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Making a way out of no way

A sincere call to pastoral ministry for Lusienie Fofana

The Revs. Lusienie Fofana and David Seabaugh stand outside the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis on October 26, the day Fofana graduated from the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology program. Photo provided by Bethel Lutheran Church

A milestone in a multi-faceted journey of faith took place on a November Sunday at Bethel Lutheran Church (LCMS) in St. Paul. It was the ordination of Lusienie Fofana, a Liberian immigrant. Pastor Fofana’s journey has included:
* a conversion to Lutheranism from the Muslim background of his family;
* a dancing career that initially took him to California to teach African dance; and
* a move to Minnesota where, six years ago, he experienced a call to ministry that resulted in a two-way mentorship with the Rev. David Seabaugh, then a relatively recent arrival at his first pastoral call.
As a newly-ordained pastor, Fofana is serving a “bi-vocational call” as assistant pastor at the 325-member Bethel congregation. Fofana’s main occupation and source of income is as a custodian at nearby Concordia Academy (LCMS), Roseville, Minnesota. As assistant pastor Fofana serves an African worshipping community within Bethel congregation. He has worked with the worshipping community alongside Pastor Seabaugh.
Fofana describes the African community as spontaneous in its worship with lots of dancing, clapping, and loud praying. While the traditional Bethel worship service is held at 9:30 Sunday mornings, the African community observes “African time,” which Fofana says means worship starts anytime between 11 and 11:30 a.m.
Seabaugh says that while the African worshipping community normally numbers about 25, the congregation may be totally different from week to week. That is because most of the Africans work at two or three jobs in order to send money back to their families in Africa, and that often involves working on Sundays.

“This isn’t what I wanted to do but God’s will is perfect.”

From an early meeting with Seabaugh, Fofana felt called to become a pastor. That has involved a six-year journey for the two. Pastor Seabaugh felt that it was not his role to have every answer for Fofana and that Fofana be allowed to fail since failure teaches important lessons.
Seabaugh wrote in the Bethel newsletter:
The only way you learn how to cope with failure is to have the freedom to fail and loving Christian brothers and sisters to encourage you through it. So, I chose not to pre-check Fofana’s coursework. Sometimes he failed. I didn’t pre-check Fofana’s sermons. Some left a lot to be desired. I didn’t insist on how the ministry was to be run…
Even yet, I give Fofana tremendous credit that he saw every failure as an opportunity to grow and learn. By God’s grace, that’s exactly what happened. It’s not about me. It’s one thing to know it’s not about me. It’s quite another thing to keep it that way week in and week out over an extended period of time.
At every turn there is the temptation to be selfish. This is one of many areas where Fofana made me a better mentor. He always says, ‘By the grace of God’ even if we’re just scheduling a meeting later that day! Grace. God’s gift to undeserving us. Fofana wasn’t doing this for himself. He was doing it for the people lost without Jesus. He was doing it because of God’s grace to him that he could extend out to others. Well, if Fofana could sacrifice so much and work so hard for the sake of others, I could give it my all too … by the grace of God.

Called to Minnesota

There has been nothing “ordinary” about Fofana’s journey to ordination. His ordination milestone was reached November 18 at a 12:30 p.m. service at Bethel Church. It all began back in high school in West Africa when he began asking people about Jesus. But, he never received satisfying answers from those he asked. He continued his search.
Although he originally immigrated to California, he had friends and family in Minnesota and he said, “I wanted to see snow.” On February 11, 2001, he was baptized and became a member of Bethel Church. Through working at Concordia Academy, he talked to students about joining him in a Bible study.
Fofana had two different dreams in which he was in front of people preaching. He said, “This isn’t what I wanted to do but God’s will is perfect.” He told Seabaugh, “I think God wants me to be a pastor.” That led to Concordia Seminary’s Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), designed to certify pastors of ethnic ministries for ordained ministry. Online and on-campus studies followed over a period of four years.

Called to the ministry

Seabaugh and Fofana agreed that a first step would be leading a Bible study for fellow Liberian immigrants. Soon a small worshipping community evolved. Liberians celebrated that they could worship in a traditional African manner that included more spontaneity and dancing not found in Bethel’s traditional service.
Fofana acknowledges that being a pastor is hard work. David Rustad, whose wife Lynne is church administrator at Bethel and who is a Metro Lutheran board member, wrote an article for the congregation’s newsletter that said, “Nowhere was the difficulty of the role more pronounced than when a young man in Fofana’s worshipping community unexpectedly died of a stroke, leaving a young wife. Seabaugh allowed Fofana to ‘take the lead’ in ministering to the grieving widow and community. ‘Part of being a pastor is being with people with the gospel during their times of greatest need,’ Seabaugh noted.
“[Pastor Seabaugh] said over the years God has given him a passion for making disciples for Jesus. ‘My relationship with Fofana is special. … I wasn’t prepared for this but God has enabled us to walk and grow together. Discipling one another really is just part of being a Christian.’
“‘God wants Christians to be one people,’ says Fofana. ‘One reason I love Bethel is because we African and American members are one people. We eat together, worship together, rejoice together, and talk about the love of God together here.’”
The Rev. Dr. Peter A. Meier, assistant to the president for missions, Minnesota South District, LCMS, commented: “Pastor Fofana is actually the fourth African pastor in our district who has completed the EIIT training. Fofana’s ordination, following his theological education through the EIIT, is not only a great blessing for Bethel but is a great promise for other African immigrant leaders and leaders of other immigrant groups as well. With the excellent mentorship provided by Pastor Seabaugh, we have a model which can be used in many places by many leaders. After identifying the spiritual leader of a community, he can receive theological education coupled with real-time ministry experience that forms an excellent pastor. I praise God for his work in Fofana’s life and in the lives and ministries of the other half-dozen leaders involved in EIIT in our district.”

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