Lutherans in Minnesota

Former church advocate’s passion for world’s hungry hasn’t subsided

Roger Livdahl wants comfortable Lutherans to embrace planet’s poor

Although he stepped down from leading the ELCA Hunger Appeal a decade ago, Roger Livdahl is still a cheerleader for disenfranchised people. And he sees a lot of untapped resources in the billfolds and bank accounts of his fellow U.S. Lutherans.

“Jesus has a lot to say about how we use our wealth,” Livdahl told Metro Lutheran during a September conversation. “It may surprise some people, but the only people Jesus condemns to hell are not murderers or homosexuals. It’s the people who live comfortably but who won’t care for the needs of the poor.”

How are Lutherans doing? The results are mixed. “In the ELCA, some synods are incredibly generous in supporting hunger relief and development. Maybe it’s because their bishops and pastors have been so proactive, but we have synods in Pennsylvania where support has been exceptional. The Northeastern Minnesota synod has done some creative things. They have an annual ‘Holy Cow Award’ and they roll in wheelbarrows of quarters at church meetings, grass-roots projects designed to promote hunger relief.”

But, he adds, in general the upper Midwestern part of the Lutheran Church, which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, is lowest in providing support. “There’s an attitude in this part of the country that people should pay their own way. It’s not everywhere, but you see a good deal of it. I once had a pious Norwegian farmer tell me, ‘You give hungry people too much help and you spoil them. They need to work for it, like we all did.’”

Opportunity — even the opportunity to work hard and succeed — doesn’t fall into everyone’s lap, notes Livdahl. Many Americans have risen from modest beginnings through hard work. In some parts of the world people literally work themselves to death, so caught are they in the unrelenting cycle of grinding poverty. Without help they’ll never get out.

Livdahl knew he wanted to make a difference overseas ever since his youth. A Norwegian Lutheran farm boy from the Red River Valley, he remembers an encounter with a world missionary at Bible camp one summer. “I was 14 and she was elderly. But she talked about China in a way that touched my soul. I had a sort of conversion experience.” At that moment he decided to become a global missionary.

He nurtured the dream, although it didn’t turn out as he expected. After attending Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, a few miles north of his farm, and then Luther Seminary, he received a call to serve in New Guinea. He sat on the call a month before turning it back. “I wasn’t really sure I was called to go there,” he says. But after pastoral leadership in a string of parishes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, the passion for making a global impact returned.

He took a vocational interests test. When asked to list ten things he really wanted to do, he included: “I want to concentrate on one thing, not just be a generalist. I want to see the world. I want to see results.” While serving a congregation in Fargo, North Dakota, he was asked to serve as regional director for CROP, an ecumenical program providing food relief and development overseas. Evidently the call he heard from the Holy Spirit was more convincing than advice he got from a beloved aunt. She said, “Roger, what in the world do you know about doing something like that?”

Seven years before he assumed leadership of CROP’s efforts in Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Luther Leagues in North Dakota did a remarkable thing. They organized what was to become an annual event. Their “CROP Walk,” begun on the front steps of the state capitol building in Bismarck, drew 1,000 walkers and raised $52,000. “Collecting that kind of money in that way was unheard of,” Livdahl said. “The national director of CROP was still skeptical. His model was getting farmers to donate excess grain at the elevator, for shipment overseas. Today CROP walks occur nationwide.

Eventually Livdahl began to visit overseas churches to determine what their economic needs might be. “I discovered we needed them more than they needed us,” he admits. “I found Christians passionate about their faith. They were poor in material things but rich spiritually. I saw Jesus in their midst and it was clear to me that Jesus didn’t want them hungry.”

It was a sobering lesson for the Lutheran pastor who eventually ended up in Chicago, serving as director of the ELCA Hunger Program. To this day he remains convinced that poverty is an important teacher. “Christianity is stagnating where people are comfortable,” he says. “In affluent nations, the church is actually dying. I learned that the church is growing where people are suffering. They know what good news is.”

Livdahl offers this cautionary message to American Christians: “You can’t have Jesus without poor and suffering people.” That’s not to say that comfortable Lutherans should move to the slums. “There are wealthy people who are figuring out that there are humanitarian ways to spend your excess.” He says, “Thirty years ago I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. Today there are many more committed to the cause of sharing with the poor and hungry on our planet. And some Lutheran congregations are leading the way.”

He cites the example of Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley (ELCA), Minnesota. “They’ve built an awareness of the needs of those in developing countries by sending dozens of their members overseas. I really think that’s the best way to get any Lutheran on board. Get them out there where the needs are to see for themselves.”

Why is Calvary exceptional in this regard? “In part, I think, because they have people like Ed Payne, a cheerleader for hunger relief. That guy just won’t quit.”

Lutherans are really good at responding to emergencies, Livdahl says. “I’m really proud of what we did when the Red River Valley flooded a few years ago. The ELCA, the LCMS, and Thrivent partnered to raise $20 million for that cause.”

Now, Livdahl wants the church to see the starving of the world as an emergency that just keeps going — and to respond with the same level of compassionate urgency.