"So what do you do?" How many times do we hear that question? At family reunions, wedding receptions, anniversary dinners, block parties — anywhere there are people who either haven't seen us for years or are meeting us for the first time. It's a question that follows us from young adulthood until we retire — when I believe the question becomes "What did you do?"
When I'm asked this question, I reply, "I'm an archivist at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America." There's a pause. I can see it in their eyes: a look of disconnection. They're running my answer through their cerebral index of occupations and coming up empty. Almost inevitably there's a follow-up question: "What's an archivist?" At social gatherings, my response doesn't fit into the one-sentence reply needed.
What I do varies daily. The church for which I work has as its mission something that is so simple but so encompassing that I fear my answer wouldn't do it justice. But with you, today, I can answer the question — I have a captive audience who won't be pulled away after 15 or 20 seconds to venture onto a dance floor or make another trip through the buffet line.
As an archivist for the ELCA, I am a caretaker of more than 12,000 linear feet of records that comprise the story of the ELCA and the churches that preceded it. I care for the photographs that capture scenes of joy, despair, new beginnings and poignant endings. I care for the minutes that record actions that took the church in different and sometimes controversial directions, but always with the reminder of God's grace. I care for the correspondence and diaries of missionaries, deaconesses and chaplains called to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I care for the personal papers of church leaders that provide us a window into their lives and faith formation. I care for the records that document our evolving ministry — from Davey and Goliath film masters to records of the work that created Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the ELCA's worship resource.
These records represent the collective memory of the ELCA. It's my responsibility to make sure they are protected, preserved, and available now and for future generations. They are a witness to our joys and sorrows, our faith stories, our mission at work in the world, our beginnings and endings and, ultimately, our hopes and aspirations for this church and its members as together we continue in our work of sharing the message of God's grace.
So what do I do? I do the work to which God has called me, and in so doing preserve the work of the mission and ministry to which God calls all of us in the ELCA. Hmm, that's one sentence — maybe I'll use it at the next wedding reception I attend.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers