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A day of celebration: St. Olaf Lutheran Church celebrate decade-long partnership with Sudanese congregation

Sunday afternoon was a celebration of two different cultural congregations united through the same faith at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church.

For a decade, St. Olaf’s has hosted two ministries that reflect the acceptance of diversity and integration within its doors between the English ministry and the Nuer South Sudanese Ministry. This was a major milestone for the church, as the members joined together inside the sanctuary to celebrate their friendship and their partnership. Highlighting Sunday’s service was the baptism of 17 Nuer children led by Pastor Simon Bol Choat, which was then followed by fellowship with partaking in a traditional Sudanese meal. Lead Pastor Mark Niethammer gave the blessing and sermon, while Pastor Madison Chelberg, pastor of faith formation, helped conduct Holy Communion.

Leadership all held a role in the celebration, making sure to show that they were visible and that they were working together to emphasize unity and highlighting the joint ministry that had been forged.

“Seeing 17 kids receive the gift of God’s grace is an amazing sight,” Niethammer said. “To see God choosing these little kids as his own, is so wonderful. This is a beautiful, festive day showing the breath of God’s creation and we’re excited to be a part of it.”

In the House of God, all were welcome, and they were not separate from one another. Instead, they were just simply brothers and sisters, which Niethammer found to be a true testament to God’s will as the partnership brought about a transformative experience for St. Olaf’s.

Pastor’s Simon Bol Choat and Nark Niethammer conduct services during a special Sunday celebration this past weekend for the Nuer South Sudanese Ministry. Photo courtesy of Kathy Chatelaine

“It’s been in some ways, a slow and challenging process,” Niethammer said. “Bringing together two completely different cultures brought some challenges and rough spots in relationships. Yet, we’ve experienced this growth in the ministry for up to four years, and it’s been beautiful and amazing to see this traditional side of the Lutheran congregation embrace our Nuer siblings.”

This integration brought along progress and change within the way worship is structured and how ministries are brought to the community. On Sunday mornings, there are two English ministry services held at 8:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., while the Nuer Sudanese ministry, conducted in Nuer, runs at 1 p.m.

During Wednesday nights, the congregation gathers to bring programming for their youth. Children from both ministries play together and learn about the Bible together. They’ve also had opportunities to share their cultures and enjoy some Sudanese meals. Likewise, the Nuer ministry sometimes joins the English ministry for their services.

This type of integration is not new for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). In Austin, other churches have also adopted multicultural ministries, such as Our Savior’s Lutheran Church hosting a service in the Anuak language and Grace Lutheran Church hosting a service in the Dinka language.

“We’re introducing our cultures with one another and share the joy of a multicultural community,” Niethammer said. “In this branch of Lutheranism, it’s common for what St. Olaf’s is doing. We’re welcoming other cultural worshipping practices, and hopefully, this becomes more and more common moving into God’s future. It’s good to recognize significant milestones such as this.”

As the congregation looks toward the future, it’s clear that by moving forward together, St. Olaf’s is a place where worship will reflect more of the communities that live in Austin.

That vision is something that Niethammer prays will be seen every day of the week, not just on a certain night.

“We’re hoping that in the future, the rest of the week will look like Wednesday night does,” he said. “Both cultures very visible and doing ministry together while learning together and worshipping together as one community.”