ELCA Bishop: Care For Each Other In Age of Coronavirus

Note: On March 8, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued the following letter regarding coronavirus and COVID-19, the resulting illness now spreading around the world. It also appeared on the ELCA website.

In 1527 the plague returned to Wittenberg, Germany. Two hundred years earlier the plague had swept across Europe killing up to 40% of the population. Understandably, people were anxious and wondered what a safe and faithful response might be. In answer to this, Martin Luther wrote “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” In it, he emphasized the duty to care for the neighbor, the responsibility of government to protect and provide services to its citizens, a caution about recklessness, and the importance of science, medicine and common sense.

Wittenberg, Germany

To provide care for the neighbor, Luther recommended that pastors, those in public office, doctors and public servants should remain in the city. Luther himself remained in Wittenberg to care for his people. He recommended that public hospitals be built to accommodate those with the plague. He condemned those who took unnecessary risks that put themselves and others in danger of contagion. Luther also encouraged the use of reason and medicine, writing,

“God has created medicines and has provided us with intelligence to guard and take care of the body. … Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence”

(“Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” 1527).

We are living in the time of the coronavirus. We are also living in the time of social media and constant, relentless news coverage. Many of our people have the same concerns as those in Luther’s day. Many of our people are anxious. Luther’s counsel, based on Scripture, is still sound. Respect the disease. Do not take unnecessary risks. Provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the neighbor. Make use of medical aid. Care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.

The churchwide organization recommends the following for churchwide staff: Wash your hands, stay home when you are sick, wear a mask if you have symptoms, consult your medical provider. Bishops and pastors will provide guidelines for worship and church gatherings.

Luther also reminded his people and us that we should trust God’s faithfulness and promises, particularly the promise eternal life. Paul writes:

“ If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

Romans 14:8

In peace,

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

A Lenten Message From Sierra Pacific Synod

The following message from Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop Mark Holmerud originally appeared in the synod’s February 26, 2020 newsletter.

[Recently], as a group of ELCA leaders visited and prayed on both sides of the border with Mexico, the California Assembly issued an apology for the role our state played in rounding up about 120,000 people during WWII – mainly U.S. citizens – and moving them into 10 concentration camps, including two in California. 78 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans. In a unanimous vote, the Assembly passed the following resolution:

“Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, That the Assembly apologizes to all Americans of Japanese ancestry for its past actions in support of the unjust exclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and for its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese Americans during this period.”

I remember my mother telling me that one of her best friends, who was Japanese American, was suddenly taken from their Linda Vista neighborhood in San Diego along with her family and never heard from again. My mother’s family, who were of German heritage and who spoke German in the home, faced no such reprisals. They were white.

The history of our country in its treatment of people of color is nothing less than shameful and horrific. In addition to the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII, there is the decimation and colonization of the Indigenous peoples of America, the enslavement of people who were brought here in chains from Africa and the continuing discrimination people of African heritage deal with every day. Recently, government policies have been enacted that are separating Latinx families at the border who are seeking to immigrate to this country. Having just experienced what is happening at our southern border, I wonder, will it take nearly 80 years before the California Assembly or the United States Congress issues an apology to those who have sought asylum, refuge and justice from the people of a nation whose pledge of allegiance to our flag ends with the words “with liberty and justice for all?”

White Privilege, xenophobic attitudes and government policies foster other forms of race-based discrimination, oppression and violence. There are deep racial divides in our country. What does our church have to say about this and others who have been victimized? The history of violence towards and the repression of women seeking gender equality is a struggle that is far from over, just as the continuing struggle of LGBTQIA+ people seeking equity, access and safety is an ongoing concern in many parts of this country.

In the recent past, our ELCA has adopted statements which are offered as public apologies, teaching tools, and aspirations for how the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to see people as Jesus saw everyone – as a beloved child of God. These actions were taken as strong statements of our intention to seek and serve those who continue to cry out for justice, and who look to us as Christ’s representatives on Earth to be agents of peace and reconciliation. I invite you to follow the links below and wonder with others in your congregation / community / ministry how these statements might become conversations, ministries, actions — “God’s work with our Hands” — in and through your ministry for the community you have been called to serve.

Peace,

Bp. Mark Holmerud

Is It Time For Larger LEAN Partnerships?

