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April 10, 2008

Lutherans prepare for first anniversary of Virginia Tech shooting

The Lutheran Student Movement at Virginia Tech is providing opportunities for growth while bracing for the media attention of the first anniversary of the worst campus shooting in U.S. history.

On April 16, 2007, a lone gunman killed 32 faculty and students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., before killing himself.

William H. King, one of the campus pastors at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (located across the street from Virginia Tech) said the greatest anxiety he hears among students as the first anniversary of the shooting approaches is the media attention. According to King, the feeling on campus is "Here come the (news) trucks again."

Mark Meyer, 22, a third-year junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the campus became a media headquarters overnight. "Individually, we talked to several reporters, but after a few days that became intrusive," said Meyer. He noted that "the media coverage was not exactly matching what I was experiencing."

For many students, fresh media attention means revisiting traumatic memories.

Virginia Tech student Betsy Potter, 22, said that life on campus immediately after the shooting felt like "a fishbowl" with all of the media. "There'd be people crying at memorials and others taking pictures of them," said Potter.

Potter added that Virginia Tech students felt supported by Lutheran Student Movement chapters nationwide. "It was amazing how many other LSM (groups) sent notes from all over the country," she said.

When students returned for classes in the fall, they were in very different places, said Joanna Stallings, campus pastor, Luther Memorial. Many students were "through with (the shooting) and didn't want to hear another word about it," she said.

"The most important thing we did as a community was worship," said Stallings. Students gather weekly on Tuesday evenings for a meal and worship at the student center, and participate in Luther Memorial's Sunday services.

King said, "When push came to shove, it was the worship that provided those words of comfort — the needful, healing things that people were yearning for. There were no answers that were going to explain this."

Meyer said that the campus ministry's programs and spiritual aspects drew him in. "The big reason I kept coming back was that I got to know people and we became friends," he said.

In addition to attending to spiritual needs of LSM members and the local community, the tragedy provided an unexpected opportunity for public ministry on a national level.

The day after the shooting, King was asked to offer words from the Christian tradition to comfort a diverse community at the Virginia Tech Convocation, which included speeches by Virginia Tech faculty member Nikki Giovanni and U.S. President George W. Bush.

"I took a lot of heat for not mentioning Jesus in that convocation," said King of the nationally broadcast event. King felt it was important to provide pastoral care for the entire university community at that event, rather than make a confessional statement.

That evening, King and three other pastors led a joint worship service for members of the Virginia Tech LSM and two ELCA congregations in Blacksburg, Luther Memorial and St. Michael Lutheran Church. "That was the place where we brought the Word into reality, saying, 'This is horrible, but the Psalmist has dealt with this in a lament. This is mysterious, but Scripture does speak to this situation of grief,'" King recounted.

In the months afterward, King said he revisited the theology of the cross, a paradox from Martin Luther's teachings that states that God is revealed and God is also hidden in times of suffering. "Now I'm beginning to get a sense of what it's all about. In the midst of this, God is faithful, but there are also lots of loose ends that flop around."

"I would never ever say that God did this to Virginia Tech," said King, but, through the experience of pain and suffering at Virginia Tech, the community has been opened to other people's pain around the world.

King compared the task to preaching at a funeral: "The gospel matters in that moment or it doesn't matter at all. There's a bracing clarity in that moment."

"I sense that our students do not want their Virginia Tech experience to be dominated by this particular event. People acknowledge the loss. They're not in denial. They just don't want to be defined by that event," said King.

More …

"Naming the Pain, Speaking of Hope: Considerations for Religious Address in Time of Crisis" by William H. King, was published in the May 2007 issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

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September 24, 2007

Tuskegee Airman flies on faith, dedication


William "Bill" McDonald is a rare individual. He's a quiet gentleman who commands respect not because of his title or his accomplishments, but because of what he has experienced and how he treats others.

"When Bill speaks, people listen," said Leonard H. Bolick, bishop, North Carolina Synod.

