I particularly wanted to see whether pictures from last weekend’s coup d’ etat in Honduras might be available, especially as I had just been scheduled to be there at the end of May.
Michael Jackson named Diana Ross as the guardian of his children if his mother is unable or unwilling to care for them….
I also wondered what the reaction might be from government officials concerning the rise in unemployment to 9.5%, with another 467,000 more people out of work last month, the worst such numbers since 1983.
Michael Jackson may have consumed as much as $48,000 a month in prescription drugs…
The crackdown in Iran continues to boil and I fear for and cheer the Iranian people engaged in their struggle for voice, so I sought to hear reports from that news-strangled country.
Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch covers 2,800 acres and he paid $30 million for it, though he didn’t live there anymore….
With the Fourth of July creeping up, I hoped to hear something about North Korea’s possible plans for an "event" of some sort on the holiday.
Three of Michael Jackson’s albums are now selling more than any other artist, current or past….
Michael Jackson’s neighbor remembers Michael as a very nice, caring person….
Michael Jackson’s manager says that the singer was in terrific shape for the upcoming tour….
Michael Jackson’s brother says that Michael will be missed….
Michael Jackson’s sister says that he was much more than an icon to her family….
A full five days following the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death, one hour of television news contained 48 minutes of Michael Jackson. The other 12 minutes were local weather and commercial messages.
Coup d’ etat. The people of Honduras deserve better than that….
I’ve been carrying a lovely "blessing" around with me, on the desktop of my computer and in my briefcase, so that I see and contemplate it often. I obtained it from a young woman who had performed mission work in Central America; she did not know who might have written it. Frankly, the anonymity makes it almost more poignant than if I knew the writer’s identity. I like to reflect on the words and their implications.
Blessing for the Poor
May we be blessed with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that we will live deep in our hearts.
May we be blessed with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth. so that we will work for justice, equity and peace.
May we be blessed with tears to shed for those who suffer so we will reach out our hands to comfort them and change their pain to joy.
And may we be blessed with the foolishness to think that we can make a difference in this world
so that we will do the things which others say cannot be done.
Over the many months in which I’ve carried this, it has served as a reminder to me of the many wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met in Nicaragua. I have thought of our many partners when reading these lines, calling to mind the immense poverty in which most of them live, the needs to be met, and the tremendous obstacles that prevent them from experiencing all that they are capable of being. It has made me mindful of the poor, but when I read it again today, it caused me to think about precisely who the poor really are.
For all these months, I have read the blessing from the vantage point of the one blessed, of one who has been granted all the opportunities and material comforts about which any human could reasonably dream. I have regarded the poor, therefore, as the ones with whom I visit several times each year, in the midst of their overwhelming material needs. But for whatever reason, today I reversed the roles in this blessing; I was both astonished and mortified at my epiphany!
Today I read myself in the role of the poor, the one in need, as one who is impoverished. Not in material ways, but in the ways of the spirit and servanthood. Instead of seeing myself as a favored one who has the power and the means to bring "rescue" to the needy, I could suddenly discern that my Nicaraguan brothers and sisters are the ones on whom I must lean, to pull myself out from the weight of a life that has been too narrow, self-absorbed and quite oblivious to the real needs in the world.
This blessing is for the poor. But I have required months to recognize that the subject of the blessing is each of us. In our own ways, we are all impoverished and desperately in need of what others can give to us. Those needs may be material, they may be of the spirit, they may be of the intellect. But the holistic health of the entire world is dependent upon what each of us gives, not receives. Poverty is simply the measure of what it is that each of us lacks, and thus, what we need from each other.
We are all in immense poverty of some sort, having needs to be met, and beset with tremendous obstacles that prevent us from experiencing all that we are capable of being. It’s funny how familiar words can so suddenly be understood in a very different light, just by virtue of the company we keep….
And finally, someone did! I have worked with Harold and Louise Nielsen since 1974.
