Service with a smile: Luther volunteers serve using unique gifts
by Andy Behrendt, '10 M.Div.
Wednesday in the Archives
Each Wednesday morning, Luther Seminary's library is a calm, quiet place. The room upstairs is a different story.
Through a corridor lined with portraits of pioneer pastors and professors, the seminary Archives is buzzing with activity as six volunteers work to keep history alive. One transcribes an interview with a retired professor while others file away parish reports, clergy biographies and newspaper clippings on church issues. Another puts the finishing touches on a database of Minnesota congregations whose records are on microfiche.
Doris Bass and Florence Hopp have fun while they work.
And even when they break for coffee, the activity doesn't let up.
"We never are lacking for conversation," says Elaine Westby, a 10-year veteran volunteer.
"We share our joys and our sorrows, aches and our pains," retired parish nurse Lydia Volz adds with a chuckle.
"And we just wait for a break to burst into the conversation," exclaims Evelyn Sonnack, the longest-serving Archives volunteer.
"We have to fight for the right to speak," says retired pastor Wayne Tellekson, '60, as they all erupt in laughter.
They're not all talk. Like scores of other volunteers near and far who regularly serve the seminary, the Wednesday Archives volunteers share their time and talents to make a difference for Luther and the larger church. Like the Archives itself, which serves both the seminary and ELCA Region 3, each of the volunteers is a repository of Lutheran history.
"I just figured I was as old as the stuff coming in, so I could identify it--the people and places," says Tellekson, a seven-year volunteer.
"We learn a lot from them because they know these people--they know the connections," affirms Archives Assistant Kari Bostrom, '07. "It can be a small Lutheran world."
Their expertise comes from personal experience in the various church bodies and institutions that across the decades have become the ELCA. Sonnack's and Volz's husbands were history professors at Luther. Marion Eklund, who began serving in the Archives three years ago, wrote books on early leaders of the Augustana Synod with her husband after he retired from teaching history at Pacific Lutheran University.
Marilyn Boe, who along with Westby once worked for the old Evangelical Lutheran Church, retired from a job in the Archives in 2000 only to begin volunteering immediately.
"I really look forward to coming," she says. "I enjoy very much what I'm doing, and I feel it's very satisfying because it's important work that I don't think would get done if I didn't do it. And I just enjoy the fellowship."
On this particular Wednesday, Boe sparks a conversation based on a book she found about the origins of the Old Muskego Church whose historic building is now on the campus. Her discovery prompts a unison cry of "Oh!" from the others. In short order, they identify the last name of the author with that of a retired professor's relative.
Sonnack recently found a connection of her own when a man donated a collection of recordings from church radio broadcasts. One included audio of Sonnack singing a solo at her church in 1944. "I thought, 'Oh, well, I wish I could sing like that now,'" she says.
There are perks aplenty to volunteering, but Sonnack points to one pet peeve: archived items that include a church's name but no location or date. On cue, Tellekson reads the mug he's drinking from: "'Calvary Lutheran Church'--where?--'50th anniversary.'" (The group has amended the mug with permanent marker to include the city and state.)
After all, the volunteers don't want to let on that they're having too much fun.
"Make it sound like it's a drudge," jokes Tellekson, drawing guffaws with a show of cartoonish piety: "We don't enjoy it at all--we just do it out of our love for the Lord."
The Archives isn't the only place on campus where volunteers cheerfully give their time. A group of women from the Luther Seminary FRIENDS is also busy on many Wednesday mornings preparing mailings, assembling information packets or making favors for events, all of which cut costs for the seminary.
"It's fun, and we know it's something that needs to be done, and it's a good way to get together and help the seminary out," says Linda Olson, who began as a FRIENDS board member and volunteer in 2008 after retiring as a church administrative assistant.
Since 1940, the FRIENDS have sought to uphold the seminary and its students and faculty in various ways. In the days before Luther built up its own housing and dining resources, they made bedspreads and prepared food. Now with about 200 members, they continue to pray for the students and seminary while also providing annual endowed scholarships and hosting three annual events. About 20 of the FRIENDS are Wednesday Volunteers.
"We really know how to put addresses on--and stamps," second-year volunteer Florence Hopp says with a smile during a complimentary lunch after a morning of preparing mailings.
"Getting to meet others connected with the seminary has been fun and interesting," adds Olson, whose daughter, Marie, is a Luther student. "I feel strongly about our seminary education for our students and future leaders of our congregations, and it's one small way we can help them out."
Not all ways to help are on campus.
Pat Day, right, with his wife, also named Pat, continues to volunteer as an ambassador for the seminary even while wintering in Florida.
Pat Day doesn't let the fact that he spends each winter in Florida keep him from serving the seminary. For the past few years, Day has used his dual residency to Luther's advantage as an ambassador with two congregations: Nokomis Heights Lutheran in Minneapolis and Emmanuel Lutheran in Naples, Fla.
Nearly 90 volunteer ambassadors work to build relationships between their congregations and Luther Seminary, wherever they might live. Most of them serve with one congregation. Day does double duty, but that's no problem. Being an ambassador only takes a few hours a month. "Luther does most of the work--we're just the contacts," says Day.
Ambassadors receive quarterly mailings of information from the seminary. They work with their pastors to make the information available and find other ways to get the word out about Luther's resources for congregations far and wide. It's a perfect fit for Day, a retired salesman who became a Luther supporter while attending lay classes, many of which people nationwide can now attend online. He's particularly passionate about finding fellow donors to help offset the threat of seminarian debt and encouraging people in the parish who are thinking about ordained ministry.
"We as a laity have to be out there spreading that word," says Day, who recently recruited other folks from both of his congregations to serve as ambassadors while he and his wife, also named Pat, are away. "I'm really excited about what I think we can do."
Day is an example of how people can serve Luther even from a distance, yet he's glad when he's nearby. "I'm blessed because I get to come right to the campus," he says with a chuckle. "And every time I come over, it's like homecoming. I just love it."
Willing to share your time and talents with Luther? Contact Volunteer Coordinator Mary Steeber at (651) 641-3596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.