At the age of 83, McDonald — a Tuskegee Airman — has attained celebrity status in Durham, N.C., his hometown.

McDonald was lauded by city, state and federal legislators for his service in the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of nearly 1,000 African Americans who earned their wings in an all-black fighter pilot unit of the Army during World War II.

"It's like he's a movie star — everybody wants to take him out," said McDonald's grandson, Wilbert Fletcher III.

McDonald exemplifies the motto of the Tuskegee Airmen, "All blood runs red." Throughout his life he has distinguished himself by his dedication to excellence.

On March 29 McDonald and 300 other surviving airmen were presented with the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor — the Congressional Gold Medal. "I thought it was wonderful that we were finally being recognized," McDonald said.

On the Sunday after his return to Durham from Washington, D.C., members of his congregation, the Lutheran Church of the Abiding Savior, celebrated with McDonald. "People cried, had cake, got to see the medal [and] celebrate with him," said McDonald's pastor, Gordon Myers.

The congregation praised McDonald's achievements in a resolution that was adopted by standing ovation in June at the 2007 assembly of the North Carolina Synod.

But McDonald doesn't count the gold medal and the recognition that came with it as his proudest moment. "Just being able to survive, to make it, and to keep my faith — those are the things I'm most proud of," said McDonald.

A native of Detroit with a fascination for figuring out how things work, McDonald loved aviation from a young age. But, as an African American boy growing up in the 1930s, "I never dreamed I'd have the opportunity to learn to fly," he said.

He recounts being the sole African American student in engineering classes at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the 1940s. He pulled all-nighters to complete group projects by himself. "They didn't have anything to do with me," he said of his white classmates. In the end, he said, it helped him learn all aspects of a complex problem, not just one part.

When a black upperclassman at the School of Engineering told him about the Tuskegee Airmen, McDonald jumped at the chance and enlisted in 1944.

He was sent to Army Air Corps basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss. It was his first trip to the segregated South as an adult, and it was "kind of a shock," he said. "We knew [in Michigan] that [segregation] existed, but reading about it and living it are two different things," he said. "You had to readjust your life and everything to those social conditions."

After basic training, which lasted six months "but seemed like an eternity," McDonald transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field, Tuskegee, Ala., for primary, basic and advanced flight training on AT-6 and Stearman PT-17 aircraft.

"It was hard work. They kept us going. But it was fun. I was constantly learning," said McDonald.

His first solo flight was a highlight of training. "The biggest thrill is when you do it by yourself," because he was free of the "coaxing and hollering" of the flight instructor.

Although he did not complete the flight training course, McDonald is considered a "documented original Tuskegee Airman," according to Ron Brewington, spokesman for Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

The war ended before McDonald was deployed overseas. His prospects as a pilot after the war were slim. "If we desired to stay in aviation, there was good evidence the Air Force didn't want us and the private sector wouldn't hire us," said McDonald.

So McDonald returned to the University of Michigan, earning his engineering degree in 1950. He went on to work as an electrical engineer at aerospace companies and later as director of the physical plant for North Carolina Central University. He retired in 1994.

He has been a strong community leader in Durham since 1973, serving as a senior elder at his church and as a founding member of Phoenix House, a community effort to buy and renovate housing for homeless people in Durham.

McDonald hasn't waited for recognition from others to validate his life choices. He has plowed ahead. "I just dealt with it," he said. Each step of the way, he said, he followed his heart. "I just loved what I was doing."

And, said his pastor, McDonald does everything with a "sweetness and a gentleness" that motivates and inspires others.

How did he get to be this way? McDonald credits a boyhood mentor, Robert Ingram, and other members of the Lutheran church in Detroit. "The church meant so much to me as I grew older," he said. "When I went off to college, I was grounded well in faith, and I had the strength to combat the obstacles I had to face," said McDonald.

In turn McDonald has been a mentor to many young people at Lutheran Church of the Abiding Savior, according to his pastor. "He's one of those people that, when you have a relationship with him, you can't help but grow spiritually," said Myers.