ACTIONN, NCG Could Be Apt Allies

By Sheila Freed

LEAN Advocate Bill Ledford and I recently attended an event hosted by ACTIONN (Action in Community Together In Organizing Northern Nevada) to kick off their 2020 Civic Engagement campaign.

The event was entertainment with a message, if you will. There was music interspersed with informal talks. All the speakers were pastors and lay people who have taken time off from their work and families to travel the country by bus, promoting the notion that ethics in public life is the only way to solve the problems this country faces. Their slogan is, “Faith, Hope, and Love.”

The group’s name is Vote Common Good, and it springs from belief that all religions, but especially Christian religions, need to take seriously God’s call to love one another and to care for the least among us. Their “Love in Politics” program calls for Christians and others to refrain from the rancorous discourse we all engage in. The group features the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that begins “Love is patient, Love is Kind.” We are reminded that passage also says Love is not self-seeking, Love rejoices in the truth, does not dishonor others, does not envy or boast, and always protects.

Vote Common Good is non-denominational, comes from the Evangelical segment of Christianity, but recognizes that non-Christian faiths share the same desires for peace and justice for all. ACTIONN is also non-denominational and fully interfaith.

LEAN is somewhat like ACTIONN, because both seek justice and equality for all, but never endorse political candidates. Our methods are different. LEAN “speaks truth to power” at the Legislature through Bill Ledford, and strives to educate parishioners on the issues and on ways to be engaged, effective citizens. ACTIONN is more of a “community organizing” entity. There is a similar organization in Southern Nevada called Nevadans for the Common Good.

Both ACTIONN and Nevadans for the Common Good are generally referred to as “FBOs,” or faith-based organizing groups. Many people view community organizing as vaguely socialist, but in about 2010, the ELCA took positive note of the FBO movement. And today there is a section of the ELCA website devoted to “congregation-based community organizing.” The website notes that “[H]undreds of ELCA congregations have ventured beyond their walls through congregation-based community organizing to address the larger causes of the pressures they and their communities face each day. This can be a witness to the fact that we are a church that believes Jesus is God’s “Yes” to us. Our lives can be a “Yes” to others.

LEAN has considered collaborating with ACTIONN and Nevadans for the Common Good. Both call for membership of institutions rather than individuals. Lutheran Social Services of Nevada, based in Las Vegas, is a member of NCG. At least three Lutheran congregations are also members: Holy Spirit, New Song, and Reformation. No Lutheran congregations in Northern Nevada have joined ACTIONN, but individuals are active.

One Lutheran pastor wrote a few years ago that FBO’s such as ACTIONN and NCG are most effective when they empower ordinary people to hold public figures accountable to their commitments. This means public officials and those running for office will face questions from ACTIONN and NCG about policies that these groups support. The objectives are to establish effective, trusting relationships with officials while also holding them accountable. ACTIONN and NCG worked together last year to push through the Legislature some excellent measures, particularly in the area of low-income housing. LEAN supported these same bills.

The question now for LEAN is whether deeper collaboration with either or both groups would be appropriate or effective.

The Advocacy Beat Goes On

 

The 2019 Nevada Legislature is slated to adjourn on Monday, June 3, barring a last-minute extension.

When it ends, the presiding officer in each chamber adjourns the meeting “sine die.”  This is a Latin phrase, universally mispronounced, that translates literally as “without a day.”  It makes it sound terribly final, as if no one is ever coming back again.  We all know that two years from now many of the same people will be back, often confronting the same issues. 

The work of government goes on, even when the Legislature is not in session.

LEAN’s work continues as well.  Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada exists for two related reasons:  To speak out on behalf of the least among us to elected officials, and to Lutherans and others across the state.  Both groups have power to change things.

LEAN has a paid Advocate at the Legislature during the Session. Bill Ledford has done well in his first session, testifying about proposals that the LEAN Board has chosen to take a position on. Some of these bills have passed, some have not. Next month we will sort some of this out.  Right now, a lot isn’t known, because so much legislation is decided in the last few days of a session. “Backroom Deals” are unfortunately common.

A previous post here was about several reforms that had been postponed because they carry spending requirements. Such postponements help set up conditions ripe for backroom deals, because pressure to “just get finished” is huge.

