Young Lutheran pastors rebuild their lives after Haiti tragedy

Collapsed building in Haiti
A view of the collapsed St. Joseph's Home for Boys where Ben Larson was killed when an earthquake struck Haiti on January, 12 2010.
Courtesy of the Larson family

Eleven months after the earthquake in Haiti, Renee Splichal Larson is doing what she and her husband had hoped to do together: serve a Lutheran congregation.

Benjamin Larson, the son of two Duluth pastors, was among more than 200,000 people killed in the earthquake on Jan. 12. He died when the orphanage where he was staying with his wife and cousin collapsed.

Renee is an ordained Lutheran pastor now, serving a small congregation that gathers each Sunday at a youth correctional facility in Mandan, N.D. She said she knows Ben would approve of the assignment.

"I think he would be thrilled," Renee told MPR's All Things Considered.

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During the interview, she and Ben's cousin, Jonathan Larson, reflected on the months that followed the tragedy in Haiti. They both said it's been a difficult year.

"We struggle along with it all the time," Renee said. "It's not that we ever reach a point and say, 'well, glad I understand that,' or look back on it. It's still as confusing to us today as it was then."

Jonathan, who now works with children and youth at the Duluth church where Ben's mother serves as pastor, said he and Renee's faith "has been confronted by the reality of life and death."

"We continue on in the midst of that and tell people about it, and live the best we can," he said.

Both still plan to visit Haiti when the time is right. They've even bought books to learn Creole.

For now, though, they said they continue to honor Ben's memory by telling stories about him and sharing his music. Jonathan recalls teaching one of Ben's songs during the children's part of a worship service in October, saying it brought him true joy.

"You could feel the entire room breathe together," he said. "It was a moment in which time stopped."

Renee said she's found joy in singing and spending time with family members and people at her church.

Another thing that gave her comfort was finding a slip of paper in the writings of Ben's grandmother, who died a few years ago: "An earthquake is not an act of God, but the act of God is the courage of the people to rebuild their lives after it."

"It helped me to think through how do we respond to tragedies like this, and if we stay in them and dwell in them, how it can consume us," Renee said. "Not to push it aside or forget, but deeply struggle in and with the people and also have joy in the midst of it."

"If we laugh in spite of all that happens," she said, "there is something more."

(MPR's Tom Crann contributed to this report.)