly Spanish over Lunch session for students interested in improving and honing their Spanish language skills.
More recently, an opportunity opened up in Columbus, Indiana, when a Hispanic pastor retired. Pastors with minimal Spanish skills can lead worship as well as serve the Lord’s Supper to this congregation, but are unable to preach the Word in Spanish. Instead, Dr. Wiley and some of the seminary students here record sermons in Spanish, which they upload to the “CTSFW en Español” YouTube channel and is then played during church. A member of the congregation who recently returned to Mexico and found himself hungry for a good Lutheran sermon can now continue to receive Law and Gospel sermons.
Because of the relationship between immigration and language, Dr. Wiley highlighted the importance of integration alongside offering services in Spanish. The first generation may never learn English—or at least not well—but the children of immigrants not only learn English but usually marry English speakers. But if a church that has a Hispanic service hasn’t welcomed them as full members of the congregation, then those children rarely stay in that church, especially when they marry. Dr. Wiley recommends holding joint Sunday School between the services, which connects those children to both language groups within their home congregation.
Dr. Wiley asked one final question of the ladies of the Seminary Gild: what can congregations do?
“Recognize the importance,” Dr. Wiley began. “These are people for whom Christ our Lord died and rose again to bring them forgiveness, life, and salvation.” And stay committed to a program. “Communities have long memories,” he explained. If you start a program to reach out to Hispanics and then drop it, no matter how good the reason you may have had, you’ve indicated that it wasn’t that important. Restarting is infinitely harder than starting, because you’ve already broken trust.
He also pointed out a common source of tensions between Hispanic and English congregations sharing a church: the kitchen. Cultural differences often make themselves known in surprisingly mundane ways, which is why patience and flexibility is so important. “God’s Word, the Sacraments—we do what God has given us to do,” he said, arguing that sometimes inflexibility is important. “But the stuff that doesn’t matter…have patience and flexibility.”
Dr. Wiley finished by asking for prayers, both for Hispanic/Latino communities and for more workers to this harvest field. He knows of at least three congregations who are looking for bilingual vicars. And finally, he asked for encouragement. “These are our neighbors,” he said. “Please support the formation program here and everywhere.”
Today is part two of yesterday afternoon’s post. Quick recap: Rev. Sorin-Horia Trifa is the only pastor in the very young Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania. He was recently here for two weeks of intensive classes as he works towards a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree. He’s since returned to Romania, but shortly before he left he spoke about his home country and church body in a presentation hosted by the Student Mission Society. Yesterday’s post summarized Romania’s history, setting the stage for the challenges and opportunities they face today. You can read about it here.
Because Romania is a country of three major ethnic groups (Romanian, German, and Hungarian), the main Christian denominations tend to be split along cultural lines, serving more as a cultural tradition than a religious practice. Everyone in the country uses Romanian as their everyday language, and so church for the Hungarians and Germans is a place to practice their language. In fact, every church in Romania has three names, reflecting each of the three languages—and that’s not three different translations of the same name, but literally three different names.
The primary church body in Romania is the Orthodox Church. Many believe that to be Romanian is to be Orthodox. “If you leave the Orthodox Church, you leave your family, your identity, your Romanian community,” Rev. Trifa said, speaking of a common fear. He knows of at least one priest who teaches that, even if you come back to the Orthodox Church, there is a chance that you may still go to hell.
On the other hand, the German Lutheran Church in Romania has adopted liberal theology and focused their services exclusively on German speakers, abandoning the Romanians even after the fall of communism and 90% of the Lutherans in the country emigrated. Most of their churches have closed, some sold to the Orthodox Church, others having become museums, and still others repurposed as sheds and garages. There are over 250 Lutheran Churches in Transylvania but only 50 parishes are active. About half of these pastors are women.
“They are Lutherans but not Christians,” Rev. Trifa explained of the church body. “‘Lutheran’ means something cultural—but not Christ or the Bible.” As he spoke, he showed picture after picture of fortified churches, gorgeous in their architecture and surrounded by the incredible Romanian countryside. He is both proud of this visual history and simultaneously aware of the great tragedy on display. “The church buildings are not important; not if the church is closed. Just a monument. No more Gospel, no more liturgy: just a museum. People pay to have photos taken there. Difficult to call them churches. A building is a church when Christ is there.”
