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In Christ there is no east or west

Lutherans half a world away from each other

Michael Albrecht asked an Andhra Pradesh friend how he met his wife. “At my wedding,” the friend replied. “We take it for granted that first you get married, then you fall in love.”
“I’ve taken to using that here,” said Albrecht, a pastor at St. James Evangelical Lutheran in West Saint Paul. “I ask couples, ‘what can we learn from that?’”
The globalized church offers many opportunities for western Christians to engage others in a mutually enriching, non-authoritarian way. Several such relationships exist between two very different homes of a million-plus Lutherans: Minnesota and India.
In January, Albrecht went to Andhra Pradesh for the second-ever ordination service of the Bible-Faith Lutheran Church (BFLC) Seminary in Guntur and the BFLC’s second symposium. It was his fourth trip there. In 2003, Albrecht performed the young church body’s first ordination.
“I told them, ‘This is irregular’,” he explained. “I lay hands on guys I don’t know and then leave. What about supervision?” Albrecht and his St. James colleague Richard Stadler worked with the BFLC to establish a more orderly system, and this year the church’s own bishop administered the rite of ordination.
The BFLC grew from Rao Dasari’s efforts to plant churches in churchless villages. The U.S.-trained pastor also started the seminary, and the BFLC began requiring its pastors — many of them untrained — to enroll. When Dasari died in 2000, a mutual friend connected his two sons with St. James to enlist its help with seminary training.
The idea for a symposium grew from this emphasis on education for pastors lacking it. “They’ve got some practical experience,” explained Albrecht, “so they realize what they’d like to know. Whereas our seminarians wonder how a particular course fits with what they’ll be doing.”
The BFLC invited all Telugu-speaking Lutherans to this year’s four-day, prayer-themed symposium, and many non-BFLC individuals attended. “If we made a blanket invitation [to U.S. Lutherans] to come talk about prayer, how many would actually come?” asked Albrecht. “Over there, it’s a different situation.”
The symposium featured presentations by Albrecht, Minnesota LCMS pastors Steve Briel and Holger Sonntag, and others from the U.S., India, and elsewhere. It included a lively panel discussion as well.
Albrecht also preached in several BFLC congregations. He admires their pastors, whose work navigates limited finances, the competing demands of education and ministry, and the shadow of the caste system. “It’s more difficult than anything I have to deal with,” he said.
It was the infamous caste system that piqued Allison Schmitt’s interest in India as a young girl. “I said, ‘How dare they call these people untouchable!’” the Luther Seminary staff member recalled. “‘I’m going to go there and touch them’.”
Last year, as part of her masters at Luther, Schmitt spent a month in Tamil Nadu volunteering with Quo Vadis Interfaith Dialogue Center. Quo Vadis grew from the Arcot Lutheran Church’s (ALC) desire to establish a Christian option among Tiruvannamalai’s numerous destinations for spiritual pilgrims. Yet the center aims not to compete for converts but to facilitate dialogue.
Schmitt sees the ALC as predisposed to interfaith work by its long opposition to the caste system — because both efforts require “respecting where people are coming from, rather than trying to make them in your own image.” Along with the ALC, Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry and Danmission were involved in creating Quo Vadis.
The center’s work began in 2004 with dialogue forums among ALC members, later opening up to Hindu and Muslim participation. Last year Quo Vadis dedicated and formally opened its permanent facility, an event that Schmitt was present for and helped plan.
Schmitt found life in India quite unfamiliar — “All my senses were bombarded with challenging things.” She was struck as well by the place’s deeply rooted multiculturalism, exemplified by an auto rickshaw with a decal of Ganesh, a Hindu god, alongside Jesus.
Schmitt also noted India’s different ap-proach to time. “People are always late to meetings,” she said, “because if they bump into a friend, they take time to talk.
Relationships are paramount.” She explained others’ tendency to drop what they were doing to help her. “I felt like saying, ‘Really, I’m not that important.’ But they treated me like I was.”
The relationship between American Lutherans and Indian Lutherans includes travel in both directions. Christy Femila’s observations echo Schmitt’s but from the opposite perspective. The Tamil Nadu native and student at Andhra Pradesh’s Henry Martyn Institute is currently studying at Luther. She has learned much about “simple values like punctuality and respect,” and she appreciates that fending for herself in the States has forced her to improve her organizational skills. Anil Baby, another Henry Martyn student at Luther, characterized Americans as hardworking, respectful, and kind.
These relationships between Minnesotan and Indian Lutherans are both ongoing and expanding. Schmitt plans to return with a group this summer (see “Coming to know yourself by coming to know about others,” below). And Albrecht hopes to get more U.S. churches involved in the relationship with the BFLC. “They’re halfway around the world,” he said, “but now they’re our friends.”
Coming to know yourself by coming to know about others
This summer, Allison Schmitt is returning to Tamil Nadu. Working with Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, Schmitt is planning a 23-day trip on which up to 15 Americans will study and practice interfaith dialogue.
The first week will be spent at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Chennai, where the group will examine the foundations of interfaith work. While in Chennai, they will also visit a variety of religious sites.
The remainder of the trip will put theory to practice in Tiruvannamalai. At Quo Vadis the travelers will meet other visitors and participate in dialogues. They will also visit sites in and around Tiruvannamalai, including the Arunachala hill, a major Hindu holy place.
Schmitt observed that, while interfaith dialogue is certainly possible in the States, doing it somewhere unfamiliar “helps you both appreciate and critique your own culture. And being a minority — something American Caucasians rarely experience — makes you more sensitive to minorities’ situations when you’re back.”
Schmitt anticipates several Lutheran participants but hopes also to recruit people of non-Christian faiths. In India she’s especially excited about connecting with members of the Dalit, or “untouchable,” caste. “While interfaith dialogue is mainly about exploring spiritual similarities and differences,” she explained, “it invites us to look at class and culture as well.”