The ELCA has long presented itself as an inclusive church—especially Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, which is leading the way in welcoming all religions, ethnicities, races and sexual orientations.
Several outdoor ministries have initiated unique programs and retreats. One program is designed for other religious groups, another offers migrant workers lodging as they work for a local farm, and a third connects with area LGBTQ+ communities.
For the past six years Lutherhill Ministries in La Grange, Texas, has hosted leadership training retreats for the Muslim Students Association (MSA), a nationwide college program. Matt Kindsvatter, the camp’s executive director, said that when the MSA’s plans fell through at another retreat center six years ago, the group asked if it could use the Lutherhill facilities.
The MSA was pleased to learn that Lutherhill was open to hosting its retreat, Kindsvatter said, and it has returned every year since then.
“Once the Muslim Student Association realized we were an open, welcoming and affirming community—and word got out—it opened us to hosting other organizations too,” Kindsvatter said. Among them are a Muslim community center from nearby Sugar Land, Texas; a Jewish high school from the Houston area that uses Lutherhill for new student orientation; and a regional Hindu cultural society.
“Part of our mission is that this is holy grounds,” said Jen Kindsvatter, Matt’s spouse, a pastor and the camp’s director of programs. “The people who set it up knew it was a place to rest and play, not only for Lutherans but for as many people as possible. It models for our people of all ages what it means to live as Christians in the world and embrace people with a spirit of hospitality and curiosity.”
Sugar Creek Bible Camp
When a flower farm in Soldier’s Grove, Wis., couldn’t find housing for its seasonal migrant workers in 2021, it turned to Sugar Creek Bible Camp in nearby Ferryville.
“I got a call from the CEO of a factory farm 10 miles away that makes Christmas wreaths and floral arrangements, asking on a long shot if we’d be open to welcoming 20 to 30 Hispanic people who worked the winter harvest,” said Jesse Klosterboer, executive director of Sugar Creek.
Klosterboer said that when he worked out an arrangement for the migrant workers to stay in cabins at Sugar Creek from October to December, the farmer said, “I never imagined a Christian place would welcome people from this background.”
“It models for our people of all ages what it means to live as Christians in the world and embrace people with a spirit of hospitality and curiosity.”
Migrant workers stayed in several cabins and used the kitchen facilities. Sugar Hill also hosted a dinner to make them feel welcomed, which was attended by Felix Malpica, bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod. This partnership led to the synod establishing its Migrant Justice Team, which is looking at ways to expand care of migrants throughout the synod.
“The immigrants told me that Sugar Creek has been a place of solace, rest and healing,” Malpica said. “They feel seen, heard and valued, and welcomed. What a way to be church; to show them that we can open our doors and show them hospitality.”
Klosterboer is looking forward to the migrant workers returning for a third year this holiday season.
Earlier this year Camp Agape in Hickory, Pa., revised its mission statement to better define its ministry of inclusivity. “The mission statement used to say, ‘Bringing people together in Christ through outdoor ministry,’” said Wayne Harrison, executive director of the camp. “People would ask, ‘What are we bringing them together for? Are we going to have a picnic?’ We recognized we needed to be more welcoming.”
The new statement better defines the church’s mission: “As a community grounded in God’s unconditional love, we challenge and nurture all God’s people to achieve their full potential physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”
With that in mind the camp reached out to the area Gay Straight Alliance to ask if it was interested in building a relationship. “When we met with them,” Harrison said, “they said we were the first faith-based organization to call and see how we could help.”
Camp Agape is working with the alliance on a series of LGBTQ+ retreats this fall and will likely host a group next summer for a week of camping. The camp will host the event, and the alliance will coordinate programming.
Harrison is pleased about this new partnership and lauded Lutheran Outdoor Ministries’ inclusivity in hosting outside groups. “For far too long, all religions have created a lot of trauma in young people,” he said. “I see it in adults too. People have left the church because of the way that LGBTQ+ and racial communities have been treated. People with disabilities have also been ignored because churches were built with difficult access to the buildings. We haven’t been very successful in attempts to broaden our fellow brothers and sisters in our ministries.”
Jen Kindsvatter sums it up: “When we look at welcoming these groups, while they may not welcome the same God that we worship, we still are true to our mission and providing them holy ground.”
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