Story Magazine

Second Quarter, 2008

Alum Spotlight: Rev. Alem Asmelash

In 2002, he earned a Master of Theology degree from Luther Seminary, and in 2004 he received his Doctor of Ministry. He now holds a position in which he serves in three unique ways. He is a part-time pastor at Minneapolis' Trinity Lutheran Congregation. He serves as a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, where he works with the diversity department. He also works with the ELCA's Minneapolis Synod, serving as an advocate for East African immigrants. In addition, Rev. Asmelash is involved with KNOS 95.3, a station that broadcasts a half-hour service every Sunday in the Amharic language. Rev. Asmelash lives in the Minneapolis area with his wife, Jerusalem, and children, Joel, 14, and Naomi, 12.

1. Could you tell me a little about yourself and what brought you to the United States and to Luther Seminary?

I never planned to attend school in the United States. God has a plan for each of us; sometimes it's not what we plan for or what we expect. After leaving Ethiopia and growing up in Sweden, I planned to stay in Sweden and serve God in the area of pastoral counseling. Researching schools in the UK I discovered there really was no opportunity there to earn a Master's degree in pastoral counseling. I also discovered that the US had many institutions offering this option. I applied to several, was accepted at Luther Seminary and can say I'm here in the United States, active in ministry here because of Luther Sem.

2. Just what are you doing now?

[Laughs] Many things. You might say I'm the quintessential multi-tasker. I am a part-time pastor with Trinity Lutheran Congregation, called to serve the immigrant community of the Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Trinity Lutheran Congregation has worshiped in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood for 140 years. Many years ago Trinity lost its building to Interstate 94 construction and rather than invest in a new sanctuary, Trinity chose to worship at the Augsburg College Chapel and devote its resources to reaching the people of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Once Trinity held services in Norwegian and English, now we hold services in Amharic [the Ethiopian language] and English. I am also a part-time chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. At the hospital I also work with their Diversity Department as a cultural liaison for patients and employees. I work for the Minneapolis Synod of the ELCA on the Candidacy Committee and the African National Leaders Counsel for East Africans. It is in this role that I interface and work as an advocate for East African immigrants to the United States. Finally, I'm greatly involved with a Web/Radio outreach to Ethiopians. We broadcast a one-half-hour service every Sunday on KNOS 95.3 locally in the Amharic language. This service is also webcast via ethiopianradio.org. In Ethiopia many use the webcast as their church.

3. How did you come by this unique position?

It is not something I planned for, or ever imagined for that matter. After graduating from Luther Sem. I spent some time, about two years waiting a call. It was not until I had given up and turned my need completely over to God that this call happened.  I say "happened" because the position didn't exist. The Minneapolis Synod Bishop at the time, Rev. Johnson, was instrumental in creating this combined call to three entities: Trinity Congregation, the Fairview Medical Center, and the Minneapolis Synod. I truly believe God works through people and directed them in a way that best utilizes the gifts He has given me to accomplish His goals.

4. What experience at Luther best prepared you for this position?

In the year 2000 I found myself in significant financial and spiritual need. I was away from home, a stranger in a strange land. At this time of deep need I was contacted by a congregation in Indianapolis, IN. I had never met them; they had never met me. Every Wednesday I received a postcard informing me that I was in their prayers and that they were investing in me. You really can't understand what this meant for me. They helped with my tuition, but more than that they gave me courage. I was no longer alone. It made me realize that God wanted me, and had a job for me to do. From that point on I lived with courage, hope, and joy. I didn't finish my education by myself; we finished it together. This was a great blessing time for me that later gave me the strength and energy to fulfill my current responsibilities.

5. Do you have a favorite memory of Luther Seminary?

Oh yes, actually two that I wish to share, one happy and one bittersweet. The first is my memory of the "African Table" during lunch in the cafeteria. The African students--from many different countries--would usually sit together. We'd converse in English since we had different native languages. Being with each other gave us great joy. We'd laugh together and were always happy. The American students couldn't help but notice. We invited them to join us, and many did. There was much laughter and we bonded together. It was a very joyful time. The second memory that stays with me is not one of joy, but of understanding--us understanding America and America understanding us. I worked in the cafeteria while on campus as a dishwasher. Many other Africans did too. As part of the job we cleaned the plates and threw away the food prior to washing them. For us this was a great struggle. Having known famine and drought, it caused great distress for us to throw away the food. Oh, we understood why... the health codes, the need for proper sanitation and so on, but understanding didn't replace the emotion we felt. For me I learned how to cope with it, but for others the distress was too great and they would have to quit and try to find employment somewhere else. This story has no hero or villain; it is simply a memory that helps me understand and one I hope helps others to understand me.

6. Did you have a favorite professor while at Luther Seminary?

Yes, there were four actually. One is Prof. Ronald Martinson, professor of pastoral care and counseling. A second is Prof. Richard Wallace, who recently passed away, and who I'll always remember. Another is Professor Marc Kolden, professor of systematic theology. There was also my advisor Prof. Denny Everson. He could speak Ahmaric and had many Ethiopian things decorating his office. Whenever I'd feel down or homesick, I'd visit Denny and I'd receive encouragement and feel renewed.

7. If readers wish to help you in your current ministry, what's the best way?

If they wish to help me? I didn't anticipate you'd ask that. [Pause] The best way for someone to help my ministry is to go to the website "ethiopianradio.org" and learn about how we are reaching overseas with a message of hope and if readers are motivated to support us financially a gift may be directed to Trinity Lutheran Congregation. A gift to Trinity will help and support our outreach both locally and overseas.

8. What advice do you have for current students or recent graduates?

I have thought about this. What I wish to share is for both. It is good to prepare and to have a plan; this is simply common sense and supplies direction. BUT, I must emphasize that what I see when I look at my life and ministry-- what I see is God's plan, NOT mine. My plan was to stay in Sweden. What I am doing isn't what I planned to do. You must give the ultimate decision over to God. You must let God work His plan through you, not in spite of you. Be open to discovering His plan for you. My own life and ministry is a testament to "Thy will be done." God knows how to make you fruitful; let Him be the master and the guide. The single most important thing I can share with students or recent graduates is let God guide you to be what He wants you to be. While I waited for a call God held and kept me until I had given up. It was only then that a position was created. Never be anxious or afraid; know that God has a time and a place for you.

9. Are there any parting words with which you wish to close?

Just this: I encourage all in the ELCA to reach out to the individual. Help and care for each other as you are given the opportunity by God. Your readers should know that any gift or donation to the Seminary isn't wasted. With it you are helping people everywhere, wherever Luther Seminary graduates serve. I encourage you to give and know that a gift to the Seminary is a gift to God. That's all I wish to add. Thank you for letting me tell my story and may God bless you.