God is sending workers into His harvest fields through the Livonian Lutheran Project, an online program based in Latvia that provides theological education in English.
“The Lord did not suspend His missionary endeavors because a pandemic had broken out,” noted the Rev. Dr. John Bombaro, missionary to Latvia and assistant to the regional director of the LCMS Office of International Mission’s Eurasia region. “We needed to adjust on the fly so that men and women could be trained for church work and pastors could be trained for church planting and service in existing churches.”
“Europe has become so secularized that our students are considered more-than-just-strange for their desire to study biblical theology for the purpose of becoming pastors,” the Rev. Dr. Charles Cortright, missionary and theological educator in Riga, Latvia, wrote in a recent newsletter. “The misconceptions about Christ and Christianity they hear are mind-boggling.”
The need is real, the opportunities abound, and God is sending workers into His harvest field, whenever and wherever He directs.
Men and women from Pakistan, Italy, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Ukraine join those in Latvia as students of the Luther Academy in Riga, even though travel to Riga is impossible. These classmates watch online sessions from their separate locales, taught by professors living on two continents. Time zones and internet access now play a prominent role in accessing their classes.
None of this was planned a year ago. The Luther Academy, the seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), a partner church of the LCMS, was set to open with students and professors in the same room. Bombaro and Cortright were called to serve as theological educators for the LCMS Office of International Mission. They both moved to Riga in early 2020, eager to teach at the seminary and train men and women for service in the church. But, as with everything in 2020, those plans changed quickly.
A Few Things Remained, Everything Else Changed
In-person classes were soon canceled, since travel to Riga was out of the question and gatherings were prohibited. Bombaro and Cortright immediately worked to figure out how to move forward with their plan to provide theological education. Online classes appeared to be the most obvious and feasible solution. Bombaro and his family moved back to the U.S. to coordinate the necessary work with partners in the U.S., while Cortright and his wife, Connie, stayed in Latvia to work with the people there and continue the LCMS presence in Riga.
Latvia has deep roots in Lutheranism. As early as 1523, Latvians read Luther’s writings, sent by Johannes Bugenhagen, and embraced the Reformation Gospel. Now, many desire to return to their Christian roots, and the LCMS is working with the LELB to provide theological education by LCMS missionaries who have the academic credentials to teach at the seminary level. This new effort, called the Livonian Lutheran Project, now operates in conjunction with the Luther Academy.
Bombaro and Cortright originally went to Latvia as an answer to the Luther Academy’s request to the LCMS to obtain accreditation as a professional Bachelor of Theology program for pastoral students. This was a change from the Luther Academy’s current accreditation under the European Union from a strictly academic degree to a professional degree. Along with this change, a professional B.Th. in English would be offered under the same accreditation, due to the increase of English as a desired and useful language in Latvia and throughout Eurasia.
No one wanted to abandon the project, even though physical gathering now proved impossible. The most obvious solution lay online and in English. This combination allowed people to take classes who could not otherwise receive this robust theological education. Yet, no one knew how online theological education would be received.
Cortright (right) recalled, “I suggested we offer an online, not-for-credit, no-obligation Introduction to Theology course in the fall of 2020 to serve the men we had heard from in the Czech Republic, Italy and Romania.
But when the LELB advertised it via their database, we heard from many more people.” Among those was a group of Pakistani Christians who were interested in beginning an authentic Lutheran ministry in Pakistan. When the class launched in September, students attended from 14 different time zones and in various countries, including Latvia, Ireland, Russia and Pakistan.
This introductory class served as a trial to judge the interest in the program and to learn how best to teach online. Cortright and Bombaro decided that one would teach the course, and the other would be active in the chat, interacting with students and helping the professor keep abreast of the students’ needs and questions. This arrangement allowed both professors to get to know the students and to utilize their unique gifts for the benefit of the students.
“Our students come from a wide variety of different places. We didn’t have an established marketing system with which to conscript students, but what we did have was years and years of faithful missionaries in the field who had contacts,” explained Bombaro. “Those personal contacts yielded a lot more fruit than we had anticipated. … We would have deemed it a success if we could have netted four students last fall. Through our contacts we had 47, which was an absolute boon, and it communicated to us that there was a fantastic opportunity to be exploited here as students come from a whole host of different places.”
This initial positive reaction strengthened Bombaro and Cortright’s desire to offer a full curriculum online for the Livonian Lutheran Project. Bombaro worked with Concordia University Irvine, Irvine, Calif., to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding to use their existing curriculum. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, graciously provides IT support, especially through the Rev. William Johnson, and the LCMS International Center provides access to Zoom accounts for the professors.
