“Finding Seekers” by Marta Brenden

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

July 23, 2023

Good Morning.  This sermon is about me, it’s why joining Seekers Church has made a significant change to my life and how I expect to live.  Please bear with me, because in preparing this message for today I faced my personal history, my work and how I have lived my life.  I could do this because I feel at home here.  You have given me nourishment for my spiritual life.  The Circle Time, the liturgy, the Word and the interests of the community in social justice — all are meaningful.  Let me explain how I am affected.

One example is the connection I felt with Mike Little’s sermon.  Faith and Money Network programs to help underserved regions of the U.S. are visionary, innovative and arise from the people themselves.  Those programs are truly important.  It is significant that his message followed our 6-week course in Reparations.  Mike’s sermon provides direction to implement concrete ways to effect change.  I am grateful for Faith and Money Network.  I am particularly intrigued with economic assistance through credit unions and banks to increase access to loans and other forms of credit to underserved communities.  That’s because I was a program officer in my federal agency, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), supporting refugees in their integration period.  I managed for example, the Microenterprise program for refugees.  We made grants to organizations already helping disadvantaged American citizens.  Such programs did not notice the small refugee communities in their service areas as potential targets for their assistance.  With grants from ORR, the agencies were introduced to refugees.  Refugees can be enterprising individuals who had businesses in informal economies.  Significant education is needed to legally operate a business in the complicated U.S. economy.  That’s where ORR’s support came in, tailoring programs to those who need cultural and language help to realize their vision.

There are other connections since joining Seekers.  Some of you have either directly worked in Vietnam, Africa or other agencies supporting work there.  There has been an important program in Guatemala.  Others have worked in Haiti.  Nicaragua is also a country of concerns.

Early in my career, I spent two years in Vietnam, and then lived in Nigeria for another two years.  I have not had the same overseas work connections in my previous churches.

It another way, I find opportunities during the week to explain that I have joined a new church, Seekers Church.  I have never been an evangelist nor a missionary intent on conversion.  And that is not my purpose now.   I simply am so impressed with how this Church is organized and carries out its mission, I love to tell what I’m learning.  What are the reactions?  Many people know exactly where Seekers is.  Many have come to the building for other purposes.  Some state they don’t believe in a God, but they also don’t end the conversation.  They ask about my spiritual life and what is it I believe.  I respond the best I can.  A few people want to continue the conversation and suggest a coffee or lunch to talk more.  I always agree to meet.  These discussions are interesting.  I have never had this happen before.  As I began to write, I am reminded the last two Sunday Gospel readings are about planting seeds.  Is it planting seeds that is happening?

In considering what my message should be today, I had to question why has this Seekers happened to me?   What in my past life, brought me to this place today.  Fifteen months ago, I took steps to attend a Seekers service.  It had been suggested by a friend.  Once I logged on, I was noticed and welcomed.  It happened to be Mother’s Day.  Larry organized the sermon.  It was about Mothers.  I found the comments about mothers very personal.  People spoke of their mothers openly sharing their experiences, not all of them sweet.  I had never attended a service like I heard that Mothers Day.  I returned the next Sunday.  I was hooked.

A few weeks later, I gave my own personal 2-minute message at Circle Time.  Altogether, these experiences were unlike anything I had in my background.  I felt the Holy Spirit was leading me, but the experience was new and strange.  Even to feel the Holy Spirit was new to me, although I realized that the Spirit had been there, I just recognize what it was.  This community has something I needed.  I decided to proceed in learning about Seekers.  In the last several months, I attended every session of the School of Christian Growth, I learned a bit more about Seekers and its disciplines.  I experienced how groups in the sessions provided opportunities to know each other and to share our lives.  We met with open hearts, I realized.  But I could not easily participate except to listen.  What had my church life been that had not provided me with this welcome and sense of belonging?  This is where my reflection has taken me as I prepared to speak with you today.

When I was born, I was solidly planted in a “Norwegian Lutheran immigrant community.”  My father was a Pastor at a Wisconsin church near Lake Michigan, not far from Green Bay.  His father was in Madagascar, a missionary.  In fact, my father was born in Madagascar.  As I grew, my father and mother served the parishes, but also kept closely linked to their families.  With one exception, I didn’t know my grandparents, they died before I was born.   The one exception was my dad’s father, still living in Madagascar, so we rarely saw him.

As a result, my life when I was small was largely centered on family and church life.  I now realize what a tightly-knit community I lived in.  Eventually, my father left the parish ministry.  He found work as a hospital chaplain, we lived in Minneapolis and then moved to South Dakota where I went to high school.  I attended St Olaf College where my grandfather, my uncles and , a few aunts and my parents attended.  I met my first husband Neil there.  We shared similar goals of social justice.  The civil rights movement was in the news and we held the same hope that this would remedy the impacts of slavery and racism.  It was clear that my parents and our close friends shared our position.  Beyond my close community, however, I could see that social justice and antiracism were not widely discussed or important.  

