Rev. Eric Ekong’s parish in Jackson, Mich., is about 480 miles away from the Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Despite the miles, he continues to find ways to be connected to his theological alma mater.
A 2013 graduate, Ekong has been back on campus as a guest preacher, serving at the 2016 Multiethnic Symposium. His church is a regular host for one of the Seminary’s annual summer workshops, including one this year with Professor Dr. Mark Rockenbach. On Call Day, he is a faithful presence on Twitter during the Seminary’s live stream events, cheering on and offering words of prayer and encouragement to his future brothers in ministry.
“What I like about Eric is the ability he has to commit himself to a task and follow it through to completion,” said Dr. Timothy Saleska, the Seminary’s dean of Ministerial Formation. “He is extremely faithful and is a man of his word. You can count on him to do what he says he will do. This makes him a man of integrity — a rarity these days.”
Ekong aims to live out the meaning of his middle name, Ini-obong, which means “one with God.” For him, it is a reminder of being one of God’s children.
Ministry is part of the Ekong family tree. His father, Hosea, is a Lutheran pastor in Ohio. His grandfather, Jonathan Udo Ekong, founded The Lutheran Church of Nigeria in the 1930s, an LCMS partner church body which today has more than 80,000 members.
As a child, Ekong says he figured one day he would make it to the Seminary. But he admits he took his time.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he says many of his teachers and classmates at Lutheran High School East told him he would make a good pastor. He took their words to heart but even so, he decided to take a break midway through his undergraduate degree at Concordia University Ann Arbor, Mich., switching his major from theology to technology. For more than 10 years he worked as a Unix administrator for Verizon.
Ironically, it was technology that eventually led him back to his initial path to the Seminary. “I was just on the internet clicking around and somehow found myself on the Concordia Seminary website,” Ekong explains. “Before I knew it, I was filling out the online request for more information.”
The Seminary’s admissions team members responded with a personalized note along with a packet of information, telling him they remembered his dad from his time at the Seminary. For Ekong, it made a difference. He returned to Ann Arbor and finished his undergraduate degree with the goal of coming to the Seminary. He even attended one of the Seminary’s visitation events for prospective students, Contemplate, but by then his mind was made up. “I handed the admissions counselor my application when I got there,” Ekong says.
Ekong and his wife, Linda, and their children arrived in St. Louis in 2009. They wanted to make the Seminary not only their home but also their ministry. As a student being formed for pastoral ministry, he viewed his interactions with his teachers, the staff and his fellow students as an opportunity to serve them through Christ. “It gave me a foretaste of what was going to happen in the ministry,” Ekong says. “Forming relationships with the community as a whole changed me. It was a valuable experience in what was coming next.”
What came next was Call Day in April 2013, and Ekong’s call to Trinity Lutheran Church in Jackson, Mich., as senior pastor, a church he still serves. He admits with a laugh that he doesn’t remember much about what happened after his name was read. “I couldn’t remember the role or position but I did remember the city and the district,” he recalls. “My wife looked over all of the call documents before me. But all I can remember thinking is, ‘God has a place for me to serve.’”
And Ekong found plenty of people to serve in the name of Christ in Jackson. As senior pastor, he says he serves the staff and students of Trinity Lutheran School, where three of his five children currently attend. He makes a point to visit his congregation members who are in the hospital or homebound.
He says his church, which is adjacent to the local YMCA and county courthouse in downtown Jackson, is in a great place to serve the community. Like many cities, Ekong says Jackson deals with the social issues of poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Jackson is also the site of five jails, including one state penitentiary, and Ekong says that means a growing population of families who move to be closer to incarcerated loved ones.
The church, he believes, must be there for the community. “When people give up trying to figure things out by themselves, they turn to us, if they have a good relationship with the church,” Ekong explains. “We try to conduct ourselves in a specific way, so when these troubles come, people know what they’re going to get when they come.”
Ekong says he tries to be a liaison between the church and the Seminary, and to encourage others to consider the ministry if they feel that is what God wants for them. One son of his congregation, Matthew Dubensky, is currently a first-year seminarian at Concordia Seminary.
Dubensky says his relationship with Ekong actually began during Ekong’s Seminary years. Dubensky attended the visitation event known as Taste of the Sem during his sophomore and junior years of high school. Both times he shadowed Ekong. “We ended up staying in contact over the next couple of years and I occasionally would message him on Facebook or Twitter and ask him a theology question because who better to ask than a seminarian?” Dubensky says.
Ekong was called to Trinity while Dubensky was working on his undergraduate degree. Dubensky says he now considers Ekong a mentor who still encourages and provides advice to him as he pursues his own path in ministry. For Ekong, it is an honor to serve as a pastor, a mentor and an ambassador for Concordia Seminary. “It’s up to a pastor to connect the dots for people,” he says. “I’m here. Let’s do God’s work.”
By Kendra Whittle
Rev. Eric Ekong preaches in chapel in 2016. Photo: Kendra Whittle