In ELCA congregations, families come in myriad shapes, sizes and expressions. Each family is vibrant and unique, but all share a common belief in God that is nurtured through worship and fellowship. In this article you’ll meet ELCA families who remain faithful as they overcome adversity, celebrate blessings and carry on with everyday life. Learn how their congregations have come alongside them to offer support through highs and lows.
“God provided the community around us”
John Saraka, 49, pastor, Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island, N.Y.
Shannon Saraka, 46, occupational therapist
Abraham Saraka, 2
John Saraka knows the power of faith in times of adversity. After losing his first wife to cancer, the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island, mourned the loss of not only his partner but also a life and parenthood never realized.
Then he met his second wife, Shannon, and the two served as foster parents until she became pregnant at age 43. When the doctor declared her pregnancy to be at risk, she was hospitalized. Then, at 23 weeks—one week short of the typical threshold for fetal viability—she gave birth to their son, Abraham. He weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces.
“Everything was pointing toward he wasn’t going to make it,” John recalled. “He was so frail.”
Fortuitously, three years earlier the Sarakas had moved to Staten Island, where nearby Richmond University Medical Center boasts one of the top neonatal intensive care units in the nation. Abraham would spend 165 days there, enduring 10 surgeries over the first two years of his life.
“You see the loving community, and to be on the receiving end of that was incredible.”
“The surgeon was a person of faith as well, and she said, ‘You take care of the prayers, I’ll take care of the surgery,’” John recalled. “After the surgeries, she came to us and said, ‘I didn’t think he was going to make it when he first came, and here we are—that’s God’s hand.’”
As the Sarakas navigated Abraham’s surgeries and home care, their belief in God’s goodness helped them cope.
“We clung to that faith, and there were days you didn’t know how you’d make it through,” John said. “God provided the community around us. I did a Caring Bridge page, and out of that we put together an online group called Abraham’s Army—it was nationwide, with hundreds of people praying and checking on him. That was the strength we needed—the care and love and support from the church community and the larger community. That’s the blessing.”
For John, who has served more than two decades as a pastor, seeing his congregation turn the tables to offer him the same love and support he’d given them made the situation far easier to bear.
“The congregation was incredibly supportive,” he said. “You see the loving community, and to be on the receiving end of that was incredible. They enabled me to have a paternity leave, and then I worked the weekends and was able to keep the connection with the worshiping community.”
Today, Abraham is a healthy, happy toddler who has reached the normal height, weight and development ranges for his age. The Sarakas marvel at their miracle child, who defied the odds and taught them an important lesson in faith.
“Seeing [Abraham] every day, [I know] God is real,” John said. “Sometimes you’ve got to hang on through the storms.
“Having walked through that with my first wife when she died, and Abraham, too, it’s times like this that are the moments of life that remind you there’s a Sunday, there’s an Easter, there’s a wonderful God.”
Unconditional love and acceptance
Danny Sigmon, 44, campus administrator, New Hope Lutheran Church, Missouri City, Texas
Jorge Prato, 47, bank employee
Congregation: New Hope
Danny Sigmon and Jorge Prato weren’t always Lutheran. Sigmon likes to joke that his Southern Baptist mother “raised me Lutheran—she just didn’t know it.” And Prato, a native of Venezuela, grew up Catholic. But the couple came to the ELCA—Danny in college and Prato when he moved to the United States—and found a place of love and acceptance.
“One of the reasons I’m still a Lutheran is I spent 25 years hiding, and I don’t have to do that—I can be with Jorge and have our family, and it’s totally fine,” Sigmon said.
The couple feel that love especially at their congregation, New Hope Lutheran in Missouri City, Texas, where Sigmon has worked since 2001, first as director of worship and now as campus administrator. Before they could legally wed, Sigmon couldn’t sponsor Prato for his green card, but the church rallied around the couple.
“New Hope is very special to us as a family, being enormously supportive of us,” Sigmon said. “For many years it was touch-and-go with immigration to get his green card, and our church wrote letters to Congress and did so many things to support us during that time.”
“One of the reasons I’m still a Lutheran is I spent 25 years hiding, and I don’t have to do that—I can be with Jorge and have our family, and it’s totally fine.”
Prato eventually gained his citizenship in 2013, when same-sex marriage was legalized in California, and the couple traveled west to marry after being together for nearly a decade.