The Hungarian Church (a Reformed church) has never been interested in doing anything for Romanians either, their services held in Hungarian and their doctrine ranging between very liberal and deeply pietistic. And despite the doctrinal differences, many of these churches across denominations partake in the Lord’s Supper together. “The Lord’s Supper becomes nothing,” Rev. Trifa said. “Just a tradition.”
However, with neither the German nor Hungarian churches interested in offering anything outside of their own languages, the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania has an incredible opportunity. “To understand the meaning of grace—it’s a big mess by the Hungarians and Germans on this subject—” Rev. Trifa said “—it is our duty to have Lutheran books as resources.” Even the Book of Concord has never been translated into Romanian, despite the fact that the Reformation took place in the country almost 500 years ago. Today, the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is one of the only church bodies using Romanian. “Wonderful,” Rev. Trifa remarked, “and shameful.”
Translation, then, is a big part of their focus. They want to be able to explain why confessional Lutheranism matters, why doctrine matters, why the right teaching of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper matter. They work to make these resources available and free. So far they have translated “The Small Catechism,” “Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation,” “The Means of Grace in the Confessional Lutheran Church,” and hundreds of theological articles, which are available on their website.
“I’m so happy that God chose to put me here,” Rev. Trifa said, who grew up in the Hungarian Church. “He’s given me the opportunity to share the Gospel with the country and people, where the Reformation began so long ago.” He grinned and added: “My dream is to make the Lutheran Church Great Again.”
Begun in the autumn of 2016, the Confessional Lutheran Mission in Romania was an initiative of LCMS Eurasia and the St. Michael Lutheran Church in Prague, Czech Republic. The first Romanian service took place in Bucharest (Romania’s capital) on December 4, 2016, the liturgy adapted from the LSB into Romanian. After a year of vicarage at St. Michael’s in Prague, Rev. Trifa was ordained and installed at St. Paul Confessional Lutheran Church in Bucharest on October 8, 2017.
They currently have 11 confirmed members, five catechumens (all adults), and five children. There are an additional nine adults and six children who regularly attend but have not yet enrolled for catechesis, plus dozens of others who occasionally attend. (Rev. Trifa spoke briefly of the handful of liberal pastors interested in their confession once they discovered the mission; one felt particularly torn. “You could see the agony in him.”) Services take place on Sunday evenings, following an hour-long class for catechumens. Rev. Trifa and his wife also host a midweek Bible study class and meal every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in their home.
The Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is also known in the academic world. As a PhD student at the University of Bucharest and a student in the STM program in Gothenburg, Sweden (CTSFW partnered with the Lutheran School of Theology in Gothenburg in order to offer advanced study to our confessional Lutheran brethren in Europe), Rev. Trifa is known in academic circles and is often invited to speak at various international theological conferences. “God makes something very, very interesting,” he said of the—so far—54 opportunities. “Silence the Hungarian and German Church, just so we can be loud. [The international theological conferences] ask for us—not the Germans or Hungarians.”
The Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania also have a mission in Italy, holding a Saturday church service every month in Padua, Italy. There is a very big Romanian community in Italy, as the two languages are very similar, and thus easy to learn. “Learn [Italian] in two months even for low-educated people,” Rev. Trifa explained. “One week for high-educated.” When the mission first began, they worshiped in Romanian, but after only two or three weeks decided to switch to Italian, translating even the liturgy. He knew it would open up the mission field to the wider Italian population.
Dr. Masaki, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Gothenburg almost every summer, knows Rev. Trifa through the STM Program very well. “An exemplary student,” he said of Rev. Trifa, following the close of the presentation. “He is doing a great job as pastor, missionary—he is doing the maximum.” Throughout the presentation Rev. Trifa urged his listeners to come see Romania and the church for themselves, and Dr. Masaki echoed that sentiment: “He needs support. He’s alone.” Rev. Trifa’s wife is known for her hospitality, their home always open to both their congregation and their many guests.
“I invite you to discover the land and discover the church,” Rev. Trifa said. “To share the Gospel. And they need this, almost 500 years after Reformation in Romania; they need the Reformation.”
