They reminded me often that they were unique, but I didn't need reminding. The fourth-year Lutheran theology students I taught for a semester in Klaipeda, Lithuania, in 1997 were a sincere, cynical, contradictory lot unlike any other.
A glimpse of their history explains it. They were the last to wear the red kerchiefs of the Young Pioneers; the Soviet Union collapsed when they were preteens. Anyone younger hadn't quite internalized the regime, and those older had a base of maturity on which to ride the change. This class was unique, and they could use it to good advantage, too. One was informed by a fellow student in an American pastoral counseling program, "You haven't had enough life experience to be an effective minister." She sweetly replied, "Does the fall of communism count?"
|Klaipeda, Lithuania, in 2005 (PHOTO BY ANDRIUS VANAGAS)
They were neither trusting nor easily led. They told me about the films they'd been shown in elementary school celebrating heroic children who turned in their parents as traitors to the state. When I introduced the subject of eschatology, they burst into a Russian song about the proletariat building the bright tomorrow. When I spoke about martyrdom, I was informed that "it is stupid to die for ideology." It was a particularly striking statement, since one of their schoolmates used a wheelchair because he had been injured in an outbreak of fatal violence during Lithuania's bid for freedom. They were vocally opposed to "American cultural imperialism," but they had the good grace to laugh sheepishly when I told them I would take them more seriously on that point if they weren't smoking American cigarettes when they raised it.
For all that, they were Christians. Their grandmothers carried them to church to be baptized. They had apparently had some decent catechesis along the way. And they were consciously embracing a life of poverty for the sake of their faith, even though they had other options.
Lithuania's economy was a wreck in the late 1990s. A worker's wage was 25 cents an hour for those who could find work. Pensions were a mess, the safety net was barely safety-pinned together. A university education could be the ticket to better things, but not for theology students. Many of the best and brightest had been seduced by the Russian mafia,who were busy buying up businesses and selling off the assets — and that was one of their more pleasant enterprises. My students were full of stories of friends who had prospered in illegal activities, those who had failed, and those who had added themselves to the skyrocketing suicide statistics.
Impressive as their commitment was, my students were attached to their small luxuries. As the semester moved to its end, I was asked repeatedly and anxiously about grading. It seems that their very small cash stipend was linked to their grade point average. "No A's, no cigarettes," explained my favorite translator. The school was housed then in a 16th-century parsonage, and the central fireplace was here they crowded to smoke. That scene became symbolic for me of a trait shared by seminarians — even less exotic ones. That is a balance between sacrificial generosity of spirit and a longing — sometimes wistful, sometimes aggressively pursued — for comforts that would be theirs if they had made different choices.
How to manage that balance is unique in every situation. What is poverty in one circumstance is comfort in another. And seminarians have lots of other things on their plates to sort out. It is not to be assumed that they have learned the balance between the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves in matters economic. Remember, it is for your sakes that seminarians have been called. Support them in their calling, not just with cash, but with shared wisdom, or at least the willingness to enter into conversation about what it means for a worker to be worthy of his hire.