“The sweetest thing was people here were really upset because they wanted to be part of it,” Sigmon said. “Our 10th anniversary [as a couple] was that next March, so we did a blessing after a civil ceremony here, and almost the entire church showed up. It was joyous and marvelous and beautiful. They’re just super-supportive and treat us like anyone else.”
In the years since, Prato’s parents have moved to the United States and live next door to the couple, who reside with their birds and cats. Sigmon and Prato love having family so close by, and they feel blessed to have such a close-knit, community-minded church family that has embraced them and shown them the true meaning of God’s unconditional love.
“It has been a beautiful example for the rest of my family, as well,” Sigmon said. “Because many of them are from a more conservative ilk, it kind of blows them away seeing that kind of acceptance coming from a church.”
“God does not give up on us”
Kate Neiss, 37, freelance college consultant
David Neiss, 43, controller for Apothecary Products
Addison Neiss, 10, fifth grade
Ryne Neiss, 7, first grade
Brook Neiss, 4
Congregation: St. Andrew Lutheran, Eden Prairie, Minn.
After relocating to Minnesota from Chicago, Kate Neiss knew finding the right church would make her family feel at home in the new city.
“Right away I wanted to find a church to help us build a community, just because I didn’t have a job where I could meet new people,” she said. “I wanted to find a place that had a strong children’s ministry and opportunities for the kids, as well.”
They found all that and more at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in the Twin Cities suburb of Eden Prairie. Shortly after they first began attending, Kate joined the congregation’s Band of Sisters women’s group to meet new people, and many became some of her closest friends.
“It was such a gift to find a group of women to sit with, be myself with, share my heart with, cry with and know I could call any of them for help,” she said.
Kate wasn’t the only family member making connections at St. Andrew. Her daughter, Addison, has enjoyed meeting new friends and exploring her faith in the church’s many youth programs.
“I go to Fuse—it’s for fifth- and sixth-graders,” Addison said. “It’s really fun and helps me keep my faith in these hard times. We just had a Zoom meeting with everyone this week.”
“For me, faith in those moments is just not giving up and knowing God does not give up on us. Even if we give up and question, he never gives up on us.”
Addison also participates in the youth minister assistant program, helping with services, and attends the church’s Summer in the Pines camp, which is open to parishioners and the larger community.
“It’s a really great ministry because we have friends and neighbors who send their kids who don’t go to church normally,” Kate said. “For some youth, that’s their main way of feeling God’s presence.”
St. Andrew has become an important ally for Kate and her husband in raising their sons. Both boys have special needs, and Kate said the congregation has been a strong advocate for them and other children like them.
“Arlene Flancher, our director of children’s ministry, asked to sit down with me to talk about ways we could make Sunday school and future programming more accessible for children with learning/social/emotional challenges, because she was seeing a huge need for kids with sensory issues affecting their church experience,” Kate said.
“We brainstormed together and came up with more ‘choice’ time during Sunday school, so the kids who were sensory avoidant didn’t have to be overwhelmed in the gym with games, running around and loud crazy noise, and [could] stay in the classrooms to draw and read instead … and the kids who were sensory-seeking—like my boys—could burn off their energy without upsetting kids who didn’t have the same output.
“It was such a blessing to have a staff member with power over programming decisions be open to adapting and tweaking things so that families could get more out of worship. So [that’s] a great example of how St. Andrew has been there for us, too, not giving up but being a constant source of support and love.”
Such love and support are something Kate and her husband carry over into their lives and parenting. “For me, faith in those moments is just not giving up and knowing God does not give up on us. Even if we give up and question, he never gives up on us,” she said. “And I’ve really tried to instill that with the kids. I’m just trying to model persistence and constant love, knowing that doesn’t just come from me, that comes from God. That’s another huge part of our faith journey as a family.”
Church an extension of family
Kelly Sherman-Conroy, 41, minister of social justice and advocacy for children, youth and family ministry at Nativity Lutheran Church, St. Anthony, Minn.
Ciaran Conroy, 7, first grade
Joan Conroy, ELCA pastor/chaplain at an elder-care facility
Faith has always been a big part of Kelly Sherman-Conroy’s family. As a child growing up on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Sherman-Conroy and her family were active members of the Episcopal church but also practiced traditional Native American spiritual beliefs.
