We are grateful to everyone for their prayers and support during our recent trip to the United States, but Luz Maria and I especially would like to thank the family of Mark Anthony Zipfel, a faithful member of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Freeburg, Illinois, who passed away October 21, 2006, for the contribution made in his name.
On November 28, we flew from Caracas to Dallas-Fort Worth, where the temperature was over 75 degrees F. Then we flew to St. Louis, where the temperature was also above 75 degrees, so Luz Maria was starting to think that she would not have to endure winter at its worst in the United States. The next day, however, the St. Louis area experienced its worst ice storm in 30 years. Thousands of homes were without electricity or heat for four to five days. Fortunately for us, my mother's house was not among them.
Of course, the Pacific Northwest was hit by a much worse winter storm soon after circumstances forced us to cancel our visit to Washington state. We thank God for His grace in sparing us some trials.
We made our presentation during adult Bible class hour Sunday, December 3, at Christ Our Savior. The people were very interested and asked many perceptive questions. Afterward we had dinner with Frank Durtschy and his wife, Erica, from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I met Frank during long-term volunteer missionary orientation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2003. Frank then went to Brazil while I went to Venezuela. Erica, a native of Brazil, spoke Portuguese to Luz Maria, while Luz Maria answered in Spanish, and they got along quite well that way.
The following Monday we set out for the Twin Cities of Minnesota. On Tuesday, December 5, and Wednesday, December 6, we gave four presentations to the children of Woodbury Lutheran Preschool, Woodbury, Minnesota. The preschool, which has been in operation since 1970, offers different classes for children, ages 2 to 5, on different days of the week. We gave presentations at different times on Tuesday and Wednesday so that all the children could hear about our work in Venezuela. Woodbury Lutheran Preschool has "adopted" our preschool in La Caramuca and the children have us a generous contribution that they collected all on their own. We were pleased to talk with Dorothy Blaisdell, director of the preschool, and Nancy Kapernick, an assistant teacher that we know from her short-term mission trips to Venezuela.
We were also glad of the opportunity to meet with Paul Pfotenhauer, retired pastor of Woodbury Lutheran Church who has led several short-term mission teams to Venezuela, his wife Rhoda, who now serves on the Woodbury Lutheran mission board, Pastor Ben Griffin and other members of the Woodbury mission board, Dale and Elizabeth Thompson of Venezuela Lutheran Mission Partnership, and Dean Nadasdy, senior pastor of Woodbury Lutheran Church, Frank Janssen, president of Venezuela Lutheran Mission Partnership (better known to children in Venezuela as "Paco el Payaso") and Frank's wife, Kathy.
After our last presentation at Woodbury, Phil Bickel, missions pastor at St. Michael's Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Minnesota, took us on a tour of Concordia University, St. Paul. There we had the chance to visit with Dr. Robert Holst, president of the university. Later in the evening, we met with children who had participated in this year's Christmas program at St. Michael's. They also gave us a donation that they had collected themselves. We were also able to meet with many of my old friends at St. Michael's, such as Dave and Jan Veith, Bob and Sandy Johnson, Lisa Brackmann, Todd Kreft, Ruth Meier, Milo Swanton, and Sarah and Jason Bjork. I had not seen the Bjorks since we went through 2003 volunteer orientation together and we had parted ways: Japan for the Bjorks, Venezuela for me. It was interesting to compare experiences of culture shock in Japan vs. culture shock in Venezuela.
During the dinner meeting, Sue Timmerman of the "Pampered Chef" cooking show prepared cachapas, a traditional Venezuelan corn-meal pancake. Luz Maria really enjoyed the meal.
Following our return to my mother's house from Minnesota, my mother drove us out to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where we spoke at Faith Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 10. The drive gave Luz Maria a chance to see a different part of the country, although the Smoky Mountains would have been even more beautiful in the summertime. My Uncle John and Aunt Julia are members of Faith Lutheran Church. Uncle John was an engineer in the Army and in private industry and they lived in various parts of the United States. However, they have retired to the area where Aunt Julia was born and raised, her father having been one of the scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was built as part of the "Manhattan Project".
Once again we spoke during adult Bible class hour and the people were very receptive and asked many questions. One lady was eager to share with us her experience as a short-term volunteer in Sierra Leone, Africa, after years of involvement with Laborers for Christ, an organization which allows volunteers to donate their time toward the construction of church-related facilities. It seems construction methods in Venezuela and Sierra Leone are very similar: throwing up walls of concrete or clay bricks and plastering them over with cement. Our thanks again to Pastor William Wagner for allowing us to make a presentation.
