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Dubuque seminary student believed killed in Haiti

At least one person with Iowa ties was killed in Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti.

Ben Splichal Larson, originally from LaCrosse, Wisc., was a student at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, according to a statement from the seminary.

He was a senior master of divinity student serving as a teacher to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haiti for a January term project.

Two other students, Larson's wife, Renee Splichal Larson and his cousin, Jonathan Larson, were in the building when the quake hit, according to the statement.

"We grieve the loss of so clear a proclamation, with eyes twinkling, of Christ's love, compassion, and humor," said seminary president Duane Larson.

Ben Larson is also survived by his parents, April Larson and Judd Larson of Duluth, Minn.

Ben Larson received his undergraduate degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.


American seminary student believed to have died in quake

  • Benjamin Larson of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, died in the Haiti quake, his family said Thursday
  • Larson, his wife and cousin, all seminary students, were in Haiti helping with a church school
  • The building in which they were staying collapsed, and Benjamin Larson did not escape
  • "He ... built love and community wherever he was," his mother says in a statement

(CNN) -- A seminary student who was in Haiti along with his wife and cousin is believed to have been killed in the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck the island nation, his family and seminary said Thursday.

Benjamin Larson, 25, from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the son of two Lutheran ministers, was in his fourth year as a master's of divinity student at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

He was in Haiti, along with his wife, Renee, and his cousin Jonathan Larson, both of whom also are fourth-year seminary students, to help with the new Haiti Lutheran Church, said a statement on the Web site of the First Lutheran Church in Duluth, where Benjamin Larson's mother, the Rev. April Larson, is pastor.

His father, the Rev. Judd Larson, is interim pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Duluth.

"Pastors April and Judd Larson wish to share with you ... the profound sorrow with which they are living, and to ask for your prayers," the statement said. The Larsons received a message early Thursday that their son had been killed, according to the statement.

Benjamin Larson was teaching at the Pastors and Lay Leaders Theological Conference in Haiti, the statement said.

At the time of the quake, the three relatives were staying at St. Joseph's Home for Boys on a mountain in Port-au-Prince, First Lutheran Church said. "During the earthquake, the building collapsed on all three."

Renee and Jonathan Larson were able to escape, but could not find Benjamin Larson, the statement said. They had to flee down the mountain immediately. Wednesday morning, Renee Larson and others returned to try to find Ben, to no avail, according to the First Lutheran statement and a statement from seminary President Duane Larson. (He is not closely related to the students).

Renee and Jonathan Larson were at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, and were to be evacuated to the Dominican Republic on Thursday, Duane Larson said. They are expected to be returned to the United States this week, he said.

Jonathan Larson, of Red Wing, Minnesota, and his cousin were serving as teachers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haiti for a January term project, Duane Larson said. Renee Larson, originally of Garrison, North Dakota, was doing interviews and research for her thesis on the beginnings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haiti.

"Ben was so excited to become a pastor," April Larson said in the First Lutheran statement. "Ben loved Christ and he loved people."

In an interview with the ECLA news service, cited by the seminary in a written statement, April Larson described her son as "gentle, in love with Christ, in love with people, in love with life. He's been hearing God's call. His life belonged to God. If you want to know Ben, listen to his music."

Benjamin Larson was the youngest of the couple's four children, the seminary said.

His name was the first released of an American victim in the Haiti quake. State Department officials said a U.S. Embassy employee also was among the dead, but did not identify the victim, saying relatives were being notified.

A seminary classmate, Corrine Denis, cried as she spoke about Benjamin Larson, who she had known since their pre-seminary college days at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

"A lot of people say, 'He would give you the shirt off his back,' but Ben really would," Denis said. "He'd give you his hat and his socks and whatever you needed."

She said Larson led the music team at the college's student-led worship service.

"Ben was compassionate to the nth degree," she said. When he was headed to their floor on campus, she said, "You could hear him singing in the stairwell before he got there."

He was "full of light, and truly Christ's love emanated from him," Denis said. "He was one of a kind, and we will miss him so deeply."

Duane Larson said, "We so grieve with his parents, April and Judd; for Renee's loss of her husband; Jonathan's loss of a dear cousin, for our loss of a beautiful friend. Ben's baptismal light burned so brightly in our community and for all who came to know him. We grieve the loss of so clear a proclamation, with eyes twinkling, of Christ's love, compassion and humor."

He told reporters he had known Benjamin Larson for a couple of years before he began studying at Wartburg, and is a close friend with his family. "It's a very personal loss."

He said the seminary student had a commitment to spreading God's word in a "healing, musical and compassionate and easygoing way." He said he believed the Larsons had left for Haiti on January 4.

Benjamin Larson was a key member of the seminary's basketball team and played racquetball, he said.

A family spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment from CNN Thursday.

"He loved God," April Larson told the Duluth News Tribune newspaper Thursday. "He loved the church. He loved people. He was just one of those people that built love and community wherever he was.

"He was somebody who loved life, loved living ... a person filled up with joy. He was just a ton of fun."

