More than 3,000 Lutheran women from across the globe — from Nebraska to Namibia — descended on the Minneapolis Convention Center this week to share ideas on projects helping women and children and to build camaraderie among the faithful.
While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was a pioneer in women's advancement — ordaining women in 1970 and providing key leadership roles over the years — the rank and file also has been carving its own path in Lutheran service. That was clear at the triennial gathering of the Women of the ELCA running through Sunday. Mary Jo Mettler, for example, is a Pine City woman who led a project bringing Minnesota solar panels to a poor Liberian hospital. Sara Larson from outside Marshall was among those who coordinate shipments to Lutheran World Relief of items ranging from school supplies to new baby care packages.
"I've spent countless hours in the back of trucks, loading quilts, personal care kits and school kits for Lutheran World Relief," said Larson. "It's all these women, running to the store to buy this stuff, that makes this and other things happen."
A walk through the exhibit halls showed this was a different type of conference. One area had a dozen sewing machine stations, where women stopped during breaks to stitch sections of quilts for global disaster victims.
Another area held drop-off donation tables topped with things from socks to sweaters to toiletries. Other tables were staffed by nonprofits offering information and volunteer opportunities for projects supporting the poor and hungry.
Mettler chatted with folks near her exhibit showing a video of the solar panel installation this year at the hospital in Phebe, Liberia. It was a feat made possible thanks to the support of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance of Pine City and more than $300,000 in donations.
"I'd never done an international project," said Mettler, who learned of the hospital's dire electrical shortages during a visit to Liberia, which has a growing Lutheran population. "Now we're looking to do this at another hospital there."
Other women on her trip to Liberia did other things, Mettler added. One woman, for example, found a way to collect and send soccer balls to the country, she said. Another organized a Lego drive to send the popular toy there.
Some proceeds from a fundraiser at the conference will go to Mettler's project. Another slice will fund Cherish All Children, an anti-human trafficking campaign that was born in Minnesota Lutheran churches and is led by women. It trains hotel and restaurant workers to spot signs of trafficking, promotes "Safe Harbor" legislation that doesn't penalize the trafficking victims, and offers public education about the horrors of modern slavery.
The conference occurs as the world marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a benchmark noted by organizers who also arranged goofy photo ops with a cardboard cutout of church founder Martin Luther.
The conference participants said Lutheran women continue to do the bulk of everyday work inside their churches, as well as an expanding list of extraordinary things far beyond U.S. borders.
"Women have always played a big role in the Lutheran church," said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. "In my last parish, I was the pastor. The church secretary was a woman. The organist was a woman. The altar guild was led by women. Women had the kitchen."
But many of those women, including the globe-trotters, are now aging. A look around the convention center showed an average age of at least 50. Sensible shoes and pedal-pusher pants were the norm.
Aware of the demographics, the conference hosted a special event for the under-40 crowd. Women of the ELCA also has a blog and online forum for younger women, called boldcafe.org, with recent themes such as body image, life transitions and credit card debt.
Linda Post Bushkofsky, executive director of Women of the ELCA, acknowledges that it may not seem that women need a special convention, because opportunities within the church have become increasingly available.
"Even with all that has changed, women still want to gather and be with each other," she said. "It's community."