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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Meeting Gustav Adolph Anderson

By Ben Hilding

Internship is a year to “try on the shoes” of being a pastor within a specific congregation. At the halfway point of my internship at Edmonds Lutheran Church in the Pacific Northwest, I have to admit that perhaps one of my greatest learning experiences has not happened within my internship site at all. Approximately three weeks before internship began, my grandmother informed my wife and me that we were not, in fact, the first people from our family history to spend time in Washington. Although my grandparents had limited information, they said that my great-great-grandfather had evidently been a pastor in Washington. This was a surprise to me, as I was not aware of any pastors from that side of the family. 

At first, I was admittedly frustrated. I was excited to be a “pioneer” for a year and to explore a geographical area I thought my family had never seen. To learn that we were, in fact, not the first ones out here was initially a letdown. Learning this family history was not my priority for my year of adventure and exploration. 

Given the gorgeous landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, one of the hobbies Alicia and I have been getting into has been hiking. Last year’s intern left us a book about hiking in the North Cascades, and we were browsing through looking for a manageable, but beautiful, beginner’s hiking trail. The hike we settled on what was called Deception Pass, about an hour and a half north of our home. I decided to just see if my great-great-grandfather’s church happened to be in the general area of our destination.  Sure enough, Bethsaida Swedish Lutheran Church had been located in La Conner, Wash., and had consolidated with Salem Lutheran of Mount Vernon in 1913.  This church was on the way to Deception Pass. I figured that if we had enough time, we would stop there on the way back.

After a delightful hike overlooking the Puget Sound and a beautiful bridge leading to Whidbey Island, we left for home. We did have a little extra time, so we decided to just see what this church looked like. We arrived in Salem Lutheran’s parking lot at 3:50 p.m., ten minutes before the office closed. We introduced ourselves to the church secretary and she graciously welcomed us in to look around. She informed us that the church was preparing to celebrate their 100 year anniversary of the consolidation, and they were collecting historical information to display. She brought us into a long hallway, which showcased pictures of every pastor in the history of the congregation as well as the confirmation pictures of each year. As we walked down the hallway, it did not take long to find G.A. Anderson. It was an absolutely surreal experience for me to come face-to-face with this stranger relative, who would soon become a very important figure in my life.

This powerful encounter propelled Alicia and me to explore the area in which my great-great-grandfather pioneered. When he first came to the La Conner area as pastor, Rev. Gustaf Adolph Anderson traveled up the Puget Sound by boat from Tacoma. We drove through the open fields of Mount Vernon, which are known for showcasing tulips in the spring, and headed to the boat landing of downtown La Conner. This quaint town has been preserved on the National Registry of historic places. When you drive into the town, you feel like you are traveling back in time to the late 19th century. As I breathed in the air of the downtown waterfront and gazed into the peaceful green fields with the Cascade Mountains in the distance, I felt intimately connected with this relative, who I now admitted lived in me.

Since this unforgettable day (which I later realized was the weekend of All Saints), I have learned Gustaf Adolph Anderson was the first permanently-called Swedish Lutheran pastor in the state of Washington. He followed a missionary by the name of Peter Carlson, who started a number of churches and then called Rev. G.A. Anderson to serve them. He served in Tacoma, Spokane, Bellingham, Anacortes, and, most notably, La Conner. He was the oldest of seven children and attended Gustavus Adolphus College, where he met his wife. He had a heart for missional ministry, for adventure and for his family. 

Over the Christmas holiday, my parents and brother visited from Wisconsin, and we traveled back up to La Conner. Although the original church building burned down in the 1960’s, we did discover the original parsonage G. A. Anderson and his family lived in, which had been renovated into a bed and breakfast. 

Just up the hill from the parsonage is the church cemetery, and we found the gravestone for G.A. Anderson, his wife, and a number of other Andersons.

Continuing Discovery

My internship supervisor, Rev. Dr. Julie Josund, is trained in the area of Family Systems theory, and she has agreed to teach a course to me, Alicia and two other area pastors during this year. Through our work, I have continued my research into this person and this family. I have even discovered descendants of his that continue to live in Washington. Over Christmas, I brought my parents and brother to their house for dinner. One, Sue Apello, just happens to be a Lutheran pastor and has actually, at one time, worked in the same congregation as Pastor Julie.  They treated us to an absolutely delicious meal, which we ate on Gustav’s oldest daughter Angelika’s original china. Sue and her sister, Rosalind, have preserved and now shared with me unlimited writings and stories of our common pioneer relatives.

Learning about G.A. Anderson has in many ways been a self-discovery. I, too, have been intrigued by missional ministry, especially development and redevelopment. I, too, am an oldest sibling, who met my wife at Gustavus Adolphus College. I, too, have come to Washington to learn about what God is doing in and through the Lutheran church. By discovering the life and leadership of G. A. Anderson, I am also better understanding the kind of leader I have been searching for in myself.

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