The deadline also enhances the power of lobbyists.  In the final days, there isn’t time for careful analysis of bills, and there is a tendency for legislators to rely on lobbyists for information, biased as it might be.

This is why it is so important for LEAN to have an Advocate at the Legislature.  Bill Ledford has been working all session to establish personal relationships with Senators and Assembly Members.  He has worked to explain why particular measures are good or bad policy in a just society.  He has worked to articulate our Lutheran Christian values as outlined in the ELCA Social Statements.

Bill’s advocacy and that of LEAN generally does not end at “sine die” any more than legislators become just private citizens when they go back home.  Bill will continue to connect with them, sometimes to discuss plans to try again in the next session to pass measures that failed, sometimes to discuss interim studies that take place between sessions.

The “interim,” or time between sessions, also is a time for LEAN to focus more on parishioners, helping them to understand the issues and the various ways those issues might be addressed. 

Financial support is needed to keep all this work going.  LEAN receives funds from ELCA Churchwide, and from the Sierra Pacific and Grand Canyon Synods.  We also receive support from congregations throughout the two synods.  LEAN is grateful for all support, and we operate frugally.

We hope to emphasize the “engagement” part of our name more in the next eighteen months.  Many know about the Legislative website, and about the resources it offers for keeping informed and for expressing views on legislation.  This does not disappear when the session ends.  We hope to do some training so more people can learn the tools at their disposal.  We are blessed to live in a state where direct access to elected officials is easy.  Martin Luther viewed committed, informed citizenship part of our Christian calling, and this is echoed in the first ELCA Social Statement, “The Church in Society.”  A lot has been written lately about how individuals need to work to reclaim democracy from special interests.  LEAN hopes to work with Lutherans and legislators across the state toward that goal.

A Bishop’s Message To Legislators

On Feb. 7, three days after the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session convened in Carson City, LEAN hosted an informal open house luncheon for legislators, staff and church clergy and representatives from around the state.

The event, which was held in the Capitol Building, offered an opportunity for Grand Canyon and Sierra Pacific Synod members and clergy to meet with state assembly and senate members, offer their hopes for the new biennial session and express how their faith informs their interactions with government.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer, Bishop for the Grand Canyon Synod, gave an impassioned keynote address centered on why the ELCA’s published and nationally recognized Social Statements are at the center of LEAN’s efforts, represented personally in this year’s session by Advocate Bill Ledford.

Following is the text of Rev. Hutterer’s address.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer

A caveat to this talk today. I have been in my position for six months and the learning curve has been high. And I also come at this from a position of humility. There are some of you who know far more than I do and so if you hear something that is not right, please let me know.

It was late in the afternoon of December 23, 2010. My husband, 55 years old, had been diagnosed with ALS at the end of September, just three months earlier; he went to reach for the cribbage board, lost his balance and hit the hardwood floor.

He passed out, his head was bleeding. I called 911 and he was taken to the hospital. It was the first time either of us had ever spent Christmas Eve in a hospital. He was hospitalized for two weeks. The only way he could be discharged to come home was if I could find a hospital bed an electric wheelchair and 24-hour care. None of this was covered by insurance.

We weren’t sure what we were going to do as this disease had been progressing faster than either of us could possibly imagine. I am grateful to the ALS association who helped us with equipment we could have never been able to afford and yet was necessary. I am grateful for family and friends who helped fill in the round the clock support, so I could go to work and keep the health insurance.

While we were very fortunate to have health insurance, we knew that if he was unable to stay at home and had to go to a skilled care facility, depending on how long he needed to stay, we could lose everything that we had spent our lives working for. There were days we wondered what the future held and if our resources ran out.

We were one of many who worry about health care costs.

A pastor who serves in Las Vegas as a hospice chaplain shared some insights with me around this topic of end of life. He is daily mortified by the limitations placed on patients and families with low incomes to have to rely on Medicaid — or not being able to find beds in skilled care facilities because of the low allocation of resources to this program both federally and on the state-wide level.

Having a loved one with a terminal illness and the strain of coping with that loss is hard enough under any circumstances, but the added duress and uncertainty makes the experience worse.