“To accomplish missions in the 21st century, we have to be as flexible and as cunning as the Lord will demand given the circumstances,” said Bombaro. “We had to break out of old paradigms to seize the opportunity. There is now an inherent flexibility that needs to be part of mission opportunities.”
The online program not only allows students to attend who could not otherwise join the classes in Riga, but it also provides opportunity to support ongoing mission efforts in other nations. Along with a number of Latvian students, students have joined from Italy, where LCMS missionaries are working and where preaching stations exist but do not have pastors. The need and desire for strong and doctrinally pure pastoral formation is great.
“None of this would be happening apart from the online format,” explained Cortright.
“Our students in the EU mostly work and would not be able to attend anything like a residential program, even if it was for short, intensive periods (e.g., two weeks). Costs would exceed their ability in most cases as well, but COVID makes all that moot as travel is not permitted. Our Pakistanis would be even less able to participate.”
Sacrifice and Martyrdom
“A number of our students are poised to replace pastors who have been literally killed for serving Christ,” said Bombaro. Sixteen of the students are from Pakistan — 15 of whom are training to be pastors, along with one deaconess student. Their training prepares them for the work of planting churches or to assist congregations who have lost their pastor, sometimes due to violent persecution.
“We have less fear of Muslims than false teaching churches in Pakistan,” noted a Pakistani student. Due to the time difference, some of the classes start around 10 or 11 p.m. in Pakistan, which means the students are up until 2 or 3 a.m. The men training for ministry there face many hardships and challenges, even though they greet them willingly. Some drive to a remote parking lot and watch class on a phone, taking notes as best they can. Others gather around one laptop in a crowded room. Some take a train to get to a location where access to the online class is possible. And as they seek to serve, they ask for the church’s prayers: “Keep Pakistani students in your prayers, especially as they all are working; they come home late and, in some cases, they are the only breadwinners in the family.”
The students’ dedication and sacrifices motivate their professors. “Christ wants His Gospel to get out and there are people who have said, ‘Here I am, Lord, send me,’ and they’re willing to be sent in tough situations,” said Bombaro. “Charles and I would dare say for all of our missionaries that we’re willing to redouble our efforts for those who are willing to make those kinds of sacrifices to serve the church [and] to serve Christ in His kingdom.”
This online model of teaching is so successful that the mission diocese in Finland has asked to supplement their teaching with the biblical and confessional content offered. The Lutheran Church of Australia has also inquired about the feasibility of working in conjunction with their faculty at the seminary in Adelaide. Bombaro said students from other countries have looked into joining the program, including “prospective students in places like Cambodia who have no means to travel and no means to spend four years in seminary.”
Serving in North Idaho
Although Bombaro is called to provide theological education in Latvia and throughout the Eurasia region, he now lives and works in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. His online teaching keeps him busy, but God continues to give him opportunities to serve his new Idaho community as well. “I think that wherever an LCMS missionary finds oneself, there’s an opportunity to plant the church and share the Gospel,” he said.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I know God brought you here,” said Anthony, who was eating in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., when Bombaro stopped in on the way to bring the Lord’s Supper to a shut-in. Anthony saw Bombaro dressed in his clergy collar and asked to have lunch with him. This impromptu opportunity for ministry exemplifies much of Bombaro’s work in North Idaho. Wherever and whenever God presents an opportunity, the Word works.
In addition to his full-time job as a missionary, Bombaro is privileged to serve as a military chaplain. Many in the military need spiritual guidance and counseling, and Bombaro is able to bring the Word of God to these soldiers in North Idaho.
Bombaro also serves as vacancy pastor for Blessed Sacrament Lutheran Church in Hayden, Idaho, a small but growing congregation that started in the Bombaros’ house, moved to a garage and now rents a church on Sunday afternoons. Bombaro focuses on teaching the faith to the families that attend Blessed Sacrament, including through first Holy Communion classes.
“He’s an outstanding pastor,” said David Sousa, a member of Blessed Sacrament who attends with his wife, Heather, and their four children. “My kids noted how much time he spends with them.”
Blessed Sacrament has borne fruit. Since Bombaro was asked to provide pastoral ministry, he has performed seven Baptisms and 11 first Holy Communions, with five more taking Holy Communion classes. The congregation is now an official congregation of the LCMS English District.
“God has blessed us immeasurably here in North Idaho,” said Nathaniel Macpherson, president of Blessed Sacrament. “We’ve had several Baptisms of entire families … and some of those families have also received their first Holy Communion. It just shows the need for missions everywhere, even here in North Idaho.”
Whether in Idaho, Latvia or wherever the Lord calls next, LCMS missionaries teach and preach the truth of God’s Word. And whether in person or online, the church returns again to the Lord who is her head.
This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of LUTHERANS ENGAGE
Story by Kevin Armbrust | Partial Photography by Erik M. Lunsford