I served as Foldcraft Co.’s first human resources manager, succeeded Harold as the Company’s second-ever CEO and was provided the opportunity to lead Winds of Peace Foundation, the private foundation begun by Harold and Louise. In between all of that, I served on the Board of Miracle Ranch Children’s Home, a private orphanage established by the Nielsens. I served on the Board of the Nielsen’s Third World Friends Thrift Store in Kenyon, MN, where tons of donated clothing is either sold or sent to Third World locations to benefit the poor. Harold and Louise have always been entrepreneurs, innovators, people who are willing to try new ideas and most often on behalf of others. When you are around individuals like that, things happen. Exciting things. Unexpected things. Naturally, I love to talk about these things.
Anyone who has ever met either of the Nielsens is ready to tell a story, including me. It might be about how they grew their company, or how they came to start the foundation, or about some act of generosity that seems to be their trademark. Every occasion I’ve had to speak publicly about any of the organizations created by the Nielsens has generated queries about these two innovators. Few people have ever met this selfless couple and NOT been moved by their down-to-earth nature and their quiet spirit of caring. The questions are generated by curiosity about what moves these everyday people to act in ways that so consistently impact the lives of others, even around the world. And now, I have a means to provide at least some of the answers.
Steve Swanson is a retired Lutheran clergyman and professor of English at St. Olaf College. He has written many books for both adults and children, and he continues to write and preach as opportunities arise. But his most recent book, One Couple’s Gift (Nine Ten Press, Northfield, MN), is the result of a long-developing relationship with Harold and Louise, and his growing admiration and amazement at the lives of these two visionaries and the initiatives which they created. I had the chance to contribute in some very small ways to the book since I’ve had the privilege of an “inside look” at so many of the Nielsen’s endeavors. But the book and the observations are really Steve Swanson’s and it’s a wonderful story that he tells.
The timing of the tale could not be better, in my opinion. These rather dark economic days have given rise to deeper introspection by many of us, an occasion to examine our lives, our priorities, what’s truly important and necessary versus that which is peripheral and transitory. One Couple’s Gift provides a powerful message through a simple but remarkable story. It gives me at long last a resource to partially explain the fertile environment in which I have found myself working since 1974, leading me to explorations into such worlds as business ethics, employee ownership, servant leadership, microlending, the plight of the poor, and, ultimately, human love and compassion.
What I have been surrounded with for all of those years is now reflected in Harold and Louise’s moving story, and in a book that I can share with others. I just wanted you to know….
Like many kids, when I was a boy I loved gazing up into the night skies to marvel at the vastness of space and the wave of insignificance that would invariably cover me like a blanket. The sensation was a mixture of emotions: fright, due to the infinity of the heavens; security, at the familiarity of the same stars and constellations night after night; wonder, at the creation of an endless space; safety, due to my obvious anonymity in the face of an expectant, demanding world. Yet I marveled, and still do, at the comfort that something so enormous could provide. I suspect that the immensity of it all provided some sort of convoluted confidence that being a mere speck in the universe was a safe thing to be. Much like sitting in back of the classroom or in the last row at church, not much could be expected of me; I could hardly be singled out for anything. Back then, I had yet to become infected with any desire to actually BE singled out as someone who had made a difference or created a legacy of some sort.
These days, I still enjoy searching the universe and its lights of invitation. The heavens are not diminished much by virtue of how much more we know of them today; they remain a majestic mystery for contemplation. But what has changed is the expectation part, the old feeling that among the billions of specks in the firmament, nothing is required or expected from me. Nowadays, in fact, the "starry, starry night" most often conveys a sense of responsibility, of obligation and opportunity, to somehow become some sort of light myself, to relieve the moon and its bright cousins of their never-ending charge. I am left to wonder about ways in which I can differentiate myself and my life as having distinct meaning.
I guess part of me has reluctantly grown up. But in my grown-up world, there’s another experience that makes me feel equally small, insignificant. It occurs when I travel elsewhere in the world, especially in places where there are high levels of need, poverty and near-hopelessness. And what makes me small is not billions of stars, but the host of humanity. Whenever I am among the people of Nicaragua, for instance, that same sense of being a speck among the infinite, of being an incidental particle of the whole, washes over me. And the same old sensations occur to me: fright, due to the daunting masses of people in need; security, at the recognition that my own circumstances are as if I lived on an entirely different planet; wonder, at the existence of such poor places on an abundant earth; and safety, due to my obvious anonymity in the face of an expectant, demanding world. At such moments my own insignificance looms over me like an enormous shadow. There are so many human beings, so much potential, so many lives of spirit and heroism, so many needs so much greater than mine, so many deserving souls.