The final slide in his presentation asked that we pray for the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania. “To preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with faith and passion in Romania and in Italy. To translate Lutheran materials into Romanian, including the Book of Concord. To have our own Church building in Bucharest, Romania.”
One of the students with us for two weeks of graduate intensives was Rev. Sorin-Horia Trifa, studying for his Masters in Sacred Theology (STM). Rev. Trifa is the only pastor of The Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania, and an LCMS Alliance Missionary. The Student Mission Society invited him to speak about his home country, for which he has a deep love. “I saw [the Romanian flag] also here,” he said, pointing in the direction of the library, where we keep flags representing all the nations of our current students, “and I am very proud.” About 92,000 square miles with 19.6 million people, Romania is barely 100 years old, the result of the merging of three countries: Transylvania, Walachia, and Moldavia.
To understand Romania is to understand her history, particularly that of Transylvania. “Transylvania is important to the understanding of the whole country,” he explained. Rev. Trifa comes from the Transylvania part of Romania, though he had to move to Bucharest, the capital, to best serve the Romanian people. He grinned as he informed the audience: “Transylvania is very beautiful, and it is more than Dracula.”
First conquered by the Roman Empire in 106 A.D. (Romanian is still closely related to Latin as a language), for centuries, Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austrian Empire. Because it was constantly under the threat of Turkish invasion, the Habsburg and Hungarian empires sent Germans and Hungarians to defend the border, which is why Romania is still home to three major ethnic groups: Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans.
However, the country changed hands at a very important time. In 1526, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Kingdom of Hungary and declared Transylvania an independent state, simultaneously banning any form of religious persecution. The country became a beacon for persecuted Lutherans. A former student at Wittenberg, Johannes Honterus, opened a printing press to begin distributing Lutheran materials, beginning the Lutheran Reformation in Transylvania around 1543. First the Germans, then the Hungarians, embraced the reformation. In fact, in 1568, the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country (Catholicism persisted and Calvinism inspired some of the Hungarians to join the Reformed Church) proclaimed freedom of conscience and religious tolerance at the Diet meeting at Turda, becoming the first country in modern European history to create such an edict.
In 1699, control of Transylvania turned back over to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Over 200 years later, the Transylvanians declared their independence from the Empire at the end of WWI, joining the Principality of Romania (the principality had been formed by the unification of Wallachia and Moldavia, who got around a ban on their unification by electing the same king) on December 1, 1918 to become the Kingdom of Romania. Romania was ruled by a German dynasty until the end of WWII.
A very dark period in the country’s history soon followed: the Soviet Union punished Romania for being on the side of Hitler, brutally and decisively. Their King was forced to abdicate and a Stalinist government took over. “Romania was vandalized—this is the word—” Rev. Trifa said, “—by the Soviet Army.”
Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned, exterminated, tortured, deported, and starved for being enemies of the people. “Who was this ‘enemy of the people’?” Rev. Trifa asked. “Those who believed in God and go to church.” Among them were Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Their obedience to God threatened their obedience to the communist regime.
Dozens of thousands of believers among these groups were forced to join the Orthodox Church, but religious holidays like Christmas and Easter were banned. Owning a Bible could get you sent to prison for years. Their churches were demolished, and thousands of priests and pastors arrested, tortured, and killed. “The list is huge,” Rev. Trifa said, showing the pictures of several of these men, after telling us their names and their church body. “We have no time to tell all of them here.”
“People went to the Church in secret, baptized in secret, prayed and read the Scriptures in secret,” he continued in his presentation slide, next to a painting of Christ in prison. If your activities were reported, the entire family would be terrorized by the police. “Not kill but re-educate, if you know this word,” Rev. Trifa explained. He spoke personally of his father’s mother, who had been imprisoned for two years in order to terrorize others. She was so terrified that, even after the Soviets left, she refused to talk of her family or her home from before her arrest. Rev. Trifa’s history on that side of the family begins with his grandmother, their genealogy cut off. They never found it if she even had siblings.
With the stage officially set, we will tackle the second half of Rev. Trifa’s presentation tomorrow afternoon, from the state of the newly formed Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania (begun in the fall of 2016) to how the history of the country has shaped the challenges—and the opportunities—for confessional Lutheranism in Romania.
Update: Part 2 now available HERE.