NALS Student Serves in New Zealand
You might not think of becoming a short-term missionary in the middle of your seminary education. After all, doesn’t the average student spend most of her time swamped with essays and Greek parsings? How could living abroad—and missing an entire semester—even work out in the grand scheme of graduate school?
Here at the North American Lutheran Seminary, though, if God has placed a calling on your life, we will strive to make seemingly impossible things happen. Deanna Edwards, a middler MDiv student at the NALS, had known for a few years that the Lord was calling her to mission work. “‘You’re going to go,’ he said to me,” she said. “And I said, ‘Alright God, in three years, we’ll talk about it.’” Much to her surprise, when introduced to the Anglican missions-sending organization SAMS during a class one day, she realized that God was saying go now. “I picked up SAMS’ card, and I was reading it as I was walking through the library, and I stopped and turned around and walked back because it was just everything that I had wanted out the experience.” Within a few weeks, Edwards was tentatively assigned to a placement in Zambia and had already begun to fall in love with that country when SAMS called her and said that the missionary partnership had fallen through. “‘You could still go,’ they said, ‘but you’d be on your own.’” And at that point, they asked, “How do you feel about New Zealand?” Ironically enough for Edwards, her first choice had been to work with a missionary couple based in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Edwards said yes to New Zealand. She would spend three months there, helping to launch a gap-year program for area high schoolers and working with the Anglican Diocese of Wellington on various projects.
Those rhythms—the silence, speech, and song of the Daily Office—played a vital role during Edwards’ time in New Zealand. Only a few weeks into her trip, a terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch. At the time, Edwards was helping with a conference at the Ngatiawa River Monastery. “I was there early that day to set up,” she said, “and we heard about the shooting. I have never felt that kind of emotion so tangibly. Once people started to hear about it, you could just see the pain on their faces. This was the first major shooting New Zealand has ever had. Over 40 were killed. They had no idea how to wrap their heads around it. They had no idea how to grieve it. They were at a loss.” Edwards recalls how the conference organizers stopped the scheduled sessions and set up space to sit and pray or talk with designated counselors. They made room for the speechlessness of grief, giving 10 or 15 minutes of silence during the Daily Offices. “I just sat there in that space and prayed, ‘God, what is going on?’ And I felt an overwhelming peace, where I knew this wasn’t right but also knew that God’s in it and he’s got it.” And when the silence ended, the worshipers weren’t left to try and come up with something to say about the tragedy that had just occurred. Rather, they had the words of Scripture in doxological form. “When you don’t know what to say,” Edwards said, “the liturgy is always there.”
Stepping off the plane in Wellington, Edwards said that the first thing to hit her was the “smell of salty ocean mingled with the most amazing food you could ever buy. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. Jaw-dropping.” Within five days, Edwards was installed with a group of six teenage girls and a missionary couple who had all committed to spending a 10-month gap year together, living as a community, and studying various topics from urban poverty to climate change—all through the rhythms of a Christian life.
The NALS’ emphasis on the Daily Offices as spiritual formation gave Edwards the ability to process—as much as one can process such a tragedy—the mass shooting that took place in Christchurch that day. If not for that formation, she said, “I would have been asking, ‘Why am I doing this? What’s going on here?’” But instead, Edwards was able to lean into the shape liturgy gives human life and grieve with her brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing all the while that God is both good and sovereign.
The interplay between community and liturgy—and the opportunity to work with young people who are at that stage in life when they are asking hard questions—has helped Edwards discern the shape the next years of her life will take. “Definitely campus ministries,” she said. “Chaplaincy. Being on campus with college students, who are asking, ‘How can you be a Christian and also be part of the world?’” Having someone to talk through the questions that life in this world brings up—whether they are as seemingly simple as where should I move after graduation or as mind-numbingly complex as why would God allow mass shootings to happen—was monumental for Edwards. Her time in New Zealand and her formation at the NALS has clarified God’s call on her life, giving her the passion and the skills to build godly community—and for that, we praise God.