Traces of the old tile pattern still darken the stained concrete floor at Christ Lutheran, but they don’t distract much from the surface’s overall look — that of parched, cracked earth. It’s in sharp contrast to the sanctuary, which is dominated by a mosaic depicting a bountiful orchard, nourished by a stream flowing from the foot of the elevated cross. The “stream” flows under the sanctuary table, down the stairs, and out along the central aisle of the church. “...And everything lives where the river goes,” explains a page at the back of the worship guide, quoting Ezekiel. “This water of life is the grace of God, which flows from the holy center of our hearts into a life of service for our neighbors. God fills us and sends us as a river of people into a thirsty world.”
Sunday’s liturgy provided a literal (and material) example of that intention to give drink to the thirsty — in this case, Rwandan orphans, the “Children of the Road” whose families were destroyed by the genocidal upheaval in 1994. “Beyond the boundaries of race or nation, in Christ You make of us brothers, sisters all,” proclaimed the Call to Worship. The Scripture reading, taken from John’s first letter, made this familial connection a bond of love: “We love because He first loved us.... Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And the Gospel, taken from Matthew 25, made the love of one’s neighbor into an act of love for God: “When the Son of Man comes in glory...He will say...‘I was hungry and you gave me food...I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me.... Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
This is why, when Reverend Paul Oas introduced the film that served as the sermon, he said, “We told the kids, ‘We’re not bringing Jesus to you — we’re finding Him in you.’” Dr. Jim Hall, a congregant, made the film during a 2007 visit to the El Shaddai orphanage in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. The orphanage was started by a soldier who witnessed the devastation wrought upon the Rwandan children, and Christ Lutheran serves as one of its supporters.
What began as a makeshift refuge in an abandoned warehouse has gradually been built up into something substantial and sustaining for some 400 orphans. The film documented the life of the orphanage — the older boys cooking great pots of mash over an open fire, clothes hung on junked cars to dry after washing, school, sewing, and recreation. (The play was the most affecting — Bantu singing and dancing, children keeping a balloon aloft with their fingertips.) And it highlighted recent improvements: water filters, dental and medical exams, and therapy for children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the film, Tim Botsko of the Rwandan Orphans Project gave a detailed account of those improvements. Botsko and his partners have worked to integrate the El Shaddai community into the larger life of Kigali, and also to improve life within the orphanage. The orphanage breeds rabbits for food and has built their cages above a pond, so that their droppings will nourish populations of catfish and tilapia. The children have uniforms, which help to provide a sense of identity and community. Morale has improved, in part due to donated soccer uniforms — the orphans formed a team and managed to beat some of the neighboring schools. “We have really progressed and that could not have happened without the support of Christ Lutheran Church.”
The deep emphasis on the love of neighbor showed through in the Communion service, characterized as a “Meal of thanksgiving” in the prayer guide. The prayer over the gifts began, “Blessed are You, O God.... You have blessed us with Your goodness. You have given us our selves, our time, and our possessions. May these gifts be used in the care and healing of all that You have made.” And in the Sending Song at the end of the service — a South African tune featuring lead pastor Richard Rollefson on an African drum — the congregation sang, “Christ the lord to us said, I am wine, I am bread/ I am wine, I am bread, give to all who thirst and hunger.”
What happens when we die?
“Our understanding is focused on the resurrection of Christ,” said Rollefson. “So, we believe that ‘neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ [Romans 8].’ We believe that God’s love continues to reach out to us even beyond death.”
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Address: 4761 Cass Street, Pacific Beach, 858-483-2300
Founded locally: 1947
Senior pastor: Richard Rollefson
Congregation size: about 550
Staff size: 9
Sunday school enrollment: 10
Annual budget: $600,000
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: not formally
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes (longer than usual, due to special presentation)