At the same time, these moments curiously give rise to a sense that comes from some place deep in my consciousness, a revelation that somehow emerges from beneath that ominous shadow. It is a calm assurance, a recognition, that within the enormity of humanity I could be- and have been- singled out for a purpose. It’s not immodesty or a false confidence that drives such a feeling. To the contrary, it’s the very recognition of my own insignificance which creates a sort of safe-haven, a realization that in the immensity of the infinite, I do not need to accomplish infinitely-sized legacies. I just need to be a right influence within the small niches of my life that I occupy.
I do not demand traveling to the moon to know its luminescence. I do not have to calculate light-years of distance between stars to be astonished at the enormity of space. Nor do I need to resolve all of the matters of humanity in order to have made a difference in this world. I need only to recognize the absolutely shining stars who are in our lives every day and a desire to help them burn more brightly….
I traveled to Nicaragua several weeks ago, visiting ten current or prospective partners among other stops and trying to gain a feel for the effects, if any, of the current economic crisis upon the rural people with whom we work. The trip yielded all of that, but also provided a perspective that was more than I anticipated.
The visits provided me with ample insights concerning rapidly deteriorating circumstances of people who are already and continually at the low end of the world’s socio-economic scale: organizations with few funders now have none; actions of certain government agencies have frightened away more than a few funding organizations, especially from Europe; slight momentums from Herculean efforts are grinding to a halt; and the hopes generated from those slight momentums are fading into psychological recesses for now, until the next initiatives of promise may find their way into the rural Nicaraguan consciousness. In all of my trips to Nicaragua I am witness to both hope as well as near-despair, but this time the exhaustion seemed to be taking an upper hand. Group after group spoke to us with the usual sense of expectation and optimism, but each was tinged with a greater-than-usual anxiety in the proposing. Their uncertainties swirled in the air as tangibly as the wood smoke from their kitchen fires.
I felt compelled to share with these expectant hosts that even the resources of a private foundation like Winds of Peace were likely to be affected this year as a result of the economic chaos which prevails worldwide. They listened to my prognosis of current economic realities with an intensity far beyond what I normally experience with U.S audiences, such is their desire to comprehend and respond to whatever realities may be on the horizon. They heard my comments with somber faces and rising uncertainty, and with something else.
Resolve. As uneasy as their growing awareness of crisis may be, there is less sense of panic or even befuddlement than many of us in the U.S. seem to be feeling. As worried as they may be, there is for many a sameness to what has developed, a familiar understanding not of the details of cause, but the reality of result. Rural Nicaragua has been afflicted so often with so many obstacles and disappointments, man-made and natural, that the current world financial crisis is seemingly just one more in a long, unbroken line of difficulties. They have become familiar with major setbacks in ways that most of us cannot. That also means they have the experiences to teach those of us who live in less-frequently tested circumstances a thing or two about resolve.
In part, resolve stems from an acceptance of reality and assumption of self-responsibility. The fact is that many rural Nicaraguans understand their realities all too clearly: marginalization, poverty, political unpredictability from within and without, and the unreliability of any government-style "bailout." Having lived with such realities all their lives, they know that only through their own efforts and very hard work can they expect to survive the onslaughts that inevitably occur. I have observed in many a faith- oftentimes related to God- that somehow there will be a sufficiency to survive, that it is not necessary or even healthy to acquire more than is needed, that borrowing money requires payback for one’s own integrity, and that sometimes there is great strength to be found in solidarity with others instead of pursuing one’s own interests. Truly, what I have experienced in NIcaragua has given me the perspective that, regardless of the outcome in this world economic crisis, it may be the experiences of people like those in rural Nicaragua which best prepare any of us for our future well-being.
