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Synod companions practice, experience ubuntu

Heidi Cryer finds empowerment in ties with Lutheran diocese in Tanzania.

By Mary Stamp

Because of the companion relationship between the Northwest Intermountain (NWIM) Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Ulanga-Kilombero Diocese (UKD) in Tanzania, the theme for the April 28 to 30 Synod Assembly in Pasco is a Swahili phrase, "Bega Kwa Bega," which means "shoulder-to-shoulder."

It expresses how people within area congregations and between the synod and diocese share in ministry.

They practice "ubuntu," an understanding that "I am because you are. What happens to me affects you. What happens to you affects me," said Heidi Cryer, who is chair of the Synod Companion Synod Committee. "It is an understanding of compassion, being together, walking together and living together."

Sometimes, however, U.S. politics has impeded visits of Tanzanian companion diocese leaders. Recently the U.S. embassy denied visas to the bishop's assistant and a nurse who had planned to come to the assembly and visit in the region.

Bishop Kristen Kuempel of the NWIM Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Bishop Renard Mtenji of the Ulanga Kilombero Diocese wrote letters to the U.S. embassy to express the importance of face-to-face visits to nurture relationships.

The embassy then granted a visa to another UKD leader, Philorian Mpendaye, the general secretary of the UKD, said Heidi, who is also deacon at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Kennewick.

The Ulanga and Kilombero districts are in South Central Tanzania. The Ulanga and Kilombero rivers meet at Ifakara, the diocesan headquarters.

Heidi said it's a poor rural area where 90 to 95 percent of the people are subsistence farmers. There are few tourists, so synod visitors are among the few white people the Tanzanians see.

"Ulanga-Kilombero has been our companion synod/diocese since 1988 when the American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America and Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches merged to form the ELCA," said Heidi. "The new church reassigned previous companions to connect U.S. churches with churches in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe."

In the early 1990s, Bishop Robert Keller visited Tanzania for the then Eastern Washington Idaho (EWAID) Synod.

Former UKD Bishop Abel Mwambungu visited in the mid 1990s and stayed a year to study at Seattle University and Trinity Lutheran College.

In 1999, his first year as EWAID bishop, Martin Wells joined a synod trip to Tanzania.

In 2001, Philorian came for 64 days to teach in Bonners Ferry schools and visit synod churches.

Then Ezekial Mwambungu spent a year as an intern at Grace Lutheran Church in Wenatchee.

The NWIM Synod has two projects there, the Lugala Lutheran Hospital and the Tumaini Seminary and Secondary School in Malinyi, 100 kilometers from Ifakara. It trains lay pastors and teaches high school students.

In 2008, Heidi first went to Tanzania with Mark Nelson, bishop's assistant, and the late Marj Nishek of Bonners Ferry, then companion synod chair. They were there eight days for the installation of Bishop Mtenji.

From January to March 2009, Heidi took a sabbatical to teach English and Christian education at Tumaini School.

Heidi went with a group of 12 in 2010, and with five in 2013 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of founding the Lutheran Church in Tanzania.

In 2018, she joined a meeting with partners of the diocese from Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. A 2020 trip was canceled because of COVID.

Visitors have come from Tanzania six times.

Heidi grew up Lutheran in Bend, Ore. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, took a call in Southern California when she was in fifth grade. After studying from 1976 to 1978 at Pacific Lutheran University, she worked in insurance before completing her food science degree in 1984 at California State University Northridge.

She continued in insurance after marrying in 1984. After two daughters were born in 1987 and 1990, she felt called to ministry.

"I did not want to be a pastor," she said, "but at a synod assembly I learned I could be a deacon."

In 1990, she began working part time at her church, Christ Lutheran at Santa Clarita near Los Angeles. She took courses in religion at Cal State Northridge, in a summer program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary at Berkeley and with online courses with Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1994 she became an associate in ministry at First Lutheran in Tacoma. She was ordained as a deacon in 1996, while serving four years from 1995 to 1999 in ministry with her family at Holden Village. She was registrar three years and then program coordinator. Her husband, Dan, who has worked in insurance, construction and management, was head carpenter.

She was then called as deacon at Lord of Life Lutheran in Kennewick. Her role includes worship leadership, youth and servant mission coordinator.

Her involvement in the companionship with Ulanga-Kilombero has informed her approach to multigenerational church summer mission projects in the Dominican Republic, Appalachia, Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, Downtown Denver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.

"We model walking in accompaniment with people," Heidi said. "We do light construction, painting, servant learning and other projects. We do not come in with our solutions but do their solutions. We do not pretend we know what they need.

"Often, white North Americans think we know the solutions to the problems of other people," she said. "We need to work in their systems and understandings."

Heidi learned from Tanzania. When the hospital needed an X-ray machine, synod churches bought and shipped one there. When it broke, no one could repair it. It sits unused in a hospital room because it cannot be disposed of safely.

"We should have sent funds for them to buy an X-ray machine there that would support their economy and could be fixed there," Heidi said. "Now we buy soccer balls there and employ local people to build buildings with local materials."

When a Lord of Life group went to Tecate, Mexico, to paint, they expected to throw away the paint brushes, but the people kept them to clean for reuse.

"While many Tanzanian youth may want to be like U.S. teens, our teens can learn from the community and mutual support they have," Heidi said. "Their understanding of time includes valuing being present with people."

She has appreciated the hospitality of being fed plentiful food by people who sacrifice to serve her. She accepts their hospitality graciously.

In Ulanga-Kilombero, Heidi feels she is in "a thin space," a space where God is close, and the Divine is in the midst of the people of faith and their daily economic struggles.

A photo on her wall shows several students, who are the children of subsistence farmers. She met  the students in 2009. Floods and famine since then have taken the lives of some.

Heidi feels God's presence as people sing and praise God despite their hardships.

While the companionship relationship is about more than financial assistance, the synod has helped fund the school and hospital, and has helped build an assembly/dining hall, a library and a wall around the school.

Synod women offer scholarships for girls to go to Tumaini school. Families often send sons, who then stay in the city and send funds home.

"If you educate a girl, you educate the community, because girls are likely to come back to educate their community," said Heidi, who is on the scholarship committee.

"Aware that ELCA churches in the U.S. are shrinking, while churches there are growing fast, I value that the relationship is primarily about mutual support and prayer," said Heidi, who carries with her the power of the people singing, praising and moving during long worship services.

After COVID stopped the 2020 visit, they began sharing worship videos.

The bishop's assistant Moses Nuaka visited in 2017 and 2019, and since then he has posted regularly on Facebook about people and events, progress building the wall, the new maize crop and the crop that failed last year. His Facebook presence expands the companion ties to many in the synod.

For information, call 539-0449 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023