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January 19, 2010

He spent his last breath singing: Wife, cousin remember Ben Larson


The past week for Renee Splichal Larson and Jonathan Larson has been filled with danger, uncertainty, heartache and deep pain as they mourn the apparent loss of Renee's husband and Jonathan's cousin, Ben Larson, 25, in the earthquake in Haiti. The two Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary students, in Port-au-Prince at the time of the disaster, returned to the United States Jan. 15. They spoke to the ELCA News Service Jan. 18.

Renee and Jonathan told of their escape from the collapsed St. Joseph Home for Boys and their unsuccessful attempts to rescue Ben. They also talked about the suffering of the people of Haiti, their strong feelings of gratitude for the ELCA and the positive influences it had on Ben throughout this life.

"All he wanted was to be a pastor in this church," Renee said.

The three senior students at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa -- one of eight ELCA seminaries -- went to Haiti to teach Lutheran theology to members and pastors of the Lutheran church during the seminary's January term. Renee, who grew up in Garrison, N.D., was also doing interviews with local people for a master's thesis about the emerging Lutheran church in Haiti.

That all changed on Jan. 12, when a severe earthquake struck Haiti. At the time of the quake all three were together in the St. Joseph Home for Boys.

"We were all together on the same floor," when the building began to shake, Renee said. "We all kind of panicked and started running. Jonathan and I were together. (Ben) was hugging a pillar in the middle of the floor. I turned and I saw him, and I saw concrete starting to fall on him. I called for him and started running toward him."

At that moment the two floors above collapsed on them. Jonathan and Renee were trapped for a short time, but managed to squeeze out onto the roof of the building and called for Ben, she said. The collapsed building continued to shift as the aftershocks continued, Renee said.

The two went back to the place where they had crawled out and called again for Ben. Renee said she heard Ben's voice. He was singing, not unusual for Ben who loved music. "I told him I loved him, and that Jon and I were okay, and to keep singing," Renee said. But the singing stopped after he sang the words "God's peace to us we pray," she said.

"If he was alive, he would have been calling for help desperately," Renee said. "Ben spent his last breath singing."

In the chaos of that night, Renee and Jonathan stayed nearby with local residents displaced by the quake. One of the people they were with was Bill Nathan, director of the St. Joseph Home for Boys, who injured his spine after jumping from the roof of the building to the ground. ABC News featured Nathan's story on Nightline.

The next day Renee and Jonathan went back to the building, managed to get their passports, and did what they could to locate Ben, but could not find him. "Getting off of that roof was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," she said.

The two were advised to go to the U.S. Embassy, which they managed to accomplish with local residents' help, and seek assistance to rescue Ben, but there was no team to rescue Ben. They met up with a Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (N.J.), medical team at the embassy, who cared for Renee and Jonathan. The students managed to get text messages to their families, asking for advice about what to do. Their families advised them to return home to the United States.

"It was so sad to go. It took all of our strength to get back to our families," Renee said.

Meanwhile, Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission, and a friend of the Larson family, had contacted the Lutheran World Federation and a member of Congress, trying to arrange for a team in Haiti to get to Ben. Those attempts continue.

The Red Cross has estimated that as many as 200,000 people may have died as a result of the earthquake. In addition, questions are being asked about the slowness of the response. "People are so desperate," Renee said, adding that the devastation "breaks my heart. To know that the people of Haiti still have nothing is very difficult."

She added that she cannot think about Ben "apart from the thousands of Haitians who died in the earthquake, the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere."

The ELCA and Ben Larson

Ben Larson's parents are April Ulring Larson, senior pastor of First Lutheran Church, Duluth, and former bishop of the LaCrosse (Wis.) Area Synod, and Judd W. Larson, retired and serving as an interim at Our Saviors Lutheran Church, Duluth. The youngest of three children, Ben grew up in the ELCA.

"Ben loved this church. He knew it wasn't perfect, but he loved it. He lived out his ministry through the church," Renee said. A trip to Ethiopia was transformational, she said, adding that Ben appreciated the "global church and the ELCA's companions." He attended Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, one of 27 ELCA colleges and universities, and was completing his master of divinity degree at Wartburg Seminary. Ben played and sang in the bands at ELCA Global Mission events and the 2008 Women of the ELCA Triennial Gathering in Salt Lake City. He was active in ELCA's World Hunger program, and helped introduce members and leaders to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the ELCA's newest worship book.

Describing his cousin Ben "as my best friend," Jonathan Larson, Red Wing, Minn., said, "We were always together. We grew to love God together."

As for their future, Jonathan said he and Renee will return soon to Wartburg to complete their educations. "We would not think of doing anything else. The Wartburg community is so vital to who we are," he said.

The Larson family will hold an "informal gathering and storytelling" Jan. 21 for Ben Larson at Luther College's Centennial Union, and a memorial service for him will be held the next day at the college's Center for Faith and Life.

They asked that memorial gifts for Ben Larson be given to Wartburg Seminary, the Eglise Lutherienne d'Haiti (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti), St. Joseph Home for Boys and ELCA (International) Disaster Response.

Renee highlighted the ELCA 's response to disasters. Funds are channeled through the ELCA churchwide organization and "reach people in Haiti, who are poor and need help. Mission is what we are about. I ask that people think about mission and what draws us together, which is Christ." She added that the ELCA is a church "that we love and serve."

The ELCA announced that it will provide at least $600,000 for Haiti, and is channeling funds through three partner organizations working on the ground: the Lutheran World Federation, Lutheran World Relief and Church World Service. More funds are expected to be provided as members contribute gifts to the ELCA for Haiti relief.

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