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Members of Bethel Lutheran visit sister church in Tanzania

Nineteen members of Hudson's Bethel Lutheran Church delivered a state-of-the-art sound system to a sister church in the African country of Tanzania last month.

They pooled their unspent travel money at the end of the two-week visit and also bought 10 bicycles and a used car for the church staff to use.

But the Rev. Joanne Sorenson says the Americans gained just as much from the trip as their African brothers and sisters.

"What I took away from them was their wealth of spiritual awareness and depth of faith," Sorenson said in an interview last Thursday.

The group from Bethel Lutheran left March 4 for Iringa, Tanzania, a city of between 200,000 and 300,000, located 250 miles inland from the Indian Ocean. They flew from Minneapolis to Chicago to Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania, and then rode eight hours by bus into the highlands to Iringa.

A welcoming party of 100 or more members of Cathedral Lutheran Church of Iringa met them on the outskirts of the city.

"We got off the bus and they had a line-up of people to shake our hands and sing. People were singing to us and dancing and waving branches," Sorenson recalled. "I kept looking around for the king and queen, but they weren't there. It was just us. It was incredible. We just sort of stood there looking dumbfounded."

A second welcoming party, including a choir of 60 children, was there to greet them when they arrived at the church.

The sister church relationship between Bethel Lutheran and Cathedral Lutheran started in the past year at the prompting of Gary and Kit Elert.

The Elerts had visited Tanzania earlier with a different group of Lutherans. When they joined Bethel a couple of years ago, they asked the asked the Hudson church to consider forming a partnership with the church in Iringa, and offered to provide the initial funds to establish it.

The partnership is part of a sister church program run by the St. Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

After learning that Cathedral Lutheran needed a loudspeaker system, Bethel's congregation held a couple of fund-raisers and came up with the money to buy one.

The purpose of the recent trip was to deliver the sound system and deepen the relationship between the two churches.

"We packed it up and carted this thing across several continents," Sorenson said of the sound system. "Everyone had a box. Every piece arrived, miraculously."

Following the instruction manuals that came with it, members of Bethel Lutheran spent a day installing the sound system in the church. It consisted of a control panel, 10 wireless microphones and four large speakers that were mounted at the front and sides of the sanctuary.

"It worked great," Sorenson reported. "They were so excited. They couldn't believe it."

The Sunday that the Bethel members attended services at Cathedral Lutheran a youth group used the microphones to sing a song while they performed a choreographed dance.

"It looked like they were having so much fun. It was neat to see that happen," said Sorenson.

African Lutherans worship differently than Scandinavian American Lutherans, the Hudson group learned.

"There is a format to it. There is kind of a liturgy. But it's not like ours," Sorenson said of the services at Cathedral Lutheran. She said the African church had a worship book containing hymns and liturgy in Swahili that it followed occasionally, but much of the worship appeared to be extemporaneous.

"It's very different from anything here, that's all I can say," she said with a laugh. "It's their own thing. They had six choirs and it seemed like they all sang all the time ... They worship with their whole selves - singing and dancing and more singing and dancing and more. It just goes on and on and on."

Like Bethel, Cathedral Lutheran holds three worship services on Sundays. But each service lasts about two hours. The Hudson group arrived for the first service at 7 a.m. and didn't leave the church until 2 p.m.

The visitors stayed in a three-floor hotel with flush toilets, a rarity in that part of Africa.

The hotel was old, but adequate, Sorenson said. The electricity wasn't dependable, but they had been forewarned and brought flashlights to cope with the outages.

Throughout the week, the Bethel members met with the leadership of the church to learn about how it operates. They also visited schools, orphanages, a clinic, a village church and archeological site where Stone Age tools and weapons have been found.

Tanzania has a lot of orphanages because so many children have lost their parents to AIDS, Sorenson noted.

In the evenings, the Bethel members were dinner guests at homes of Cathedral Lutheran elders. The meals were good and nearly identical - rice, chicken, peas, spinach and bananas, cooked in ways and with spices Sorenson hadn't tasted before.

Every meal came with bananas, she said. "Mashed bananas, cooked bananas, sliced bananas, fresh bananas. Always bananas."

Near the end of their visit, they went on a two-and-a-half-day safari to Ruaha National Park, a 150-square-mile wildlife refuge about 50 miles outside of Iringa.

They toured the park in Land Rovers by day, seeing all manner of African animals. At night, they dined at candle-lit tables set in a riverbed gone dry because of a long drought.

An elephant sauntered past as they ate one evening.

In their farewell meeting with the leaders of Cathedral Lutheran, the group from Bethel was presented with a list of the African church's goals and needs. The list included a bicycle for the church's seven evangelists who often had to walk long distances to outlying meeting places.

The church of some 4,000 members also said it would like to have a car for its two pastors and other workers.

The Bethel members figured out how much money they had saved by having their meals provided, and as a result of lower than expected hotel rates, and decided to use the saving to help meet their sister church's transportation needs.

"We called them back into the room and told them, and you would have thought they had won the lottery," Sorenson said. "Everyone was whooping and hollering and jumping."

"We went down the street to the little bicycle shack and bought 10 bicycles that day." And there still was enough money to order a used car.

It arrived last week, and a church member e-mailed a picture of it to Sorenson.

"I'm sure they're overwhelmed with all the stuff we brought them," Sorenson said. "But I look at them as being the wealthy folks."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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