Four miles north of Parkers Prairie, Minn., you’ll find a simple wood-frame church, painted white. It’s a quintessential prairie scene, with Elmo Lutheran Church next to a cemetery. The church – its congregation will be celebrating its 130th anniversary next year – is tucked away, off a gravel road. The town of Elmo is so small that there actually is no town, only a road.
Many of Elmo’s members are from farming backgrounds; many are retired and over the age of 60. There’s also one teenager in the congregation and a couple younger children who recently became members. Each week, the congregation notes its attendance and offering up on the hymn board. The rural congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance between 18 and 20 people, is showing how the smallest of congregations can reach out to meaningfully support ministry in countries that are continents away.
Last summer, Jeff Schmitz, the new pastor at Elmo at the time, called Nathan Berkas, projects and operations manager for ELCA Global Church Sponsorship, saying that he would like to present his congregation with an opportunity to support an ELCA missionary.
A former missionary himself who had served in Argentina with his parents many years earlier, Jeff explained, “Global missions are very high on my priorities so, as you might expect, I have encouraged missionary sponsorship in each of the congregations that I have served.”
Between mission work and then 24 years in the Navy, Jeff said he’s “always been a world citizen.” He sees the church’s calling to mission outreach like a table with four legs including outreach to “our congregation and community, our [Northwestern Minnesota] Synod, our nation and the world.” He noted that sometimes, for congregations, global mission is the missing fourth leg of the table – a leg that needs to be put in place.
During their conversation, Nathan mentioned Wal Reat, a former refugee from South Sudan and an ELCA pastor who had recently begun serving refugee camps in his homeland and in neighboring countries. (See: A new church for a new country: Hope and healing in South Sudan.) He recalled, “Jeff shared with me that he was going to try to get his congregation to commit to $1,000 per year to sponsor a missionary, while adding, ‘And, oh, by the way, we have an average worshiping attendance of 12 [at the time] people.’” Needless to say, Nathan was impressed.
Not long afterward, Jeff presented the idea to the members and they agreed.
“It was such an affirmation that they said ‘Yes,’” he said. They decided they would individually save their spare change and pool it as a congregation at the end of each month. Individual members use Mason jars – typically used for canning and preserving food – to collect their change.
"We encourage each other not to spend our change and even use [paper money] more often so that more change will be available for the jars," Jeff added.
So on the last Sunday of each month, which is now known as “JAR Sunday,” the members of Elmo Lutheran Church pour change from their individual jars into a large jar during the worship service. It’s a monthly reminder that as a congregation, they are united in supporting Wal as he serves people in refugee camps and establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church Africa Mission in South Sudan.
While Elmo Lutheran is doing a wonderful thing, Jeff said it’s not like the parishioners to blow their own horn, noting the folks at this congregation are pretty reserved.
"They speak with their jars," he explained. "The members don’t say much about our global mission effort. I think they like seeing the thermometer chart on our bulletin board continue to move upward toward our yearly goal of $1,000.” They’ve made a two-year commitment of supporting Wal, and at 10 months, have just passed the $800 mark.
Sharon Kingston, congregation president and a member for 60 years, said she can’t remember her congregation having ever sponsored a missionary. “Pastor Jeff kind of pushed us. He got us going to support [Wal Reat].”
Jeff said, “I think our Change for Change in South Sudan project has helped our small congregation in rural Minnesota become more aware of our inclusion in the ‘greater church.’ It is a tangible response to our calling to be good stewards of all of God’s gifts.”
Nathan agreed, saying, “By supporting Pastor Wal Reat, this congregation is presented with the opportunity to understand God’s presence in our lives (and in those all around the world) in a much more significant way," adding, "This type of support is critical because we are only able to do this work together."
He continued, “We often tell congregations that when they support a missionary, they are not only sending money, but they are creating an opportunity for the congregation to walk alongside the missionary and our companions in those places. In many ways, Elmo Lutheran Church is walking alongside Wal Reat as he proclaims the gospel to those in South Sudan.”
Echoing Nathan, Jeff added, “It is a wonderful feeling for all of us knowing that we are making a difference in the lives of people that we will never meet but that we love because God loves us. Is it really so far when we are connected by the same word and the same sacraments? Not really.”