The Underbelly of Things

LWF Backstage Pass participants Rev. Michael and Rev. Penelope Guntermann share a tender moment during the first day of the trek. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner
LWF Backstage Pass participants Rev. Michael and Rev. Penelope Guntermann share a tender moment during the first day of the trek. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner

LWF Backstage Pass

LWF Backstage Pass is offering trekkers from the communion a unique glimpse behind the scenes into Nepal and the work of the Department for World Service there.

In this series, journey with LWF Journalist for World Service Cornelia Kästner as she meets staff and the people they serve, finds out how World Service is working with communities to improve their quality of life, and learns how the LWF lives out its values in an interfaith context.

The first trekking day of the LWF Backstage Pass saw some rather unusual things: The trekking group’s senior, Pastor Michael Guntermann, carrying a basket of manure – and an elderly couple kissing at several interesting view points. Time to meet some of the LWF Backstage Pass participants.

Pastors Michael and Penelope Guntermann from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) are with 68 and 64 years respectively the seniors of the group. Seasoned trekkers (Bhutan, Chile, Peru, Dolomites), they learnt about the Backstage Pass by chance as the LWF was mentioned in the annual synod assembly and they just thought they would look up this organization they didn’t know about on their mobile devices. The first thing they saw was the advert for the LWF Backstage Pass.

 “It was a call”, Penelope tells. “We had always wanted to go to Nepal, and the idea of the backstage pass appealed to us because we were interested in seeing what the church does on our behalf – not in terms of proselytizing, but by helping people in need. We are also very interested in interfaith dialogue, and think the LWF Nepal program is a great chance to learn more about how LWF partners with Tibetan, Buddhist and Hindu organizations”. But most of all the couple liked the idea “to see a country off-screen, the so-called underbelly of things”.

With an incredible energy and passion, the couple put together presentations about LWF Nepal and went to tell friends, family and congregations about it. A friend created a video, another set up a facebook page. “There were donations of skill and of money” Penelope recalls. The couple raised more than 11,000 USD. “We just got very excited about what LWF does in Nepal, and that excitement seems to have infected other people”.

There is an energy in Michael and Penelope which makes for some very interesting trekking experiences. While Penelope had a Tibetan monk bless an amulet on the settlement visit, during a break Michael was seen among Nepali peasants carrying a basket of manure.

“It’s a practice I started on a trek in Bhutan” he explained. “We ask to share in some everyday work people are doing. It is a great way to connect and to honor their dignity and the work they do”.

After rice harvest and breaking concrete, it was manure today – an everyday task, as cows are kept mainly to produce fertilizer for the rice fields. “The basket was very heavy, and here I see this young girl hop up the stairs, hop onto the small wall separating the fields, hop into the field, and with a whip of her head drop the load of the designated spot. My hopping looked a lot less graceful”, he says.

Michael met the girl’s father, who was shoveling the manure into the baskets, and then was helped to shoulder the heavy and rather smelly load in the local manner with a headstrap. “The girl was maybe 12 years old, and she was doing this heavy physical labor for hours” he says. Education clearly is a privilege, the peasant girls a contrast to the many children in school uniforms we met on the trek. Still there was a lot of grace in that rather smelly work, Penelope recalls ”They were wearing beautiful dresses, and did not have one spot on them”. Michael’s shirt on the opposite certainly bore some evidence of the short internship.

Michael and Penelope however also know how to enjoy trekking. While the rest of the 14 participants were panting up the 3672 steps from Pokhara to Ulleri, covering 1000 meters in height, the couple was seen sharing rather long kisses at special viewpoints. Another tradition they started on a former trek (Patagonia) and continued with passion in Nepal.

Backstage Pass

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.