Building Bridges for Six Decades: Meet Larry and Cindy Hoffsis

Note: This was the cover feature for the April 2020 issue of Centerville-Washington Neighbors Magazine, which is mailed monthly to 3,661 homes in Centerville and Washington Township. Photos are by Ashley Mauro of Ashley Mauro Photography.

By Jeff Louderback

Carefully and meticulously, Larry Hoffsis straightens the Vincent van Gogh painting positioned as the centerpiece of a gallery wall in the home he shares with his wife of 60 years, Cindy. The Langlois Bridge at Arles is a reproduction; but to the couple, who recently celebrated the birth of their first great-grandchild, it’s a priceless piece symbolizing a ministry that has spanned six decades, culminating in Larry’s role as senior pastor and Cindy’s as director of handbell music at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Washington Township.

Theirs is a journey that has taken them to East Germany before the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall were torn down, to create handbell choirs there for young Christians, and to the deep South, where a group of mostly black members from Mt. Enon Missionary Baptist Church and mostly white members from Epiphany joined together to visit culturally impactful places from the civil rights movement.

“Building bridges is better than building fences or walls,” Larry said, as he gave an approving nod at the van Gogh painting that he received as a gift from a friend from the former East Germany when he retired as pastor of Epiphany in 2000. “Our most significant time together was in bringing persons from the east and west in contact with each other during the Cold War, using music—the music of handbells—to construct that bridge. The same belief inspired the meaningful partnership between Epiphany and Mt. Enon in west Dayton.”

Long before Larry and Cindy forged a path of building bridges, they were born and raised in small towns. Larry grew up on a 200-acre farm in northern Ohio, 45 minutes south of Lake Erie. He attended Sulphur Springs High School and spent all 12 years of school in one building. Cindy was born in the hamlet of Kingscreek and grew up in nearby Urbana.

The couple met at Capital University in Columbus, where Larry studied theology and Cindy majored in music. They were sophomores when they performed in a choir that traveled around the United States and Canada.

“We know for sure that it was fall of 1956 when we met,” Cindy said. “We developed a friendship and bond during a choir tour. When you spend two weeks traveling on a bus, you have a lot of time to get to know someone.

“I remember that, when we returned from the tour, I kept my roommate up for hours, telling her about Larry,” Cindy added with a grin.

Friendship grew into a romance; and when Cindy was nominated for the prestigious May Queen competition at Capital, Larry managed the campaign. During college, as they pursued their degrees, Larry and Cindy both served as choir directors at different churches. They anxiously awaited the moment they would earn their degrees and start their life together as a bridge-building team.

“We said we would not get married until we graduated. Some of our classmates were married during our senior year, but we decided to wait,” Larry recalled. “We graduated on June 1, 1959, which was a Monday. We married on Tuesday.”

“It might seem odd that we would have a wedding on a Tuesday; but we did that so our friends could attend, since college was officially over and everyone would be going their separate ways,” Cindy added.

Larry continued his pastoral education path at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. The couple spent his internship year in Spokane, Washington, and, following graduation, a stint in Heidelberg, Germany, for his post-graduate work. Larry was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1977 and earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in 1993. He served Lutheran parishes in Sidney and Columbus, before arriving at Epiphany in 1979. Cindy taught special education and music at Kettering City Schools, where she remained from 1980 to 1997.

“It’s likely that God called me to Epiphany to give me an opportunity to experience ministry in a setting new to me—that of a growing suburban community,” Larry said. “I had already experienced life in a congregation of farmers, having grown up in St. Paul Lutheran Church in north central Ohio. My first parish, St. John Lutheran Church, was in the small town of Sidney. When God’s call came to serve Epiphany, I was in my 13th year of ministry at Old Trinity Lutheran Church, a metropolitan church in a large urban setting in downtown Columbus.”

The handbell choir story originated at Epiphany, where Cindy was director of the handbell choir program.

Larry first traveled to East Germany in 1985, as one of six Lutherans allowed to visit churches there. At the time, East and West Germany were separated by the Iron Curtain. Christianity was frowned upon by the Communist government of East Germany, and church members were depressed.

“I wanted to return with youth, but I was told that would be impossible,” Larry said. “So I thought, ‘What if the return trip wasn’t billed as religious in nature, but instead cultural? Perhaps a youth handbell concert tour.’”

In 1986, Epiphany’s youth handbell choir performed to standing-room-only congregations in East Germany.

“Germans love bells. At the time most of the bells were in church steeples; but churches were neglected by the Nazis, and many of those churches remained in ruins under Communist rule,” Larry said. “Few churches were rebuilt, and many of the ones left standing did not have bells that still rang in the towers. Some of the bells were removed during World War II and melted down to support the Nazi war effort.”

The following year Larry sought and was granted permission from the East German government to import two 48-bell sets of handbells to donate to selected churches. In August 1987, Cindy, Larry and another Epiphany member were in a Volkswagen van loaded with shiny new handbells, approaching the border crossing between West and East Germany.

“As we approached the Iron Curtain, I read one more time the permission slip to import these bells, and I was aghast when I read ‘Permission granted to import one set of handbells.’ We had two,” Larry said. “Thankfully the border guards were perplexed, and they had no idea how many bells constituted a set. They allowed our van to enter the country with one set of 96 bells!”

Epiphany and other Lutheran churches across the United States raised enough funds to purchase one set of Schulmerich and another of Malmark handbells, the latter used to found the Handbell Choir of the St. Augustine Lutheran Church in Gotha.

The Epiphany team of three spent a week teaching church members how to play their new instruments. Youth of all grade levels learned how to ring, including Matthias Eichhorn, the 8-year-old son of the church’s music director.

St. Augustine would play a significant role in the peaceful revolution that overthrew the Communist regime in 1989. Matthias grew up to become an acclaimed jazz musician in the reunified Germany. He also now leads some 100 ringers in St. Augustine’s six handbell choirs, some of which have performed at Epiphany and other churches in the United States.

“I often think of the folk song lyrics ‘If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out justice, and if I had a bell, I’d ring out for freedom,’” Larry said. “And in some ways, that really did build a bridge between east and west during the frightening years of the Cold War.”

Larry and Cindy continued their bridge-building when Epiphany Lutheran Church and Mt. Enon Missionary Baptist Church formed a partnership that encouraged its members to worship and discuss societal issues together. In 1997, the group started embarking on civil rights pilgrimages to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama.

“We met with people who were involved in the actual events during the civil rights movement,” Cindy said. “Many people from both churches said it was a life-altering experience and had a moving impact on how they viewed life and freedom.”

Larry retired as pastor of Epiphany in 2000, but he wasn’t retired for long. He and Cindy worked as mission development consultants for a year in Mecklenburg, Germany. The following years, Larry worked in global missions and development for Epiphany, as well as in congregational relations for Graceworks Lutheran Services (the parent company of Bethany Village). It was not until 2018 that he stepped down from the last of those roles with Graceworks.

Last year Larry and Cindy decided to downsize from their home of 30 years in Miami Township and move to a cottage on the campus of Bethany Village. They told their children—Steve, Becky and John—that they were preparing for their next adventure.

Traveling, hiking and gardening now fill the couple’s days. They have six grandchildren to accompany their three children and first great-grandchild. Larry is taking mandolin lessons at Hauer Music, and Cindy has heightened her interest in cooking. They celebrated their 60th anniversary on June 2, 2019. Both attribute their common interest in music, and their commitment to building bridges, to the happiness and longevity in their marriage.

The chapters of life change, Larry explained, but you remain excited about today and the future when you share your world with the partner who helped write those pages.