United in Doing God's Work
The Rev. Kristina Johnson admits to "feeling discouraged" the day the enormous box arrived in the mail from the churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Pastor Johnson is the mission developer for Iglesia Luterana La Vela, a Spanish-speaking mission start in Greensboro, N.C.
Getting a new congregation on its feet is an exhausting undertaking, Pastor Johnson notes.
"You feel the whole thing is on your shoulders, and [that] you're either going to get it right or get it wrong.
"Up to that point, I had felt frustration and a sense of loneliness," she remembers.
But the moment Pastor Johnson saw what was in the box and read the note tucked inside, those feelings were replaced by a lump in her throat and a "tinge of love" in her heart.
La Vela is one of 24 ELCA mission starts that received a communion vessel set commissioned for and used in worship at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
The churchwide assembly is the ELCA's highest legislative authority and meets biennially.
Each vessel in the set was handmade of natural and recycled materials by local artisans of fair-trade companies. The global origin of the tools — including Uganda, Palestine, Bangladesh and Guatemala — serves as a reminder of the universal nature of God's work.
The Gift of Community
"Every piece has an interesting story behind it," notes the Rev. Robert Schaefer, executive director, ELCA Worship and Liturgical Resources.
The colorful basket liner, for example, was woven by women in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala, for MayaWorks, a collaboration of women from Guatemala and North America. Their mission is to empower Maya women to end their cycle of poverty and improve their lives.
"When we [at La Vela] learned about the faraway places these gifts came from, we felt like God was working through all channels of the world to embrace this little tiny mission," Pastor Johnson says. "It was like God was saying, 'You can do this.'
"I felt not only a sense of appreciation for the gift hands and hearts that had made these very materials — so clearly made one at a time, each one unique — but a sense of gratitude for our church, the ELCA, and the people who remembered us here in mission starts."
A Vital Latino Ministry
La Vela is associated with La Vela Latino Center for Spiritual Care, a nonprofit that reaches out to Latino immigrants in crisis. This is a critical ministry in North Carolina, the state with the fastest growing Latino population in the country.
Pastor Johnson has used the communion vessels weekly since receiving "this amazing gift" and reports that her members have been visibly moved by the handcrafted beauty.
Irina Ortega, La Vela's sacristan who is originally from Peru, is touched by the meaning behind the communion set.
"We felt a lot of kindness and affection for others when we received [these vessels], thinking how they were made in other parts of the world. It brings us closer to other Christians. We're so far away from India, Guatemala, Africa. … But these things that were sent to us bind us to them. [The gift] unites us with other Christians all over the world."
And with all the members of the ELCA.