In 2008, Benjamin Larson served as an intern at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Pastor Lowell Hennigs did not want to comment to CNN Thursday, saying he had not spoken with Larson's parents. In a church newsletter from 2008, however, Hennigs wrote that both Benjamin and Renee Larson were "delightful, outgoing and extremely talented young folks" and musicians. Benjamin Larson composed music and liturgy and played a wide variety of instruments, he said.

Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Global Mission Unit, told the Larsons, "We will do everything [we] can to help find Ben and bring him home," the First Lutheran statement said.

A fourth Wartburg student, Sarah Thomson, is safe in Jacmel, Haiti, the seminary said.

CNN's Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.

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UPDATE: Seminary students expected home from Haiti


Published January 15 2010

UPDATE: Seminary students expected home from Haiti

Text messages have been the only communication from seminary student Jonathan Larson, but his father in Red Wing is relieved to know "He's OK."

By: Ruth Nerhaugen, The Republican Eagle


Text messages have been the only communication from seminary student Jonathan Larson, but his father in Red Wing is relieved to know "He's OK."

His son should be back in Minnesota soon, David Larson said.

Jonathan Larson survived Tuesday's 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, although his cousin and fellow seminary student Ben Larson is believed dead. Jonathan and Ben Larson's wife, Renee Splichal Larson, escaped when the building the three were in collapsed.

The two survivors are "physically fine," David Larson told the R-E. It was his understanding they made it to Puerto Rico Thursday night, and hoped to fly home Friday.

They will not be bringing Ben Larson's body home, as crews can't yet excavate the rubble.

"This is a hugely traumatic event" for the survivors, the Rev. Steve Timm of United Lutheran Church pointed out. Jonathan is a member of United, and Timm said the congregation considers the entire Larson family "extended family" with connections to Red Wing.

"The whole situation is heartbreaking," Timm added. People are relieved Jon and Renee are coming home, but saddened by Ben's death. "We love those guys," he said. "We love the Larson family."

The three young people, all fourth-year students at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, went to Haiti Monday to do mission work.

Jonathan, a 2002 Red Wing High School graduate, and Ben, who is from La Crosse, Wis., were teaching lay teachers for the new Haiti Lutheran Church. Renee Larson, who is originally from Garrison, N.D., was interviewing people while working on a thesis about the new Lutheran Church.

They were staying in a guesthouse at St. Joseph's Home for Boys on a mountain near Port-au-Prince, the capital city which was largely flattened by the earthquake. It was the worst quake to hit the country in more than 200 years.

The seminarians were in the building when the quake hit, according to a report issued Thursday by the Rev. Duane H. Larson, Wartburg president.

"Both Jonathan Larson and Renee Splichal Larson are together safely. ... They made it out, eventually found each other, then returned to St. Joseph guest house in the attempt to rescue Ben, to no avail," he reported.

Renee Larson's parents got a message from the U.S. Embassy that she was OK, David Larson said Wednesday night.

But it was more long hours before he received confirmation that his son also was safe: He got a third-hand report about Jon via a Wartburg student who tracked down a layperson in Florida who had been in Haiti earlier and who apparently had received an e-mail.

"We're so used to communicating easily," David Larson said. "It's frustrating when you can't do that."

The young people did not answer their cell phones, but he knew communication systems had been hard hit so that it was no surprise. His attempts to call the U.S. consulate offices were unsuccessful because so many others were trying to do the same thing.

Benjamin Larson is the youngest child of the Rev. April Ulring Larson, senior pastor at First Lutheran Church in Duluth, and the Rev. Judd Larson, interim pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Duluth.

In comments to the Duluth News Tribune, April Larson said there appears to be no hope her son escaped the collapse.

"No. I don't think so. And if he could have, he would have found a way to his wife," she told reporters Thursday.

The family has visited Red Wing, Timm said. April Larson spoke at special services here in 2008, when United celebrated its anniversary.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Global Mission Unit told Pastors Judd and April Larson that the church will do everything they can to help find Ben and bring him home.

According to his mother, "He was somebody who loved life. Loved living. He loved God and was a person filled-up with joy. He was just a ton of fun. ... He was just one of those people that built love and community wherever he was."

Timm reminded people why the young seminarians were in Haiti.

"I think about the courage and compassion it took for (them) to go to Haiti in the first place," Timm said. "I hope people will be motivated to care, too."

John Myers and Brandon Stahl of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story. The Tribune and Republican Eagle are part of Forum Communications Co.


He Spent His Last Breath Singing: Wife, Cousin Remember ELCA's Ben Larson

CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The past week for Renee Splichal Larson and Jonathan Larson has been filled with danger, uncertainty, heartache and deep pain as they mourn the apparent loss of Renee's husband and Jonathan's cousin, Ben Larson, 25, in the earthquake in Haiti. The two Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) seminary students, in Port-au-Prince at the time of the disaster, returned to the United States Jan. 15. They spoke to the ELCA News Service Jan. 18.