“There was never a separation of our Native or Christian spirituality—it was always together for me growing up,” she said. “My faith was very unique in some ways, and [it was] difficult sometimes for people to understand that connection we have. But no matter what was going on, when we were struggling or having a hard time or celebrating, church was a part of our life.”
Eventually, Sherman-Conroy’s immediate family became Lutherans, and her mother, Joan Conroy, went to seminary to become an ELCA pastor. For Sherman-Conroy, seeing her mom in the ministry was a major influence, and she later pursued ministry herself.
“She was a big part of me going into ministry,” Sherman-Conroy said. “I was a Young Adults in Global Mission [volunteer] in the early years, and that played a large role for me in what I really wanted to do in ministry. I lived in England for quite some time, and my mom helped me navigate that time. It’s really great to have these conversations with her—there are times when the way we see the world is different, but she’s always been able to help me navigate those differences.”
“My faith was very unique in some ways, and [it was] difficult sometimes for people to understand that connection we have. But no matter what was going on, when we were struggling or having a hard time or celebrating, church was a part of our life.”
Sherman-Conroy is now pursuing her doctorate at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and Joan Conroy has moved to Minnesota to live with her daughter and grandson. Having three generations under one roof has shown Ciaran the importance of family, a value his mother said she was taught as a child.
“What’s been great about that is my son sees and experiences us living out our faith,” she said. “He has this unbelievable love for family; he’s one of those kids who wholeheartedly welcomes people, and his sense of family is bigger. So people at church, his friends, people at the seminary—the minute he meets them, they become part of the extended family.”
In both her studies and her ministry, Sherman-Conroy has focused on her unique faith perspective, honoring her Native American traditions while staying true to Christianity. She wants others to see that faith doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other.
“Everybody has a different way of celebrating their relationship with God,” she said. “We all walk in our own path. I’m so grateful to be able to teach my son the same way I grew up, knowing there are no boundaries to our faith.”
Congregation feels like home
Marisha Truong, 33, forensic accountant, certified fraud examiner
Giau Minh Truong, 43, independent artist, program manager, lighting designer
Nathan Truong, 2
Christine Tupaz, 65, retired teacher
Huoi Truong, 63, retired chef
Kiet Truong, 75, retired manager
Congregation: St. Paul Thai Lutheran, Forest Park, Ill.
For Marisha and Giau Minh Truong of Forest Park, Ill., the journey to create a family has spanned many years and thousands of miles. Giau Minh’s parents came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. Marisha’s mother’s family came from the Philippines and her father from Thailand. When Marisha and Giau Minh married, their union merged Vietnamese, Philippine, Thai and American cultures.
“We have seen how God has blessed us in so many ways by bringing our family to this wonderful country,” Marisha said. “We wouldn’t have been blessed with so much freedom and so many opportunities if it wasn’t God’s plan to bring us all here.”
Today the whole extended clan lives in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, where they’re active members of St. Paul Thai Lutheran, a congregation that has welcomed their multicultural family with open arms. And as Marisha and Giau Minh raise their young son (with another child on the way), that welcoming spirit has been a gift.
“Our congregation has always been very supportive of our plans and ideas. … It makes us feel like being home with family who are always so loving, caring and understanding.”
“Our different cultures, including languages—we speak five languages in our home: Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and English—are also blending for our son to appreciate all the different beauty that God has created for us,” Marisha said.
“The church has made us feel included by giving us a space and the support to explore many ways to show our love for God. Our faith has taught us how to work together to fulfill God’s missions. Our faith has also given us the ability to forgive and allows us to open up our hearts to love and understand different perspectives from people of different generations, cultures and backgrounds.
“We find that we love and understand each other more deeply, in ways that we never could without our faith in the Lord Christ Jesus.”
Marisha and Giau Minh have become very involved at St. Paul Thai. She serves on the congregation council, and both help plan such events as a pop-up community dinner. The Truongs even planned to travel abroad as missionaries, but they’ve put that on hold until after their second child is born. In the meantime, they continue sharing God’s love here at home.
“Our congregation has always been very supportive of our plans and ideas,” Marisha said. “We appreciate it when our voices are heard and our ideas are supported by our congregation as we find ways to give back. It makes us feel like being home with family who are always so loving, caring and understanding.”