By Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service today celebrates the life of Vilis Varsbergs.
Vilis led a remarkable life — as a young boy, he was a refugee who fled his home in Latvia in the face of war. He fled to Germany with his family, where his father was killed in Berlin by a U.S. bombing raid, and so again he fled — this time to the United States.
He studied in Fremont, NE and Chicago, and was ordained in 1957 in Michigan. For many years he served the Chicago area as pastor of the Zion Latvian Lutheran Church and then of St. Peter’s Latvian Church. He served as the president of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and returned to Latvia to head the theology program at the University of Latvia.
Vilis also served on the Board of Directors of LIRS — where he contributed leadership that was not satisfied with the status quo. He knew firsthand the experience of being displaced, and what it means to leave the homeland you love and find it necessary to make a home in a new land. He fought for protection and possibility for new generations of refugees, and was a lifelong friend and supporter to LIRS until his death on April 22.
He leaves so many family and friends, as well as the whole Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that celebrate his life and grieve his death. Especially he leaves with us his wife Biruta; his children Rev. Anita Varsbergs-Paza (who also served on the LIRS board, representing the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2004–2009), Krista, and Victor; and his grandchildren Emma, Zoe, Mika, and Kristine.
I had the privilege of attending Vilis’ funeral in Oak Brook, IL last week in a packed St. Peter’s Latvian Church where his life was recalled and celebrated. I spoke on behalf of LIRS about his experience as a refugee, and his generosity of spirit in extending welcome to newcomers — wanting them to have the same opportunities he had to experience the fullness of faith and family, hope and belonging.