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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Retired professor and wife build faith, relationships in South Africa

NO BARRIERS: Jeanette Pilgrim CENTER) with South African students.

By Katherine Hedland '88

When retired professor Dr. Walter Pilgrim and his wife, Jeanette, left South Africa in June after a semester of teaching at a seminary, their students bestowed gifts on them. One is a replica of the humble straw huts lived in by many villagers in the area.

"I thank God for what I have," it reads.
The Pilgrims' five months of living, teaching and worshiping with Lutheran Zulus in rural South Africa made them grateful for what they have -and what they gained-from their time serving this poor part of the world.

"These are people who literally have no money," Jeanette said as she traced the carved outlines on a wooden box offered to her by a student. "And they wanted to give us gifts."
"It's the human relationships that make things worthwhile," Walter Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim, who also taught in Namibia while on sabbatical from PLU several years ago, wanted to continue reaching out in his retirement. South Africa also has a large Lutheran population-a result of years of missionary work in the country. Pilgrim was put in touch with Umphumulo Lutheran Seminary in Mapumulo, South Africa-located about two hours from Durban.

There they found warm, open students hungry for knowledge and strong in faith. They are becoming African Christians, rather than missionary Christians, Walter said.

"They have their own pastors, their own bishops. They're trying to put Jesus in an African context. They're working hard to translate it into their own culture."

Much of their ministry focuses on the question: What kind of Jesus speaks to poor?
"It is a Jesus who is a liberator of the poor, who takes the side of the oppressed," Walter said.

Pilgrim taught courses in the New Testament and the Gospel of John, and Jeanette, who has a master's degree in music and is a longtime church musician, gave church music lessons. When she arrived, she found two pianos in such disrepair they could not be played.
"But the chapel was an acoustical dream and the singing was unbelievable," she said.

Villagers sang Lutheran hymns a capella with harmonies like she has never heard, reading hymnals that contained only lyrics and no notes to follow.

"You'd be amazed," Jeanette said. "The greatest gift the villagers have to offer is their singing."

HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS: Dr. Walter Pilgrim (FRONT ROW, THIRD FROM RIGHT) says he learned a lot from the faculty at Umphumulo Lutheran Seminary in South Africa, where he taught for a semester.

While there, the Pilgrims lived in a modest home on the seminary campus where they often went without water, and still knew they were living in luxury compared to villagers, who deal daily with poverty, violence and illness.

"We decided we were going to live with them and not put any barriers between us," Jeanette said. "We fell in love with the people. It was so hard to leave."

But the Pilgrims saw up close the dangers and obstacles much of South Africa faces. The cholera and AIDS epidemics rage, the stinging results of years of Apartheid remain, and with the whites still controlling the land and the marketplace, blacks struggle to find work.
While they see a brighter future ahead for the country as whole, they know the pastors who will come out of the seminary face a difficult journey.

"They will be spending their lives burying people and taking care of people and worrying about these orphans," Jeanette said.

"I see these students as pastors who will be caregivers because of the problems," Walter said. "But they're well trained and they will be the hope of this country."


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