By Marci Narum
New beginnings are part of life, every day, in many ways. Writer and poet, T.S. Elliot said, “Every moment is a fresh beg
in- ning.” Pastor Renee Splichal Larson of Bis- marck would agree. And she points to her own life and her firm foundation of faith in the ability to see new beginnings offered to all of us.
“I believe in a God of new beginnings. It’s noticing the spring green, the way music touches us, and the way creativity comes to us. Or what we learn and who we become because of what we’ve been through, not in spite of it. It forms us, and shapes us,” says Pastor Renee Splichal Larson. “For that I am grateful.”
God offered Renee a new beginning six-and-a-half years ago, after Renee experienced the deepest pain she has ever known: the death of her husband, Ben. He died after being buried in the rubble of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. He was one of an estimated 300,000 killed.
Renee and Ben were in Haiti, along with Ben’s cousin Jon Larson, as seminary students. All three felt called to be there, believing their relationships with the Haitian people would help them become better pastors.
“A day or two following the earthquake Jon and I were still in Haiti waiting at the U.S. Embassy to see if we could help or what we should do. Jon and I were grieving, and Jon said to me, ‘Renee you’re going to write about all this someday.’”
And she did.
STARTING TO WRITE
It started immediately. Jon and Renee began journaling, writing down words, phrases, people’s names, short thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Renee says they wanted to remember.
Renee returned home, arranged a funeral and burial for her husband, and finished seminary. She took her first call as a pastor, at Heart River Lutheran Church in Mandan. Still grieving, Renee would write down her thoughts in a journal, as an outlet for her grief. Telling her story in a book was always in the back of her mind, but actually doing it was not easy. In fact, Renee calls it painful.
“I would start writing. I would sit at my computer and write a sentence or two and just end up crying. It was so difficult to form language to what we had experienced. There wasn’t language for the depth of grief that I was feeling, and the loss. What I had seen in the earthquake, and being in it,” remembers Pastor Renee. “I would end up grieving for a number of hours and have to set it aside. I continued to do that for three years after the earthquake.”
During a three week writing sabbatical in the summer of 2013, Renee wrote the majority of her book. She says, “The whole story poured out of me.” And Renee chose to share very openly about her life, this experience of death and grief, and her new beginnings.
“It’s been very hard to know what I’ve written in there and to release it. But in the end, my hope for it is that people can connect. No matter what kind of loss people have suffered they would nd similarities or connect in some way to what I’ve written. And ultimately I wrote it and released it in order that it might give people hope,” explains Pastor Renee. “I called it A Witness because that’s what it is in the Christian sense of the word. It’s a testimony, or a life story.
“One, it’s to get Ben’s witness out there, because he sang when he died. I mean, who does that? But also my witness. That new beginnings, resurrections happened in my life. And if it happened in my life, it can happen in all people’s lives. I hope they can connect on some level with that.”
Renee has already heard from many people who are connecting with her book. One, a father of four, uses the book as a way to introduce faith conversations with his children. Others are pastors who want their church committees to read the book. And it’s being read in groups for discussion purposes.
Renee graduated from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and in May, she was there for a book-signing and panel discussion about her book. One panelist was Mytch, her Haitian friend and pastor, who, through tears, shared the deep significance A Witness has for her. Listen to Pastor Renee talk about this powerful moment by visiting this link: inspiredwomanonline.com/Witness
HER NEW BEGINNINGS
The cover of A Witness is a photo taken by Jon, of a mass grave in Haiti, called St. Christoph. Renee says she and Jon went back to Haiti twice after the earthquake and they visited that mass grave each time.
“It’s hundreds of black crosses. One of many, many, mass graves. I think, I could have been in here.”
But she wasn’t, thanks to the Hatian people, who cared for Renee and Jon during and after the earthquake. They also gave them the greatest gift of digging out Ben’s body by hand, making it possible to have his body returned three weeks later and buried in Iowa.
Six-and-a-half years after the earthquake, Renee says she is full of gratitude. Her new beginnings have been unexpected and beautiful. It’s fair to say the tragedy that took away her first husband did make her a better pastor. It made Ben’s cousin Jon a better pastor. And it made Jon something else, too.
“I would see that my call is a beginning of my ministry and my marriage to Jon a few years later, my goodness what a beginning and a surprise! Never could I have imagined,” says Pastor Renee with a smile. “And then our son, Gabriel. It makes me excited for life.
“To have a point where I thought my world was ending, because a lot of people’s worlds ended that day, in the midst of the shaking of the earth. It really did seem and feel that the world was ending. And my life and my world the way I knew it did end. But here I am and I’m grateful.
“I still grieve, and long that this didn’t happen and that Ben was still alive. But I can look for these new beginnings God offers us. And it happens all the time.”
A Witness is available on the Wipf & Stock Publisher’s website, Melberg Church Supply & Book, through Amazon or from Pastor Renee (email her at Splichal.firstname.lastname@example.org). She is also working on making it available at Barnes and Noble.