Suriname: On a journey to rediscover “our Lutheran identity”

LWF scholar Rafael van Ommeren speaks about being a church in a multi-denominational and multi-religious environment

(LWI) – Lutheran identity was the topic of discussion at the October meeting of students studying theological studies with grants from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Mr. Rafael van Ommeren, the only Lutheran student in an ecumenical college in Jamaica, spoke with Information on the Lutheran World (LWI) about being a church in his home context in Surinam, practicing theology together, becoming aware of the work of the Holy Spirit and having conversations about caring for God’s creation.

The LWF Fellows Gathering Meetings, launched in May, are an online space where students can empower and inspire one another, develop new ideas for strengthening churches, and bring a global voice to local contexts.

What are you studying and what is your future role in the Church?

I am preparing for full-time service to serve my home church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname (ELCS). I am currently studying a master’s degree in Contextual Ministry at the United Theological College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, until May 2023. After graduation, I will return home to serve as a vicar for a year, followed by ordination in Word and Sacrament. I am a member of the Maarten Luther Church, one of the ELCS congregations. Before that, I worked as a youth leader, lay preacher, musician and choir director, church caretaker and director of an old people’s home.

This is the first time you have attended the LWF Academic Meetings: What were your impressions?

I am so grateful that I was finally able to be part of this platform and take part in a theological conversation. A pastor and friend told me, “You cannot do theology by yourself.” I am studying at an ecumenical college, where I am currently the only Lutheran student. As much as I like the ecumenical relationships at the university, it is also nice to exchange ideas with other Lutherans in a context. I really appreciated hearing from others how they experience Lutheran identity – learning from the differences and thinking about similarities. These similarities are so enriching because they show that even when we are separated by oceans and land borders, we are still very much connected.

I really appreciated hearing from others how they experience Lutheran identity – learning from the differences and thinking about similarities. These similarities are so enriching because they indicate that even when we are separated by oceans and land borders, we are still very much connected

Mr. Rafael van Ommeren, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname

What difference does being Lutheran make in your context?

For me, it’s a matter of exploration. The Lutheran Church has a strong ecumenical history and therefore strong ecumenical relationships with various denominations. On the other hand, this has also resulted in us losing the sense of what it exactly means to be Lutheran. I believe that as a Lutheran Church in Suriname we are on a journey to rediscover what our Lutheran identity is and what difference it makes in our context. In the multi-denominational and multi-religious context of Suriname, one of the most important things we offer at the table is the assurance that we cannot work for our salvation. Although not preached as precisely in other contexts, the notion of good works to be saved at Jesus’ return finds its way in many Christian settings and leads to much fear and despair.

Are there other areas in which the Lutheran Church is actively involved?

A more timely distinction we make as a Lutheran Church is our role in talking about concern for God’s creation. We try to make this a constant conversation and think together about choices we can make that benefit God’s creation as a whole. One of the projects that emerged from these discussions is the ELKS shopping bag project. Since plastic bags, non-degradable products, are widely used in stores, we make reusable grocery bags and encourage our members and non-members to invest in such a bag instead of plastic bags.

A reusable shopping bag, an idea from Care for Creation Conversations in the Surinam Lutheran Church. Photo: ELKS

Another contribution is our participation in the public debate on gender-based violence. I believe that the Christian Church and other religions do not have a clear voice to condemn violence that occurs because of one’s gender. I believe that the seminars that we will be taking from 15.-16. October on domestic violence, and the concrete way our gender committee works with the NGO STICRIS (Home for Women in Crisis Situations Foundation) to provide shelter for victims of domestic violence abuse in Suriname makes one in my context Difference from the Lutheran.

Has there been any experience related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, our Megas Diakonos project – an ambitious name for a project of a small church that I was able to coordinate with others. I believe through the Holy Spirit we have been able to have volunteers who regularly collect food parcels and other essentials that the Church has been distributing to many people in need since the pandemic began. The Church realized that the pandemic was under great pressure on our already unstable economy. The marginalized in our communities are always those hardest hit by crises. That is why we started this diaconal project, which the LWF also supports. It’s a lot of work and often we don’t have enough hands to make it work, but God provides through the Holy Spirit and we can continue to do our part in God’s diaconal work on this earth.


Volunteers in the diaconal project of the Surinamese Church Megas Diakonos. This group includes ELCS President Rev. Marjory Slagtand (front row, second from left). Photo: ELKS

The fellowship meeting discussed understanding the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts in the life of the Church: What do you think about the matter?

One of the things that struck me from a person in my breakout group is that we don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in either of our contexts, except on Pentecost Sunday. I must be quick to point out that we in Suriname have a strong spiritual sense of life experience, even if our members would not specifically refer to some of them as the Holy Spirit at work.

I personally believe that the Holy Spirit is really at work in the Lutheran Church in Suriname. We are a very small denomination in a multi-denominational country, and we have had many tough years of deep concern for the future of the Church. But just as the Spirit of God was with us in the past and brought us to where we are now, I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us through difficult times and will remain God’s Church and be relevant.

Did the meeting generate ideas on topics that you would like to explore?

I firmly believe that we should continue to discuss the issue of Lutheran identity in this context, as it is an ongoing conversation that needs to be constantly contextualized. We can learn as much from our particular experiences and ideas as we can make Lutheranism relevant in our own contexts.

Another issue is concern for God’s creation. When this is discussed with student pastors and other theologians, the chance increases that we will continue this conversation in our ministry in which we will be working. We pray that these conversations will lead to more valuable action by our churches.

From LWF / P. Mumia

The LWF accompanies its member churches in their calling to live the gospel in service and concern for neighbor. the Scholarships for theology and diakonia are a means of empowering the churches for sustainable growth and development within the churches themselves and in the wider fellowship.

F.Founded in 1741 by owners of sugar cane plantations and other agricultural products, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname today includes believers from all walks of life, a mix of Indians, Blacks, Hindustani, Javanese and Chinese. It has 4,000 members and joined the LWF in 1979.

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