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April 9, 2010

Valparaiso University Pastor Darlene Grega dies

Darlene E. Grega, an ELCA pastor serving at Valparaiso (Ind.) University was a "beloved member" of the Valparaiso family, said the university's president, Mark A. Heckler, in an April 7 message announcing her death.

The Porter (Ind.) County Coroner ruled Grega's death as a suicide, the Merrillville (Ind.) Post-Tribune reported April 9.

She was a first for chapel staff 

Grega, 55, joined the staff of the university's Chapel of the Resurrection in August 2008. She was the first ELCA pastor called to serve on the chapel staff of Valparaiso University , an independent Lutheran higher education institution. She served on a staff that included two Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastors, Joseph R. Cunningham and James A. Wetzstein.

"We mourn the loss of someone who cared deeply for the members of this community. Our sympathy and prayers are with Pastor Grega's son, Nathan, her extended family, and her many friends here at Valpo and beyond," Heckler wrote in his announcement to the university community.

University faculty, staff and students paid tribute to Grega at an April 7 evening prayer service, an April 8 morning prayer service, and will continue evening prayer services in Grega's memory through April 16, according to a Valparaiso spokesperson. A funeral or memorial service for Grega has not yet been announced.

"Pastor Grega has been a friend to many, and generously served our campus community since joining our chapel staff less than two years ago," Heckler wrote. "In particular she provided significant counsel and support to women on our campus and built relationships with our international students to help them feel welcomed here."

"We just lost a very fine colleague and are so saddened," Cunningham said in an interview with the ELCA News Service.

Grega presided at the April 4 Easter celebration at the chapel, a first for an ELCA pastor. "She had a great presence and was overjoyed. She did great, and we all commended her. That's why this is so shocking," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said Grega extended hospitality and care to many in the university community, including international students, women and Alliance, a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
"My last image of her is the joy of the post-Easter celebration, and seeing her smile," he said. "As a professional, my last memory of her is her deep care and concern for others. It's just such a tremendous loss."

Grega's bishop, James R. Stuck, ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Indianapoliis, expressed shock and sadness. "Her presence was very much appreciated by a lot of people," he said. "For her, it was a very rich ministry, and she would express that quite often. She provided a door for a lot of people in the community. It was a good and vibrant ministry for her."

Stuck recalled that Heckler's predecessor, Alan F. Harre, led an effort to raise funds for an endowment for an ELCA pastor to serve on the Chapel of the Resurrection staff. Stuck said he fully expects the university will continue to have an ELCA pastor on the chapel staff in the future.

She welcomed people on the margins

On behalf of the ELCA, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson extended condolences and sympathy for Grega's death to Heckler and the university community. "Darlene's call to serve as the first ELCA pastor on the staff of the Chapel of the Resurrection has been the occasion for renewing and deepening our relationships with the University and its extended family of alumni and friends," Hanson wrote in an April 9 letter. "We have rejoiced in the strength of her service as university pastor with students, faculty and staff -- a ministry marked by her distinctive gifts of warm hospitality, gregarious compassion for the suffering and tenderhearted, and tenacious advocacy for those who have often been kept at the margins of Christian community and public life.

"Although the news of her death comes as a deep shock and disappointment, we entrust her to the mercy of God shown in Jesus Christ and share with you our hope in the promise of Christ's Resurrection," Hanson wrote.

Grega was born in Cleveland and graduated from Valparaiso University and the Lutheran Deaconess Program housed on campus. She earned a master of arts degree in theology from Duke University, Durham, N.C.; a master of arts degree in counseling from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks; and a master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Grega brought more than 25 years of experience in higher education to Valparaiso. She was director of international students at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University and director of the international center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va. She also had nine years' experience in campus ministry at colleges and universities in North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas.

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