It was a whirlwind of a summer for Rev. Joel Fritsche and his family. During June and July, the family logged 10,000 miles on their rental van as they visited congregations in 12 states to share about their lives as missionaries in the Dominican Republic.
Fritsche, a 1996 Concordia graduate, had always been interested in being a missionary, but it wasn’t something he pursued after graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 2000. After he and his wife, Clarion, a 2000 Concordia Wisconsin graduate, were married in 2003 and eventually adopted three sons from Russia, the couple started to think about what it’d be like to serve overseas after going through the adoption process.
“We thought how cool it would be to serve overseas in some way and if the opportunity ever came our way we would consider it,” Joel said.
In 2013, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) was putting more efforts into recruiting missionaries, Joel said. He’s not exactly sure how the connection got made, but he received a phone call asking if he and Clarion would be interested in international service.
“We were interested in going to Eastern Europe, since we had adopted our boys from Russia, maybe the Lord wants us to go there,” Joel said. “Through the course of conversations, we got connected with Latin America. One thing led to another and we ended up in the Dominican Republic.”
The Fritsche family arrived in the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo in February 2015, where Joel served the Amigos De Cristo church, supporting the only national pastor in the Dominican Republic for the next three years.
“He had not been a pastor very long,” Joel said. “He also had not been a Christian his whole life, so I was there to guide him and mentor to help him grow as a pastor and shepherd that congregation.”
After three years, Joel was named director of Centro de Misericordia y Seminario Concordia el Reformador (Concordia the Reformer Seminary and Mercy Center), a new seminary located in the community of Palmar Arriba, near the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic.
The seminary was two and a half hours from the Fritsche family’s home base in Santo Domingo, so he would be in Santiago during the week and Santo Domingo on the weekends for the church service and activities. Joel was making that commute every week for a year, he said, and it started to take its toll. However, Joel was made full-time at the seminary, and at the same time, he was named pastor of Iglesia Luterana de Pueblo Nuevo (Lutheran Church of Pueblo Neuvo), which meant he could serve both places in the same location.
The seminary currently serves 40 pastoral formation students from 12 countries and 140 deaconess students in five countries all over Latin America, including the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and Spain, with an emphasis on church planting. In May, the seminary graduated its first class of eight students.
“That’s been very cool to be on this little island on the Caribbean where Columbus landed to bring the gospel to the new world,” he said. “The cool thing is now we’re receiving students from all over Latin America and sending the gospel to all corners of the region.”
Planting a Lutheran church in Latin America is not a quick process, Joel said, it takes a lot of time, energy and connections. He works with a team of three students, a deaconess and a vicar and the team usually conducts visits in groups of two or three.
“I spend a lot of time visiting with people and providing pastoral care because you’re working with new Christians who maybe identified as Roman Catholic but not active in a church,” Joel said. “They don’t know the Gospel of Christ. Yes, they know who Jesus is, they can recognize Jesus on the cross, but they don’t have an understanding of the Gospel and that he died on the cross for me to forgive my sins.”
The missionary life is a family effort, Joel said, because everyone is involved in some way and everyone is making the sacrifice of living overseas.
“They are giving up some things that they’d have in the states,” Joel said, “but there are also a lot of blessings.”
As Joel serves as a pastor and director of the seminary, his wife, Clarion, is enrolled in the online deaconess program through Concordia Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Since she is already involved with the mission efforts, being a deaconess was the next logical step, Joel said. Clarion, a former Lutheran elementary school teacher, also assists their three sons, Viktor (16), Sergei (14) and Andrei (10), with their online schooling.
All three boys are active in music, Joel said, and Viktor and Sergei assist with music in the mission. Viktor plays the piano, Sergei plays the guitar and Andrei just started his piano lessons.
When the Fritsches started their mission work, the synod asked for a three-to-five-year commitment, but Joel said the family is planning to continue their work for the foreseeable future.
“We really love what we’re doing,” he said. “I want to see where our seminary goes and continue to work and serve the missions here. With Clarion doing deaconess studies, we’re certainly committed to serving here.”
This summer, the Fritsche family traveled to Houston, where Joel is originally from, and started their biannual two-month tour of the states where they shared their mission with their supporters. The tour included Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Illinois.
“It’s been super encouraging to have the support of the church,” Joel said. “Every congregation that we visit has been excited about what we do here and has been a critical part of what we do here.”
One of the stops in June was at Concordia Nebraska for the Higher Things conference, where Joel was one of the plenary speakers. It was the first time in 10 years Joel was back on campus.
“The campus has certainly grown,” he said. “I stayed in Philip Dorm for five days and ate in the dining hall, all that stuff, it was surreal to be back in that environment again but in a different capacity.”
Concordia gave Joel the foundation and the love for the biblical languages and theology, he said.
“What I teach now is Greek and Hebrew,” he said. “Professors Ken Block and Mark Meehl really were key in my pastoral formation as a pre-seminary student. It was their passion for what they taught that sparked a passion in me for those things.”
While at Concordia, Joel had the opportunity to teach Greek as a senior because Block was on sabbatical. That experience proved to be a formative time for Joel and had an impact on what he’s doing today, he said.