After College, I attended the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.  I was introduced to social work as a child.  It appealed to me.  While I studied social work, Neil studied at the Lutheran Seminary.  After a few months, he found my social work courses more interesting than theology.  He left the seminary and followed me to the university to also study social work.

While Neil was in his second year, we were aware the Vietnam War was escalating.  It was 1966, our church agency, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), one of the agencies with years of overseas  experience in war relief and community development, came recruiting.  Being a social worker couple, we were attractive to LWR.  They were eager to recruit since USAID urgently sought overseas agencies to provide services to the civilians in Vietnam. 

Mennonite Central Committee was already in Vietnam providing services.  It seemed practical for Church World Service, and LWR to send staff to join their effort.  

We considered LWR’s offer carefully.  My husband’s parents were strongly opposed.  My parents were concerned, but they knew we had to decide for ourselves.  Neil was enthralled.  Overseas work was THE important work for his call.  I also was eager to work overseas.  For me, there were several important features to the Vietnam work.  Cultural differences fascinated me.  Learning Vietnamese was a challenge.    I enjoyed the mix of Protestant Churches.  Working together with other denominations was stimulating.  Working with Vietnamese staff who also became part of our community.   That was a challenge and important  in that our spiritual experiences were expressed differently.  

My job was supervising a family assistance program operated by Vietnamese social workers.  The funding was from an MCC program where churches gave $15 per month to be used for families.  That created a fund for the families in need.  The main support Vietnamese families wanted were classes for their sons.  The social workers found mechanics and electronics classes.  That way when the young men were drafted, they had a skill and were less likely to serve in the infantry.  The young women earned money from sewing for the markets.  The Vietnamese staff were excellent, thoughtful and caring.

Our work commitment was for two years.  By the time we were about to leave, I was pregnant.  The War action had moved closer to Saigon.  With the expected child, we were not offered a chance to return.  The possibility of disruption by the War was too great.  It was very difficult for Neil not to return. 

We left for home and the adjustment to life in the U.S.  Our first child, Elizabeth was born in Toledo OH where Neil worked for Lutheran Social Service.  Toledo was a good place, but no longer in Vietnam, Neil felt bereft of purpose.  Once Elizabeth was six months Neil sought another overseas assignment.  Finally, in May 1970, we received the opportunity to work in Nigeria.  The Biafran civil war had just ended.  Elizabeth was eighteen months when we moved there.  That assignment was also limited to two years.   In Nigeria, Neil was introduced to Primary Health Care.  This was a relatively new concept for supporting the health of people.  Once we were home, Neil got admitted to the Public Health Program at U.C.  Berkely California. Our son Carl was born in Minneapolis as we waited to hear that Neil was admitted to the Program.   In that way, our California life began. 

I think I have described enough to illustrate my life.  It was a life of shifting homes, work.  Where were the spiritual practices, or disciplines?  No wonder Seekers gives me a place to rest.  I now know I have always been a spiritual person, but I didn’t know how to care for that part of myself.    

In 1994 my marriage ended.  By then, our children were finished with college.  My work at ORR was meaningful, I could continue my care and concern for the displaced peoples.  By then our daughter had an eating disorder.  Neil was offered what he considered the best job of his life.  He would move to Bangkok Thailand to operate his agency’s AIDs Southeast Asia program under contract with USAID.  I could not leave our daughter.  Also my work was fulfilling to me.

Reflecting on my life in this way, I sought to answer the question of what had my church life brought. In 1996, I met Bill Schauman at Ascension.  That was a miracle.  We married in the year 2000.  My life began to improve.  Now my daughter is managing her disorder and is a psychotherapist with a great deal of empathy for her clients.  My son has a very different life, but the three of us are close.  Neil died last year in Thailand.

In conclusion, I am grateful I could join Seekers.  Also, I am grateful for the time over the last several months to have been left to my own in puzzling out where my spiritual life has been.  I needed to think through what I have lived to understand why this church feels natural and genuine to me.  I need to understand why the churches I have been committed to did not work for me.  When Seekers bravely decided to have sermons each Sunday without clergy, they made a huge step to be a church for the 21st Century.  This church is operated by members!   That is amazing and visionary.  I know it is important for me as I take part in this community.  I’m not alone in realizing the church must be reinterpreted as time goes by.  I’m reading a theology book entitled Quest for the Living God.  Seekers is a church that carries on that Quest.  Thank you.    

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