John Stumme—The Hidden Years

[1] Martha and I and our two sons arrived in Buenos Aires on a cold September day in 1978. The military government was an immediate reality as we walked through a line of armed soldiers and were greeted with incredulous stares at the immigration desk. Informed that our luggage had not arrived, we were given a brisk ride into the city and deposited at ISEDET, the ecumenical seminary. There we were met by the open arms and warm smiles of John and Sandra Stumme. They shared with us everything we didn’t have – diapers, a change of clothing, a toothbrush and the confidence that we had done the right thing in having come so far from home with young children in tow.

[2] Los Stumme (Juan y Sandra), as everyone knew them, didn’t smother us with attention. They saw to it that we had what we needed for that day and where to go to get what we would need the next day. They instructed us how to take the bus to church on Sunday and invited us to their home for ravioli afterwards. Without the support and friendship of John and Sandra, we probably would have returned home to the US a dozen times in our first year in Argentina.

[3] Their home on Calle Simbron became a safe haven for us and for other North American missionaries. There was always room to spend the night and food to eat. It was a place to share our fears and frustrations and to laugh sometimes until we cried. It was the kind of people the Stummes are that attracted everyone to their side. Sandra is a social worker not only by training, but also by nature. She is accepting of all and can explain everyone’s shortcomings in the most positive light. John is the profound listener. I’ve never known his mind to stray when spoken to. His response more often than not is a gently put, but probing question.

[4] In the late 1970s and into the 80s about a half dozen US missionary families served with the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELU). We were all tolerated with varying degrees of acceptance by the local church leaders. John was the exception. Most of us were pastors; he was a professor at the Superior Ecumenical Institute of Theological Education (ISEDET). The opinions and insights of Dr. Stumme were respected. He was accessible and encouraging to his students. John was ordained only shortly before leaving for Argentina in 1977. As a professor he was asked to preach and even to celebrate the Communion. However, he didn’t have much experience performing other pastoral acts. I enjoyed seeing how nervous he was when he was asked by students to officiate at their weddings.

[5] At a crucial moment in the life of IELU, John was elected to serve as vice-president of the national church body. Of course, it had been the long standing practice that the Argentine Lutheran church had Argentine leaders. However, this was a special moment of need and everyone recognized that John was the person for the job. He served with both sensitivity and strength. With his leadership the church went through a process of reflection which led to a document entitled, “Convocados para Evangelizar” (Called Together to Evangelize). Its purpose was to refocus the church on sharing the gospel in the decade of the 1980s. John of course authored the document. It was quoted recently as an authentic document of the IELU which speaks to its life and mission now in a new century.

[6] I’ve traveled with John. Our families vacationed in Brazil and on Cape Cod. In 1980 John and I were part of a Lutheran Church in America study group visiting Cuba. More recently we’ve traveled in Italy and Spain. John enjoys strong coffee, good food and wine. He exercises regularly and disappears in the afternoon to read (it used to be to read and smoke his pipe.) John will venture down most any street and try to engage any stranger in conversation. He is at home in the world and yet he knows our true citizenship is in heaven with God.

[7] It feels like a tango song, but I remember standing in the kitchen of their house on Calle Simbron. John was debating whether to apply for the position in the Department of Studies in the newly forming ELCA. The decision was his, but I encouraged him to do it because a church that called itself Lutheran needed a Lutheran theologian like John Stumme. “El tiempo pasa, nos vamos poniendo viejos,” but I still expect good things to come from my friend Stumme.