I know far too many people who have felt the strain, confusion, and frustration of navigating our medical system and the resulting anger and guilt has inhibited people from finding the peace they need with the situation.

Lutheran pastors have first-hand experience with the lack of mental health resources for people with lower incomes. So often they must work with clients who have issues beyond the scope of what pastors can do in grief recovery and support.

Individuals who need access to mental health resources often face long wait times and poor service at public mental health centers. These resources need to be improved.

As a pastor in Las Vegas wrote: “All I have is the agony and frustration I’ve heard from many people about trying to get the help they need at difficult times. Working in a community organization that strives to do the right thing can feel incredibly lonely.”

Those who serve the church feel a sense of hopelessness and pain. I’m guessing that you feel asense a helplessness and pain as you see the system and know that reform is needed.

Healthcare is central to our well-being and our vital relationships. Access to healthcare helps us to live out our vocations in our family, work and community. Caring for our own health and the health of others expresses love for our neighbor and it is our responsibility for a just society.

In Nevada, love for neighbor and justice would be all people having access to quality and affordable healthcare in their communities through federally funded health centers, home delivered meals, Medicaid waivers and reimbursement rates.

Health care reform is but one of many issues before the Nevada Legislative body this session.

WHAT IS THE ELCA?

I am Bishop Deborah Hutterer. I was elected by our church body to serve in this role and I’m in my sixth month. For those of you who are new, perhaps you aware like I am about how much there is to learn. And getting to spend time with you is one my learnings.

Today I stand before you as a bishop who, like you, cares about our common good and our neighbors—especially our neighbors who do not have a voice or who can be easily overlooked. I represent Lutherans from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Grand Canyon Sybnod that includes the Southern half of Nevada, all of Arizona and St. George, Utah. The Grand Canyon Synod represents about 100 worship communities, as well as Lutheran Social Services of Nevada.

There are 65 bishops in the United States. Bishop Mark Holmerud from Sierra Pacific Synod represents Lutheran churches in the northern half of Nevada—and has had the privilege to be with this esteemed body.

There are a few Lutheran brands. I am attached to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Evangelical” means “good news.” There are 3.5 million ELCA Lutherans in the United States. One thing that separates us from the other major Lutheran group, LCMS, is that the ELCA ordain women.

A MESSAGE FOR LEGISLATORS

From its inception, Lutherans have seen God active in the world. God’s activity includes government laws, good order, and the belief that Christians can serve in government roles. Government service to God, however you construe God, is service to neighbor. For that time in history it was startling because government was seen as something to be held at arms length, corrupt and irredeemable. ELCA sees your service as essential to serving neighbor.

I want to thank you for your tireless work in representing the people of Nevada and working for the common good.

Some of the pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serve in Nevada are here today. Like me, they have met far too many children, women and men who don’t feel like they have a voice or access to this place of government, especially in the areas of health care reform, judicial reform and pay day lending. Many of our pastors and congregation members are advocates for systemic change; they also see the church as part of the community. In addition to worship, church doors are open to host community meals and provide education. One of our churches in Pahrump just started a Bible study in the detention center. There are some pastors who have been knocking on doors and inviting others to do the same to get out the vote—not telling people who to vote for but to encourage voting. They believe and support the good work you do on behalf of the people and see that participation in the process is essential. Lutherans Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada have been at this work for quite a few years now. Together you did some incredible work last year for anti-sex trafficking. Thank you.

FAITH AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

Many of our Nevada churches also partner with Lutheran Social Services of Nevada. This social service agency primarily serves in the Las Vegas area. Their mission is to express the love of Christ by serving and caring for people.

LSS-NV is a trusted grassroots nonprofit. Dedicated volunteers started the agency many years ago by providing food and clothing to our community members. It has since grown to become known for its diverse services. With a limited staff and many volunteers LSS-NV serve low- income, at-risk of homelessness, homeless, families with or without children, youth, veterans, people with disabilities, and senior citizens.

Since 1996, over 210,000 individuals have been cared for by the agency. One of their cutting edge services is Digi-Mart. It is an online grocery style food pantry, where individuals shop on line for bread, fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, dairy, and non-perishable food items. LSS offers classes to help them think more creatively about ingredients and eat healthier.

As a bishop I have a pastoral role and I am the leader of this faith community in the state. I am here to build a relationship through this opportunity.

