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January 29, 2010

Body of ELCA seminary student, Ben Larson, recovered in Haiti

The body of Benjamin Judd Larson, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary student who died in the Haiti earthquake, was recovered Jan. 28. Larson, who was teaching theology to Lutherans in Haiti at the time of the disaster, was buried when the building he was in collapsed.

Larson's body was located Jan. 27 inside the destroyed St. Joseph Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince by a local work crew that went to the site to find him. The crew worked to remove multiple layers of concrete so they could recover his body, said Ben's wife, Renee Splichal Larson, in a telephone interview with the ELCA News Service.

"It's a relief that they have found Ben," she said. "It's a huge gift that people (took) the time to get Ben's body out so we can grieve and bury him."

Renee, Ben and a cousin, Jonathan Larson, were all inside the St. Joseph Home for Boys at the time of the earthquake. Renee and Jonathan were trapped in the building for a short time, but managed to escape. They reported that Ben, who was near them on the same floor, was buried as the building collapsed. Renee said she heard Ben singing a hymn from under the rubble, but the singing soon stopped.

Renee and Jonathan returned to the United States a few days later after their unsuccessful attempts to rescue or locate Ben at the building site. Both Renee and Jonathan are senior students at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, as was Ben. Wartburg is one of eight ELCA seminaries.

Renee said she is "comforted" to know that her husband probably died shortly after the singing stopped, though she admits to feeling a different kind of grief now.

Since news of what happened to Ben was first reported, Renee said she and the Larson family have learned of special services and prayers for Ben "from all over the world." Renee said she "feels" all of those prayers.

"I feel I'm being carried by the prayers of the people," she said. "I've learned a lot through this experience — the one very solid thing is the power of the Body of the Christ, and the people who comprise it. We have all felt encompassed by people's love and care."

Among the many messages sent to the Larson family was an extraordinary message from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, one of the world's fastest-growing Lutheran churches, Renee said. The church's president is a friend of the Larson family, she said. "They wrote this beautiful letter. There were pages and pages with it, signed by leaders of that church," she said.

Despite her own grief, Renee said she is aware that many people are finding connections to Haiti "through Ben and through us," she said. "The people of Haiti need our prayers and support, and so do we."

Larson's body was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, said the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission. From there the U.S. military is expected to return Ben Larson's remains to Dover (Del.) Air Force base, perhaps as early as Jan. 29, he said.

Louis Dorvilier, director for international disaster response, ELCA Global Mission, arranged for a local crew to go to the St. Joseph Home for Boys to locate and recover Ben Larson's body. Dorvilier arrived in Haiti last week to join a response and planning team from the Lutheran World Federation Department for World Service and the Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance.

Renee said she is grateful for the ELCA and its leaders on the family's behalf in Haiti. "If we did not have the church, Ben would not be coming home," she said.

The family held a memorial service for Ben Larson Jan. 22 at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, where Ben earned a bachelor's degree. The college is one of 27 ELCA colleges and universities.

This weekend, a celebration had been planned in Haiti for the 25th anniversary of the founding of the St. Joseph Home for Boys. That event has been postponed. Instead, friends and supporters of the home will gather Jan. 31 for a prayer service at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, Raleigh, N.C. Renee and Jonathan have been invited, but are unsure if they will be able to attend, she said.

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