Rev. John Melin ‘70
John Melin came to Luther from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. He majored in Political Science and Religion and upon graduation, travelled west to Laos where he taught English for a few months before travelling through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Middle Asian countries before completing his pilgrimage in the former USSR. This experience was the start of an amazing and varied life of international ministry abroad.
He returned to Iowa later that year to marry his wife, Barbara Brownell, a Wartburg College alumna, and the pair went off to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, Calif., where John received a Lutheran World Federation Scholarship to intern in southern Brazil in 1972. He learned Portuguese and served the Lutheran Church in Novo Hamburgo where the congregation assisted and supported many poor and homeless families.
John earned the M.Div., degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in 1974, was ordained in the LCA, and served the Lutheran World Federation in New York City for a few years organizing scholarships and exchange programs for international students studying in the U.S., and for American students studying abroad.
In 1977, John was called to serve as the first American pastor in the Lutheran Church of the Netherlands, serving as a pastor in historic congregations dating back to the 16th Century, as well as a multi-cultural congregation of recent immigrants in an economically challenged neighborhood. He also served as a hospital chaplain at the Lutheran Deaconess Hospital of Amsterdam, and as director of the Lutheran Pastoral Care and Counseling Center.
John recognized the racial and economic divide in his church and community as local issues… but also understood the institutional roots of racism and poverty on an international scale. The two global issues at that time in the 1980s included Apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear weapons in Europe. Much time was spent organizing an economic boycott of South Africa, and marching against the placement of weapons in the Netherlands. John also became involved in ecumenism, and he served as president of two regional councils of churches and participated in inter-religious dialogue with Jews, Muslim and Hindus… and in Holland’s highly secularized society, dialogue with those who had no religious belief was also important.
Accepting a call from the ELCA’s Division of Global Mission in 1990, John continued his journey to serve as pastor of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, a congregation for international English-speaking people living in the Soviet Union as diplomats, students, business people and journalists. For nearly 30 years, this was the only non-Russian speaking protestant community in the Soviet Union.
On December 31, 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and the Soviet Union was dissolved… It was a turbulent time and John’s congregation pivoted to expand their ministry beyond the expatriate community to the Russian people of Moscow. The congregation served 1,200 meals daily to needy Russian seniors whose pensions had become worthless due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ministry continued for more than 20 years, serving more than 2-million meals.
At the same time, In 1992, thousands of Somali’s fled civil war and violence of their homeland to Europe. A few thousand refugees fled to Moscow, a place with no organizations willing or able to help them. With the Russian winter approaching, Melin’s congregation agreed to help as many as possible, and within weeks, were able to offer nearly 2000 Somalis, food and shelter in five different housing facilities in the city, the first ever refugee camps established in the former Soviet Union. After several months of negotiating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they agreed to take over the camps, allowing John’s congregation to return to relative normalcy.
The congregation continued to grow in numbers and nationalities, color, Christian traditions as well as other religions. It was not unusual on Sunday mornings to have Catholic, Protestant, orthodox and Pentecostal Christians worshiping alongside Hindus, Jews and Muslims… In John’s words, “It was an ecumenical dream come true, and we were blessed to be a part of it.”
Another international call in November of 1993 took John and Barbara to the English-speaking Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. Since 1967, Palestine had been occupied by Israel and the struggle for an independent Palestine was part of daily life and so are walls, long lines at checkpoints, and armed guards. John worked closely with the Palestinian Lutheran Church holding services together in English and Arabic. He also supported efforts for the Palestinians to capitalize on “alternative tourism,” an industry controlled by Israelis at that time. Alternative tourism that also provides the Palestinian perspective has grown significantly. John was also involved with the restoration of the 13th century Crusader Chapel, which is within the Church of the Redeemer complex.
Following three decades of tumultuous service in international ministry in sometimes depressing and perilous circumstances, John moved to the relative calm of Andorra in the Pyrenees mountains where his efforts were aimed at raising awareness for those who suffered around the world.
In retirement, John and Barbara lived for a few years in the south of France, but have finally returned to the United States and call Hilton Head, S.C. home, and John has served the interdenominational, Chapel Without Walls as associate pastor. In addition to receiving this Distinguished Service Award from Luther College, John was recognized by PLTS with the President’s Award for Distinguished Ministry in 1992, and was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International (Moscow) in 1993.
John and Barbara are members of the Heritage Club at Luther, and with John’s brother, Bennett, they established the Melin International Studies Scholarship in 2016 and the Melin-Brownell International Studies Scholarship in 2017. Both scholarships are awarded by the International Studies Board to a student majoring in International Studies, to manage expenses related to tuition, travel, and living expenses while participating in an academic year, semester or a semester and a summer study in Africa, with preference given to sub-Saharan African nations.