Like me, you have been elected, but you have also called to this work to provide structure and safeguards for those who suffer. We need leaders like you who can focus on our neighbors who suffer from hunger, poverty and other ills.

From time to time people will tell me that I have a thankless job. From my perspective—it is this way for legislators at time where people are cynical and hardened about government. I can only imagine the challenge to represent all people in Nevada when there are many constituencies.

THE PAYDAY LENDING PROBLEM

One of the areas that affects many of your constituents is the payday lending industry. It has a wide reach and great impact on Nevada families, especially those in the poorest neighborhoods. Payday lending traps people in a vicious and downward spiraling debt cycle.

Did you there are more payday lending stores in Nevada than the number of McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined! They make money easy and accessible and individuals find themselves trapped.

If you needed money, where would you go? You might go to your family but I’ve discovered in my line of work that people would rather talk about their sex life than money. Money is so personal—many keep it secretive. Even in their relationships.

Mike B lives in Las Vegas. He is 48 years old and a gambler. He would cash his paycheck and then go to the casino. One day he lost his entire paycheck and knew he could not go home to his wife empty handed. As he considered his options—he had no friends or family that he could ask about this embarrassing situation. But he had driven by many pay day loan places. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he made his first stop into payday loan store.

Showing his driver’s license, paystub and signing the paperwork he got his first $1,200. It was so easy. He had a great income so getting money was no problem. In fact he discovered that he could go to multiple pay day lending places and no one asked if he had any other paydays loans.

With high interest rates he learned the loans were not easy to pay off. He knew if he got home before his wife, she’d never see the mail. And he could keep his secret. As with most secrets, one day his wife got home before he did and in the mail was a notice for payment.

She thought this had to be wrong, so she called the company to find out what was going on. And it all came tumbling out. Mike says while he was embarrassed—he was a smart guy. Had a great job. Had a nice house, but he was trapped. His wife finding was a huge relief. He was caught in an endless cycle and did not know the way out.

Mike B. says matter of factly, “this won’t stop. The industry is too big.” In some ways we could agree this business does fill a purpose. However, these are also predatory business practices that victimize people.

So I advocate in support of the two Bill Draft Requests.

BRD 568 would enhance and enforce existing regulations on payday lenders that both lenders and people seeking loans seem to skirt around. One common problem is that a person, like Mike, get a payday loan and is unable to pay it back and will seek out a payday loan from another place to pay off the first and compounding their debt. This bill would make that nearly impossible to do.

BRD 621 would enact a 36% interest rate cap. This still may seem high, but 18 other states and DC have enacted as it stems from the Military Lending Act. This is a place where Arizona has passed legislation and set the interest cap at 36%. I advocate that Nevada follow suit.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

If these two topics for reform weren’t enough on their own, there is also the criminal justice system. I don’t have much to say, but we all know it needs reform. Working together we can change systems for changes in prison re-entry.

I recently read that a panel of Nevada criminal justice leaders is forwarding to the Legislature a package of 25 recommendations that those in the know say could save the state $640 million in prison costs over the next decade if enacted.

The proposals came after the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute spent about six months poring over state data to pinpoint why Nevada’s prison population grew almost 700 percent since 1980, while the general population has grown by about 250 percent over that same period.

It’s not just a financial matter, it is a justice matter. I would urge any changes for reform be applied drug treatment, post-incarceration reentry services. Anything that could prevent crime and recidivism.

THE CHURCH AS CONSTITUENCY

The ELCA is an active church. We have many social statements that seek justice and care for those who can be overlooked. We invite you to visit with us on these issues. ELCA churches in this state are sources of expertise around hunger, poverty, human need and you can tap us as resources. We want to support you and your work. It has been a part of our history.

Every pastor I know became a pastor because they felt a call, they couldn’t not answer it despite all of the reasons why it makes sense to do something else. And, I’m guessing that is your experience. Despite the cynicism, and public mistrust and putting your lives out for all to judge, you couldn’t ignore the call to serve and to make your county or this state a better place to live. So thank you for letting me be here today. Thank you for your service. For your thoughtfulness. For weighing matters of public good and individual gain.

God does good through you, and we keep you in our prayers.