"His spirit is infectious," continued Myers. "He has such integrity in living his life in accordance with what he believes. He makes Jesus — he makes faith — accessible to other people and he does it in a gentle way."

Fletcher said his grandfather was "a major influence" in his decision to pursue a call to ministry. Fletcher, 27, just completed a year of seminary at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C., on a full scholarship from the ELCA Fund for Leaders in Mission.

Fletcher has been inspired by his grandfather's humility, but also his willingness to take risks. "He always wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity [to fly]." Fletcher added that the love of flying has not faded with age. "Until four years ago, this man was still sneaking out to the airfield and flying," he said.

McDonald clarified that it was a one-time trip with a young man in the congregation who was getting his pilot's license. The "young fellow" was learning on a Stearman aircraft, similar to what the Tuskegee Airmen had used in training. "He offered me a ride, and I flew a little bit," admitted McDonald, adding, "It gets in your blood."

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August 22, 2007

Rick Steves on meaningful travel


Veteran guide Rick Steves believes good travel is meaningful travel. In his 30 years as an author, television host and tour leader, Steves has learned that it's all about meeting people with other views and values.

"It's the people that carbonate the experience. If I can't get my travelers in touch with real people, the experience is going to fall flat," Steves said in a recent edition of "Grace Matters," the radio ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Steves brings his faith perspective with him as he travels and leads other travelers. He is a member of an ELCA congregation in Lynnwood, Wash.

With his enthusiastic and unpretentious style, Steves has taught millions of Americans how to make the most of their vacations abroad through his 30 guidebooks and his popular public television series "Rick Steves' Europe."

Steves knows that good travel means more than being fed and pampered, although those are important factors.

"I sell a lot of guidebooks because I list a lot of restaurants and hotels, but my passion is to inspire people and equip people to travel in a way that broadens their perspective and celebrates the world," Steves said. "Of course, the practical hook is the tips and the tricks and the budget ideas."

As a young man returning to Europe summer after summer, Steves realized that his fellow American travelers -- honeymooners, retirees and families on once-in-a-lifetime trips — were making the same mistakes he had made on previous trips.

"I thought if I could just package the lessons I've learned from my experience, other people could learn from my mistakes rather than their own and travel better, and I would have a good excuse to go to Europe every year and update my material," he said.

Europe is the focus of his work, because in Steves' estimation Europe is the wading pool for American travelers. "They go to Europe first, they gain their confidence, and then they can go further afield in the developing world."

For Steves, further afield means places such as Papua New Guinea, El Salvador and India. Steves rates India the most culturally stimulating country he's visited. His most memorable trip was to Central America on a tour that uncovered the faith of people living in economic hardship. "The faith of people in Central America blows away a lot of Americans and Europeans who visit," he said.

"When you travel (in developing countries), you realize that the poorest people on the planet operate from a mindset of abundance while the richest people operate from a mindset of scarcity. That's a very challenging thing," Steves said.

When Steves walked on a garbage dump in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, he saw adults scrambling to meet the dump trucks to pick out half-used batteries they could sell at the markets. In that moment, said Steves, "I realized, these are parents, they've got kids (to feed)."

Through face-to-face encounters with a few of the billions of people who live on $2 per day or less, Steves has found that his priorities back home have changed. "It's inexcusable that there's a tsunami worth of casualties among children every week for simple water- and hunger-related illnesses that could very easily be addressed if we had those priorities," he said.

Steves believes that once you've met with people who find "God-given truths to be self-evident" that are different from those of the average U.S. citizen, it changes the way you see the world. "There is just nothing as valuable to understand our world out there as to physically leave your home and go far away and look at your home from a distance."

Listen to audio clips from "Expanding Your World," the May 13, 2007, interview with Rick Steves on "Grace Matters."

Watch a 12-minute Mosaic video interview on "Faithful Travel."

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