International Work

Making Empty Lives Full

A new seminary in the Dominican Republic is preparing men to spread the Gospel, plant Lutheran churches and show mercy throughout the region.

“I was living the [good] life, living in the moment,” Marcelo Rivas recalled. “But at the end of every day, I felt the same thing: I’m empty. I wanted to believe, but in what?”

That’s when Vania caught his eye in a university class in Talca, Chile. She invited him to go to church with her.

He was intrigued to learn that Vania attended a Lutheran church. As a history buff, Rivas knew the story of Martin Luther, but he thought that the Reformation ended with Luther’s death.

He went to church with her the next Sunday and kept returning to hear God’s Word, discovering that the Lutheran church exists, even in Chile.

The Lutheran church came to Talca in 2010, following a massive earthquake and tsunami that shattered the region and destroyed Vania’s house. Just two weeks prior to the earthquake, Vania’s mother died.

It was too much for her; all alone, she considered suicide.

“The day after the earthquake, the Lutheran church came to Talca,” Vania told Rivas, as she explained how she came into the church. “The pastors started to organize and help the people. At the end of each day, they also prayed with the people.”

The Lutherans were there to stay. They planted a church, sending a young pastor to Talca. Pastor Omar Kinas and his new congregation cared for Vania, providing tangible help and the Gospel of salvation.

Now, God was using Vania to share the Gospel with Rivas as the two fell in love.

“It sounds strange,” said Rivas, “but that same year, I also fell in love with Christ.”

He studied theology every day. As he did, others noticed his growing involvement in the church. Family and fellow parishioners encouraged him to become a pastor.

Convinced he was too old, Rivas could not sleep at night, tossing and turning as he wrestled with the idea.

One day, he said to his pastor, “Is there an age to be a pastor?”

“Yes, there is an age,” said the quick-witted pastor. “The age is to be alive.”

Kinas knew that there were scholarships available for men like Rivas to attend a regional seminary. He contacted the Rev. Ted Krey, regional director for LCMS mission work in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the pieces fell together.

Marcelo Rivas (center) and his fellow seminarians chat after class in October in the Dominican Republic.

Made Possible by Partnerships

At the same time God was working in Rivas’ life, Krey and his team were working to move the regional seminary to the Dominican Republic in order to better serve LCMS partner churches in Central and South America.

Krey knows firsthand that one of the challenges facing the region is a lack of pastors, which impedes church-planting efforts.

This past fall, seven years after Vania’s invitation to church, Rivas and his family moved from Chile to the mountain village of Palmar Arriba, Dominican Republic, to attend Concordia Reformer Lutheran Seminary and Mercy Center. He is part of its very first class, along with other students from Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

“The Lord works through partnerships,” said seminary director and missionary Rev. Joel Fritsche, who eagerly shares how Latin American partner churches joined with LCMS congregations, districts, laypeople and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. These partners pooled their vital expertise, willing hands and plentiful resources to ensure the Gospel will be proclaimed in Latin America.

The seminary occupies a small portion of a building that also serves as a day school, a regional mercy center and a congregation. Nearby stand two other facilities made possible by similar partnerships: Next door is a group home for disabled children, and on the mountainside above sits the dormitory for the single seminary students.

Top: Two photos of the seminary — under construction in March 2017 and full of students and teachers in October. Below: Concordia Reformer Lutheran Seminary and Mercy Center.

Talking About Jesus

“We are very diverse,” said missionary pastor and professor Rev. David Preus, referring to both the students and the faculty of the new seminary.

The average age of the students — who come from different economic, geographic and educational backgrounds — is about 23. At 42, Rivas is the “old one.”

The instructors include Fritsche, Preus, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Naumann and Venezuelan pastor Rev. Sergio Maita. They are sometimes joined by guest professors and pastors from the U.S. and Latin America.

As part of their preparation, the students will return to their home countries for vicarage to scope out a location for a mission plant.

“That’s an emphasis here at the seminary, to train these students to plant churches so when they go back [as pastors] they can do that,” Preus said.

Above: Missionary pastor and professor Rev. David Preus teaches at Concordia Reformer Lutheran Seminary and Mercy Center. Below: A seminarian leads daily chapel at the center.

In addition to studying theology and learning how to preach and lead a worship service, the men participate in hands-on mercy work and visitation in Palmar Arriba. “The folks here [in Palmar Arriba] live with their extended families all around them. They are a community, always depending on each other and helping each other out,” Preus explained. “Beyond the worship service, we know where to find our members and we know we are going to be welcomed in their homes. You just show up, and the chairs come out and you’re in the middle of a visit.

“You need to talk about Jesus not just in the pulpit, but also on the threshold of a house, over a meal, wherever you may find yourself,” he continued.

“The [seminary] curriculum is based on a model of what a pastor in Latin America ought to be,” Preus said. “He ought to be a teacher, an evangelist and a pastor.” Like seminarians across the globe, the men study God’s Word in the original languages, pore over the Lutheran Confessions, and learn to preach and care for people in body and soul.

Seminarians walk to class from the dormitory on the hill overlooking the new seminary and mercy center.

Rescuing People from Death

“Our seminary preparation of pastors echoes that of our regional emphasis: spread the Gospel, plant Lutheran churches and show mercy,” Krey said. “It is our earnest desire that these young men would be zealous evangelists, loving shepherds and clear teachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”

Before they feel ready, these students, including Rivas, will return home to “talk about Jesus.”

“I never thought that I would, by the grace of God, be studying to share Christ to the rest of the world, not by my power, but as a tool, to rescue people from death,” Rivas said.

Out of emptiness, loss and disaster, the Church brought Christ to Rivas. Now he will bring Christ to his fellow countrymen. Prayers answered. People rescued from sin, death and the devil on the mission field. Thanks be to God!

Watch daily chapel at the new seminary and mercy center.

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Pray with Us

Lord of heaven and earth, Your Son took on the very nature of a servant and became subject to death on a cross for our salvation. Bless all those who proclaim this saving Gospel and all who study to become proclaimers of this Good News, that all who hear may trust in Christ for salvation. We thank You for the work of Concordia Reformer Lutheran Seminary and Mercy Center and all the mission opportunities in Latin America. May all be drawn to the cross of Christ, to be filled with Your grace and mercy, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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