After returning from Tennessee, our next stop was Wichita, Kansas, where we made presentations at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Wichita and St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Cheney, Kansas, about a half-hour drive from Wichita. We had dinner the evening of December 12 with Jim and Edie Jorns and other board members of the Children's Christian Concern Society (CCCS), a Kansas-based Lutheran mission society that has supported our preschool in Barinas, as well as schools and preschools in Caracas, Maturin and Puerto Ordaz. For that matter, CCCS provides scholarships for needy children attending Christian schools in 12 countries besides Venezuela, including Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Mexico, Bolivia, Liberia, Chad, Nicaragua, Israel and Sierra Leone.
We learned of parallels between the Jorns' experiences and our own. Jim grew up on a farm in western Kansas and worked for a time as a vocational agriculture teacher. Then in 1964 he and Edie traveled to Guatemala to serve as agricultural missionaries. It was Jim's assignment to train Guatemalans in modern farming techniques. However, they soon discovered a great need for basic Christian education throughout Guatemala. Many children in remote vilages had no opportunity to attend schools of any kind. Jim and Edie organized CCCS in 1968 to support the building of the Lutheran Home for Students, a boarding school in Zacapa, Guatemala. The school, which started with 11 students, over the years has expanded to serve more than 70 children from 22 distinct areas of Guatemala from sixth grade through high school.
CCCS began building schools in other locations in Guatemala, Latin America and eventually the rest of the world. Today they are considering possiblities for projects in India, Ghana, Chile, Peru, Paraguay and Bangladesh.
It was also interesting to talk with Bill Ernsting, like myself a graduate of Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. A mutual acquaintance recently passed away: Dr. Gerald Tomanek, a world-renowned rangeland biologist and former president of Fort Hays State. Upon graduation, Bill and his wife spent two years managing a banana plantation in Honduras (where Bill learned Spanish) before returning the family farm in Kansas.
We also met Julie Atkinson, our CCCS liaison for La Caramuca, and her husband, Tim. Both are Twin Cities natives who have lived in central Kansas for five or six years.
The following morning we made our presentation before 250 children, kindergarten through eight grade, at chapel service at Holy Cross. I explained to them that once I lived on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, where in places you can see the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, but now I live on los Llanos Altos or the High Plains of Venezuela where the mountains you see on the horizon are the Andes. It is cattle country, much like Kansas, although with palm trees, wild parrots, giant iguanas and other things you do not find in Kansas. Wichita, with its population of 3,000, is only a little larger than Barinas, pop. 250,000. Likewise the town of Cheney, pop. 2,000, is only a little larger than La Caramuca, pop. 1,500. Luz Maria led the entire group in a Soanish song with a lot of arm and leg movements, almost like a dance.
We presented the same program later that morning at chapel service in Cheney. St. Paul's Lutheran School in Cheney has 50 children in its elementary school and 80 children in its preschool program. Principal Keith Jopp showed us around.
Then we had lunch with Marvin and Marilyn Barz, a retired pastor and his wife. It so happened that the pastor who officiated at their wedding was Alfred Ernst, my father's older brother. Since Pastor Barz had served parishes in Canada for more than 20 years, he was also familiar with Pastor Ted Krey, currently serving as a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod missionary in Venezuela, and Edmund Mielke, a former missionary to Venezuela and indeed, to Barinas. I had not realized it before, but the cross over the altar at Corpus Christi Lutheran Church in Barinas is modeled after the official symbol of the Lutheran Church of Canada.
After we returned from Kansas, the cancellation of our trip to Washington gave me time to get an Illinois driver's license to replace the Minnesota license I lost in Missouri. We were then able to borrow my mother's car and visit Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. There we visited Luz Guerrero, who served with us as a volunteer in Monagas, Venezuela, and came down with the team from Minnesota that helped us this past summer. She is now in the deaconess program at Concordia Seminary. Luz introduced us to Ruben Dominguez, a pastor trained at the Lutheran Seminary in Mexico City and now a professor at the Center for Hispanic Studies located at the St. Louis seminary. We also met another of Luz's friends, a young Ethiopian woman who has just started in the deaconess program. She and Luz talked about how wonderful it was to be in an environment where people of many languages and cultural backgrounds could gather to study the Word of God.
Then we stopped to see Richard and Maritza Schlak, former missionaries to Venezuela. We had some of their daughter's birthday cake and they invited us back on Monday for a devotion/Bible study they host for Spanish-speaking people at the seminary about once a month.
We flew back to Venezuela December 19, the day following Bible study at the Schlaks' home, and arrived in time to attend the wedding of Gregori Mireles and Neida Gonzales at El Salvador Lutheran Church. A group of young people traveled from Maracay to attend the wedding, too, including Eduardo Flores, his brother Rafael, and sisters Egnamar and Genesis. When I came to Maracay to study Spanish in 2003, Eduardo was already a young man (he was then 18), but his brother and sisters were still children. Now they are young adults, too. Time just slips away so fast.
Well, I hope I have not left anyone out. As you can see, we could not carry out our work in our little corner of the world without the help of family members and many international friends. God bless you all and have a merry Christmas.