Journey of faith: Couple spend a year experiencing world
WORTHINGTON -- One year ago today, Amber Marten Bergeson posted the first entry on her "Visual Preacher" blog. It was a prelude to almost a year's worth of international travel and learning experiences for her and husband Kevin Bergeson, both Lutheran pastors, written not even two weeks after their wedding day, Aug. 28, 2010.
"Visual Preacher is going to be lots of blogging, photos, God-talk, stories, interviews, preaching, travel, and quirkiness," wrote Amber, a 2001 graduate of Worthington High School, on Sept. 10, 2010. "Thanks for joining us for the journey -- please let us know what you think! We're sharing this journey together as newlyweds but want you to be part of it, too. We leave for Hong Kong in six days!!!"
Since that time, the Bergesons have literally traveled around the world, spending varying stretches of time in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jerusalem, England, Sweden, Norway and California, returning to their homeland of Minnesota twice for short visits with family.
But the extended trip was no honeymoon. It resulted from the Graduate Teaching Fellowship, presented annually to one graduating senior at Luther Seminary -- Amber being the recipient for 2010 -- which stipulates a year spent abroad to "to afford the student freedom for the study of preaching and time for other experiences related to preaching and worship."
"The point is to go out and get a broad perspective," explained Amber. "Where you go is up to the recipient. Someone may just go to a specific community in West Africa and stay there for the entire year. When I was writing my proposal, I thought of places I'd always wanted to go, but ... there needed to be some aspect of faith there that I wanted to spend time looking at."
With an intense interest in photography (Amber also has a business -- Amber Sue Photography) and a naturally creative spirit, Amber's proposal entailed combining her interests in order to further her preaching skills, based on research that shows the majority of people are visual learners:
My focus will be on the sense of sight. What people see on a day-to-day basis -- their home, mountains in the distance, crafts they sell, their family members, office space, religious buildings, or fields they till -- all these things play into understanding God's Word for our lives. So, how do people see the Word of God? With the help of four specific biblical texts, the journey I am undertaking would put me in relationship with culturally diverse groups of people to discuss the four stories. Through these conversations, I hope to get visual evidence of their interpretation. Bringing in what people see in their daily lives and connecting it with the text may help listeners actually see and hear themselves as a part of the biblical narrative. My anticipation is that the stories and photos I gather will make me a much more effective visual preacher back in the United States.
So Kevin resigned his post as pastor at Spirit of Christ Community Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, where he'd served for three years, and just weeks after tying the knot, the newlyweds boarded a plane for Hong Kong, their first stop in the year-long adventure. They chose the Chinese locale because of a joint interest in Asia in general and because it is home to a Lutheran seminary, where they were able to spend the first three months of the adventure.
The culture shock was probably the strongest in Hong Kong, Amber and Kevin noted, although by the time they left they were riding the underground trains like natives and had mastered some basic language phrases. Among the impressions of the city that they shared were the Minnesota-like humidity level; monkeys everywhere who would steal your food if it wasn't in a protective bag; and better-than-expected cuisine.
"People in general -- just this massive number of people and their living conditions, tight living quarters," described Amber. "All these high-rises, apartment complexes. But super happy and loving people."
While in Israel, Amber and Kevin lived on the Mount of Olives, and one of the highlights of their stay was teaching classes in Bethlehem to Palestinian children.
"Kevin got to lead a conversation about hopes and dreams that was very inspiring," said Amber, who also had the opportunity to preach in an Israeli church. "We spent three months investing time in the Palestinian schools, even did a book drive. ... They had a library of only 70 books when we got there, and by the end of the year, there were close to 1,000 that got brought in. We were probably responsible for 300 of them. My mom's (Sue Flesner of Worthington) book club here even did a fundraiser."
It was also in Israel where Amber had the brainstorm to start an online store -- Dovelyday -- at etsy.com as a way to fill some empty evening hours and make a little money during their travels. On the site, she marketed not only her photographs, but jewelry crafted from beads purchased in their ports of call.
"The jewelry started sheerly out of boredom in Jerusalem. We got there in the winter, and it would get dark early," Amber explained. "We always felt safe, but had been told that we didn't want to be out at night. So I had a few beads that I brought along that I turned into jewelry, and it took off like crazy. People wanted things made with beads from the old city."
Their one-month English stay was in Sheffield, a university town in the middle of the country; and in Norway, they lived among the fjords.
"With all the places we went to, we had called ahead to a church, a community or a school we knew of or found on the Internet and told them about what we were studying and asked if there was a hostel or a guest house where we could stay," Amber explained. "Kevin did a lot of that grunt work before we left. We never just showed up anywhere."
Everywhere they went, they found new friends.
"We were surprised at how welcomed we were into other people's lives and homes," said Kevin. "There was always someone waiting for us, to welcome us into their lives."
"We're just so lucky to have met so many warm and hospitable people along the way," Amber agreed. "They would pick us up at the airport, treat us to a meal, and so many did that just because we were Christians."
Twenty-eight flights and 23,000 photographs later, Amber and Kevin have returned to Minnesota and are in the process of regrouping and deciding what adventure will be next in their lives.
"It's hard to believe the places we've been, people we've met, cultures we've embraced, food we've tried, and faith we've gained," Amber reflected in one of her final blog entries. "What an honor to receive such a generous fellowship from Luther Seminary. We are so deeply grateful to the donors who made this year of learning possible for the two of us and have been blessed by the faithful blog followers who have offered their words of encouragement along the way. May the JOY of the Lord be yours!"
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