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Hope, Hurricanes, and Faith: Seminarians In Action

by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Prayer circle following completion of a job. Left to right – Tate Rust, Matt Schwartz (EMS), Shari Weaver (EMS).

How does seminary work translate into ministry in the larger world? Recently two groups of students were able to make concrete connections between seminary studies, faith and ministry by doing hurricane relief work in Louisiana and Mississippi. Four students spent a week in Biloxi, Miss. working with Samaritan’s Purse and four students spent time with professor Wendy Miller in Louisiana, ministering and providing retreat space for pastors from Louisiana.

During the first weeks of school much discussion in faculty meetings focused around how students, faculty and staff should respond to Hurricane Katrina. Ervin Stutzman, Dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, summed up the belief of many when he said, “I believe that we can learn much about ministry in the missional church by responding to needs in the community around us. We can learn to be missional leaders by cooperating with community leaders who are responding to disasters.” The faculty agreed with the principle that faculty and staff should be encouraged to respond to God’s call in emergency situations like disasters.

As a result, students were given excused absences from class and even allowed to use assignments to reflect on their experiences in the hurricane ravaged areas.

On September 25, four students, Chris Riddle, Matt Schwartz, Sherri Weaver, and Mary Marshall, made their way to Biloxi, Miss. to spend a week with Samaritan’s Purse cleaning up homes and yards for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. The team removed large debris, such as fallen trees, from yards, tore out drywall and ruined carpets from homes, and cleaned out mud.

Marshall arranged the trip. She has been connected to Samaritan’s Purse since 2002, and has been on six or seven trips with the organization. She said, “ I am humbled and excited by the deep faith and hope the people who lived through these disasters have.  It is a spiritual retreat for me. I come home with a deeper faith and a more real sense of God's presence among us today.”

This was Chris Riddle’s first experience serving with Samaritan’s Purse, although he and his family have participated in Operation Christmas Child, which is also a Samaritan’s Purse program. “This was the first time I have done disaster relief work of this kind,” he said.

Riddle found that the work connected with his seminary training. “One thing I’ve heard often in seminary is that I need to live out my faith. For me, going and helping people in need and working with other Christians who may not believe the same things as me, was one way for me to live out my faith. There are lots of hopeless people there, but after we helped them, even if we were ripping out the bottom floor of their house, they had a little bit of hope.”

A second group went with Wendy Miller, Professor of Spiritual Formation, to a retreat center outside Alexandria, La. Miller meets regularly with this group of United Methodist ministers in Louisiana where she teaches spiritual formation classes. She had already planned to meet with them October 2-5 to teach about healing before Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast.

After the hurricane, Miller decided it would be important to provide a place for these ministers to rest and be renewed. She invited students to join her to help plan worship and give spiritual direction to these ministers. Three students, Theda Good, Alicia Horst, and Mary Jo Bowman went with her.

Bowman, who has previous training in massage therapy, gave 15-20 minute neck and shoulder massages to the retreat participants. Before each massage she would ask participants if they had a prayer request that she could hold in her thoughts and prayers while she massaged their neck and shoulders.

Horst has a spiritual direction concentration and was able to use the skills she learned in class, among the pastors at the retreat center. ”It became very obvious that our presence was so important to them. We didn’t do anything to ease the situations they would return to, but people kept thanking us for being there.”

Good describes her experiences as ones which helped her understand hurting, tired people. “I found myself in the midst of those grieving deeply the losses and stress of their changed world, as well as those who seemed wired — running on the adrenaline of stress in response to the disasters.” Good said, “This experience provided practical application of spiritual direction and pastoral care.”

A fourth student, Chet Denlinger, also traveled with Miller and her group, but worked at the Red Cross shelter in the coliseum in Alexandria. Seven hundred people were still staying at this shelter. He listened during meals as they told their stories of survival. He also spent lots of time with the children. He went prepared with a kickball and other toys. “I got a glimpse of the kingdom in these children. Even in the midst of all of this stress and difficulty they were still children. They formed friendships quickly with those around them, no matter what their ethnicity. They were able to just play.”

Seminary studies can be demanding and taking a week away can put students behind, but thanks to the faculty’s commitment to helping students integrate their experiences into their classroom work, the week away did not seem so stressful. Horst said, “Professors were actively seeking for ways to integrate our experience into the classroom. I was so thankful for that.”   The experiences of these students provided helpful context for them in future ministry activities. It gave them practical places to apply the spiritual direction and pastoral care skills they were learning, as well as to reflect on their theology of faith in action.