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Listening overcomes assumptions that can stymie justice

From ministries in education, churches and community organizations in the United States, South Africa and Namibia, the Rev. Tom Soeldner learned to ask questions and listen to people.

He is now in a three-year ministry of renewal at Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, walking with the congregation as it discerns its responsibility in its neighborhood.

Tom Soeldner
Tom Soeldner
For him, the central biblical message is the call to address poverty and prejudice—to care for the little ones: the poor, outcast, sick, disadvantaged, handicapped, children and widows.

Two blocks south of the church plans are underway to develop the 77-acre Summit Property north of the Spokane River and west of the Monroe St. Bridge with 1,000 to 1,500 new residences and half to 1.5 million square feet of commercial property.

It should provide more access to downtown, the Centennial Trail and Gorge Park, and may invite other up-scale developments, Tom said.

So he asks what it means for Christian ministry, for responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ.  How will it affect low-income folks in West Central or the rising poverty and hunger levels in Spokane?

“We need more humility as we face the problems, issues and injustices our neighbors face,” Tom said.

“The most important thing I learned in South Africa—something true here, too—is that to contribute to justice, mercy and the kingdom, we need to work with people not for people,” Tom said.

He calls for more than charity or service projects.  Instead, he calls for being with and listening to the neighbors, asking questions of those setting the agenda for the city and country and “recognizing the poor as the children of God, people with dignity and power given by God,” he said.

There is always a place for service, but service alone does not correct problems we face.  Only when we are with people will important issues of our time be addressed,” he said, pointing out that Jesus stood with people in their needs and struggles.

“If we pay attention at all, we will recognize how little we know and how much we need to learn,” he continued.

 “In our home space, it’s easy to assume we know all.  In a strange place where all is different, it becomes graphic how little we know and how much we need to be with people without acting like we have the answers,” he said from his experience in South Africa.

Tom is concerned that some Americans, learning about the Middle East or Africa through media—which give only a piece of the picture—think they know more than people living there.

“We can’t know root causes of what is beneath the surface of thousands of daily humiliations, including how hard it is for many South African and Namibian blacks just to get water.  We have no notion unless we are there,” he said.  “Tragically, white South Africans did not know either, because they were so isolated from the black community.”

He finds that similar isolation in the United States leads to a lack of awareness and a rush to simple answers.

The son and grandson of Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors, living in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, Tom followed a pre-theology/pre-teaching path through high school and early college in Concordia, Mo., then to Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Ind., earning a bachelor’s degree in classical languages and sociology.  After seminary in St. Louis, he went on to earn a master’s in education at Union Seminary and the Presbytery School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va., in 1970.

He moved to Edmonds, Wash., as pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church and principal of its elementary school. 

Three months after he was called in 1976 to be pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Port Townsend, he left the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, then in turmoil.  The congregation asked him to stay and six months later he and the church joined the American Lutheran Church (ALC).

Until 1984, he did small town ministry, tended a large garden, built a log cabin and backpacked with his wife and four children in the Olympics.

Wanting his family to experience a different culture and the congregation to make wider ministry connections, he talked with the ALC foreign mission division.  In January 1985, they began two years in Johannesburg, where he worked with an African pastor serving five African-language congregations of domestic workers and migrant factory and mine workers. 

Tom began outreach to the white community and served an English-language congregation of 100 blacks, whites and mixed-race people.  He also worked with the South Africa Council of Churches to establish a sanctuary program for township people threatened with detention, visited people in detention and took some student leaders into his family’s home in the white area of Johannesburg.

After two years, he accepted an invitation to work with the Methodist Church of Southern Africa’s social ministries department.  He continued that three-year commitment through affiliation with the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in the United States.

He led the development of the church’s Ubulungisa—Justice—program in Namibia and South Africa, through which he trained local church and community leaders in community organizing methods to identify the social and political issues, discuss their causes, do theological analysis and decide what individual and community actions were needed.

His involvements led to two arrests, serving as a buffer between police and mourners at funerals, and later being an international observer of the first election after apartheid in South Africa. 

Tom and his family experienced states of emergency and times of dangers that “made me realize the danger blacks faced daily under apartheid,” he said.

After they returned to the United States in 1989, Tom felt drawn back and explored possibilities for returning. 

The Namibian church asked him to help establish an English-speaking congregation in Windhoek and provide continuing education of church workers in Namibia.  The Center for Global Education in Augsburg College in Minneapolis also asked him to organize study seminars for U.S. church and education leaders to see what was happening after apartheid.  He led 12 seminars from 1990 to 1994.

In his second year, he filled a vacancy at Paulinum Lutheran Seminary in the desert two hours from Windhoek, so he was away two days a week. 

Because of marital and family issues, the church brought Tom and his family back to Seattle in 1993. He returned alone later in 1993 to set up an overseas semester for Augsburg College. 

In 1994 after divorcing, he began four years as with Seattle Lutheran High School. While there, he re-evaluated his calling, choosing to move from education  into interim ministry, using his experience working with institutions in transition.

So a series of interim ministries followed—Spanaway, Lind and Sprague, Christ Lutheran in the Spokane Valley and First Lutheran at Ellensburg.

From people in West Central Spokane and from the church having the office for Voices for Opportunity, Income, Child Care, Education and Support (VOICES), Tom has learned that low-income people know things he has no notion about.

He focuses on listening and doing ministry with a congregation already sharing in community ministry with such programs as Our Place, Christ Clinic, Christ Kitchen, Anna Ogden Hall, Youth for Christ, Jubilee Community Housing, the Shalom Book Club and the Lutheran Book Parlor.

Our Place is a cooperative outreach of St. Joseph’s Catholic, Westminster Presbyterian, St. Paul’s United Methodist and Salem Lutheran churches to provide emergency assistance and promote healthier community. 

The Lutheran Book Parlor is a drop-in center in a house by the church, where neighborhood people come for coffee, rest, shelter, a listening place, a place to study community issues and discover their responsibility as Christians. It also provides theological reading resources.

The congregation supports and encourages Jubilee Community and Housing Ministries to provide housing opportunities for low-income people, shared housing and Christian community.

Six months ago, Tom helped initiate West Central Christian Ministries Leader Forum through which pastors and lay leaders gather monthly for Bible study, prayer, mutual support and community action.

“We are exploring our responsibility to reach out to new people so they will connect with people who live here now.  In that way, we hope to assure that the new development in West Central builds relationships and promotes justice for the neighborhood,” he said.

For information, call 328-6280.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © April 2005