     Renee and Jonathan told of their escape from the collapsed St. Joseph Home for Boys and their unsuccessful attempts to rescue Ben. They also talked about the suffering of the people of Haiti, their strong feelings of gratitude for the ELCA and the positive influences it had on Ben throughout this life.  
     "All he wanted was to be a pastor in this church," Renee said.
     The three senior students at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa -- one of eight ELCA seminaries -- went to Haiti to teach Lutheran theology to members and pastors of the Lutheran church during the seminary's January term.  Renee, who grew up in Garrison, N.D., was also doing interviews with local people for a master's thesis about the emerging Lutheran church in Haiti.
     That all changed on Jan. 12, when a severe earthquake struck Haiti.  At the time of the quake all three were together in the St. Joseph Home for Boys.
     "We were all together on the same floor," when the building began to shake, Renee said. "We all kind of panicked and started running.  Jonathan and I were together. (Ben) was hugging a pillar in the middle of the floor.  I turned and I saw him, and I saw concrete starting to fall on him.  I called for him and started running toward him."
     At that moment the two floors above collapsed on them.  Jonathan and Renee were trapped for a short time, but managed to squeeze out onto the roof of the building and called for Ben, she said.  The collapsed building continued to shift as the aftershocks continued, Renee said.
     The two went back to the place where they had crawled out and called again for Ben.  Renee said she heard Ben's voice.  He was singing, not unusual for Ben who loved music. "I told him I loved him, and that Jon and I were okay, and to keep singing," Renee said. But the singing stopped after he sang the words "God's peace to us we pray," she said.  
     "If he was alive, he would have been calling for help desperately," Renee said. "Ben spent his last breath singing." 
     In the chaos of that night, Renee and Jonathan stayed nearby with local residents displaced by the quake.  One of the people they were with was Bill Nathan, director of the St. Joseph Home for Boys, who injured his spine after jumping from the roof of the building to the ground.  ABC News featured Nathan's story on Nightline.
     The next day Renee and Jonathan went back to the building, managed to get their passports, and did what they could to locate Ben, but could not find him. "Getting off of that roof was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," she said.      
     The two were advised to go to the U.S. Embassy, which they managed to accomplish with local residents' help, and seek assistance to rescue Ben, but there was no team to rescue Ben.  They met up with a Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (N.J.),  medical team at the embassy, who cared for Renee and Jonathan.  The students managed to get text messages to their families, asking for advice about what to do.  Their families advised them to return home to the United States.
     "It was so sad to go.  It took all of our strength to get back to our families," Renee said. 
     Meanwhile, the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission, and a friend of the Larson family, had contacted the Lutheran World Federation and a member of Congress, trying to arrange for a team in Haiti to get to Ben. Those attempts continue.
     The Red Cross has estimated that as many as 200,000 people may have died as a result of the earthquake. In addition, questions are being asked about the slowness of the response. "People are so desperate," Renee said, adding that the devastation "breaks my heart.  To know that the people of Haiti still have nothing is very difficult."  
     She added that she cannot think about Ben "apart from the thousands of Haitians who died in the earthquake, the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere."

The ELCA and Ben Larson
     Ben Larson's parents are the Rev. April Ulring Larson, senior pastor of First Lutheran Church, Duluth, and former bishop of the ELCA LaCrosse (Wis.) Area Synod, and the Rev. Judd W. Larson, retired and serving as an interim at Our Saviors Lutheran Church, Duluth.  The youngest of three children, Ben grew up in the ELCA.
     "Ben loved this church.  He knew it wasn't perfect, but he loved it.  He lived out his ministry through the church," Renee said.  A trip to Ethiopia was transformational, she said, adding that Ben appreciated the "global church and the ELCA's companions."  He attended Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, one of 27 ELCA colleges and universities, and was completing his master of divinity degree at Wartburg Seminary.  Ben played and sang in the bands at ELCA Global Mission events and the 2008 Women of the ELCA Triennial Gathering in Salt Lake City.  He was active in ELCA's World Hunger program, and helped introduce members and leaders to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the ELCA's newest worship book.
     Describing his cousin Ben "as my best friend," Jonathan Larson, Red Wing, Minn., said, "We were always together.  We grew to love God together."
     As for their future, Jonathan said he and Renee will return soon to Wartburg to complete their educations.  "We would not think of doing anything else.  The Wartburg community is so vital to who we are," he said.   
     The Larson family will hold an "informal gathering and storytelling" Jan. 21 for Ben Larson at Luther College's Centennial Union, and a memorial service for him will be held the next day at the college's Center for Faith and Life.
     They asked that memorial gifts for Ben Larson be given to Wartburg Seminary, the Eglise Lutherienne d'Haiti (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti), St. Joseph Home for Boys and ELCA (International) Disaster Response.
     Renee highlighted the ELCA's response to disasters.  Funds are channeled through the ELCA churchwide organization and "reach people in Haiti, who are poor and need help. Mission is what we are about.  I ask that people think about mission and what draws us together, which is Christ."  She added that the ELCA is a church "that we love and serve."
     The ELCA announced that it will provide at least $600,000 for Haiti, and is channeling funds through three partner organizations working on the ground: the Lutheran World Federation, Lutheran World Relief and Church World Service.  More funds are expected to be provided as members contribute gifts to the ELCA for Haiti relief.
     Information about Ben Larson is at on the Web.

     Financial contributions to support relief efforts in Haiti can be made at or by calling 800-638-3522.    

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or



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