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All of us behind one

Iowa and Ohio model a unique way to support missionary families

You can find photos of Bayo and Mary Beth Oyebade on almost any church bulletin board in the 52101 zip code.

That’s because not just one but every congregation in the Upper Iowa River Conference of the Northeastern Iowa Synod sponsors the ELCA missionary couple. Ten out of 28 of them are in Decorah’s 52101 zip code, which some say has the highest number of congregations in the ELCA.

Since the 1970s, the conference has sponsored missionaries in Brazil, Japan and Senegal. Mary Beth Wallestad joined the list in the 1990s when she began teaching at Hilltop School in Jos, Nigeria. Now Mary Beth Oyebade, she and her husband Bayo operate the Mashiah Foundation, a Christian nongovernmental organization they founded to reach out to people infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.

“Sponsoring missionaries is part of the mindset and DNA of people in this area,” said Mike Massa, conference dean and pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Cresco, Iowa.

At its annual meeting, the conference renews its commitment and sets a yearlong goal. Some congregations give less than $200; others give $5,000. Collectively, they provide $25,000 a year for the Oyebades.

That adds up to $274,500 since 1996, the first date for which records are available — one reason the Upper Iowa River Conference was recognized at the 2013 ELCA Summer Missionary Conference banquet. Usually the banquet honors one large donor. This year, Massa accepted the ELCA’s thanks on behalf of more than 10,000 Iowans. 

“It’s clearly a gift of the spirit,” said Virginia Olson, pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church, Eldorado, Iowa. “Through changes in pastors, congregations still stick to their commitment.”

“It can be hard for folks to see outside the walls of their church building,” said Matthew L. Larson, pastor of Burr Oak and Hesper Lutheran churches near Decorah. “Folks aren’t as apt to follow world events, except marquee events like the Asian tsunami.”

Nigeria is an exception. Ever since the two congregations hosted the Oyebades during a home assignment visit, members have been “diligent and generous” and engaged in Nigeria and the Mashiah Foundation, Larson said. “When Nigeria is in the news, we have faces to put together with it and with the work of the church in a difficult place,” he added.

Mary Beth Oyebade agreed: “Northeast Iowans always seem to be genuinely interested in our corner of the world.”

The Oyebades’ “Nigerian Night” at Washington Prairie Lutheran Church  a couple years back invited Decorah residents for a typical Nigerian meal of white rice and red stew.


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