What does “fellowship” look like?
The Europe mission team is working to strengthen ties between WELS and a dozen confessional Lutheran churches of Europe. These churches believe the same things we do. Now what?
Have you ever heard of the Confessional Lutheran Church in Latvia? Luke and I visited Latvia once in 2002 to apply for fresh Russian visas. Two Latvian pastors (who are brothers) took extra good care of us. Ivo and Ugis Sildegs arranged a place for us to stay, showed off tourist sights, and helped us contact the Russian embassy. They also introduced us to the Latvian church. We met a team of pastors working on a weekly, professional-grade newspaper aimed at the public. We ate birthday cake with their synod president. We had a great time – even though the February weather was rough!
Then we went back to Novosibirsk. For the next 20 years WELS had only limited contact with our brothers and sisters in Latvia. In fact, it has been ten years since anyone from WELS visited them.
This past May 40 participants from CELC sister churches gathered in Albania where Luke and I are currently living. Three representatives from Latvia also attended the conference. One of them was Ivo, the pastor who had cared for us so many years ago. After the conference we kept in touch with Ivo and made plans for a fall visit.
We just finished our second trip to Riga a couple days ago. What did we find?
We found people worried about surviving the winter. We stayed in an apartment in downtown Riga that was freezing cold inside. When we asked the neighbor if her apartment had heat, she said, “No, and we’ll be thankful if the heat ever turns on this winter!” One of the pastors kept busy chopping wood for the church’s wood-burning stove nearly every day of our visit. Another congregation is working to replace its natural gas heater with a geo-thermal system. Leaders repeatedly told us, “We can’t make plans too far in advance. We just need to get through this winter.”
We found people worried about war. A large statue of a woman in downtown Riga commemorates Latvian independence which they won only in 1918 – and promptly lost again during WWII. Latvia has a long history of being controlled by other neighboring countries. They worry that if Ukraine falls, they will be next. Fellowship means sharing each other’s burdens. We listened sympathetically, but we didn’t despair!
Best of all fellowship means studying God’s Word and praying together. The men studied Old Testament “Wisdom Literature.” There was an especially poignant moment when they read Song of Songs: “See how the young man in this book loves his wife? Jesus is our faithful husband who shed His blood for us, His bride. Will He now abandon us to face cold and violence alone? Never!” Those words meant something to those church leaders. What a joy to share God’s promises!
We found opportunities in the church. We met talented, experienced pastors and three gifted seminary students. (That’s huge! There are only 300 people in the Latvian church.) Fellowship means sharing resources, organizing online seminary classes during the year, and in-person courses in the summer. Fellowship means worshiping together on Sunday, drinking tea, and sharing news from Albania, Finland, Germany, and the U.S. Fellowship means rejoicing in our new-found friendships and marveling that this is just the beginning of eternity.
We found opportunities in the community. Everywhere we turned we heard people speaking Russian. Some were from Russia, but many have fled from Eastern Ukraine. They’ve left everything, maybe for a time, maybe forever. They miss home. They miss their families. Fellowship means working together to assist those in physical need. Fellowship means sharing Jesus’ peace with souls groaning for good news.
It was a week of strengthening fellowship. A week of studying, worshiping, and praying together. Visiting, eating, and laughing together. Celebrating our common faith, love, and purpose, and looking forward to the next time we can meet again!
Written by Jennifer Wolfgramm, world missionary wife on the Europe mission team.
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