In an ironic twist, it may be that those of us who have sought and attained wealth beyond the rest of the world’s imaginations have the furthest to fall in the crisis at hand, and that those who have labored against all odds and with so little return stand the best chance of knowing how to withstand economic pain and uncertainty. I recall the unattributed quotation that my mother gave to me when I was very young. It advised this:
"Travel light in life. Take only what you need. Enough to eat, enough to wear and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing."
Maybe we’ve gathered too many heavy things in our lives, not enough of the right things, too much to eat, too many clothes and just maybe not enough to drink, for we seem to be thirsting in ways that my generation never before has. Who knows, perhaps the economic woes will stop, perhaps the stimulus package will generate unexpected health, maybe we’ll all simply get back to our previous status quo. But meanwhile, my Nicaraguan acquaintances are teaching me about simplicity born of necessity, and it is a lesson that becomes clearer with each passing day….
I’ve been interested, as always, to hear the retrospectives about the year just past and reflections about what it all means. Nearly every news program has featured at least some glimpses back into 2008, just in case we might have forgotten any of the major events of a year that seemed to be filled with really big stories. I’ve seen footage of the Iraq war, floods (some of which nearly reached my own street), replays of the Olympics, the election of Barack Obama, the Iraq war, the collapse of financial markets, bailouts, the Iraq war and… many, many pieces about the economic pain being felt by Americans everywhere.
It’s those personal stories of deteriorating circumstances that have dominated much of the news of late. You know them: the stories about a retired couple having to calculate when they can have meat for dinner, the single parent suddenly out of work, the food pantry being visited by twice the normal number of those in need. These are scary stories because they feature people just like you and me; in fact, this time the stories are about you and me. And there are more of them every day.
The litany of economic, political, business and investment misdeeds revealed over the past twelve months has left most of us reeling in its wake. Credibility has evaporated, opportunities have receded, institutions have failed, our 401(k) plans are now no better than 201(k) plans as one friend panned, and for some of us the grip of uncertainty about our futures has begun to plague our sleep at night. We wonder, how can this be happening? How will I get by on less income? What about the kids? What about our house? That knot in the stomach stems from a feeling of helplessness in the face of all the troubling news. It’s a new feeling for lots of us, one that we have never known in our entire lifetime, perhaps, and it’s frightening. What will we do?
I don’t pretend to offer any answers to these questions here, but sometimes in the depths of tough circumstances learning is the best that we can hope for. Maybe that’s true today. There is one lesson that strikes me with great clarity in the midst of this pain that many are suffering: it must be similar to the despair that so many of our neighbors in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world must feel every day of their lives as they attempt to cope with need and want. Suddenly the stories of fear and desperation that always seem so far-off on the evening news are much closer to us, more real, more threatening. And now we know something about what it’s like, when the apparent abundance of our society has left us behind, when those in power and influence have played the game to their own advantage at our cost, when the hard work we expend isn’t enough to meet our needs, when we actually have to think about needs versus wants. Suddenly, we may find ourselves among the "have-nots."
These are experiences that we never wanted or expected or even deserved. The potential realities tighten the gut in a way that even horror movies cannot. But as we seek to catch our breath let’s remember the injustice of it, how wrong it feels, and how truly wrong it is….
The news currents have been particularly active of late, what with the presidential election in the U.S., hurricanes roaring across the eastern and southern coasts, the economy beginning to crash in ways never before experienced and the U.S. government intervening in unprecedented ways, as well. The stories are the stuff of international notice and importance, and the news media is consumed with jockeying for position on such reporting. Usually, big stories command big attention. But not always.
Don Mercedes died on August 30. He was the President of the Council of Elders for the Indigenous People of Telpaneca in Nicaragua. By most estimates his age was 92, though the vigor of his life, the energy in his voice and the twinkle in his eye all belied the calendar of his years. Each time I have had the privilege to visit Telpaneca, Don Mercedes has been present, despite the three-hour walk from his home in the mountains. (The house has a dirt floor and is made of cane sticks. Very simple.) It was a journey which he made on foot, both ways, in order to fulfill his role as elder, as mentor, as connection to the history and traditions of his people. Perhaps Don Mercedes viewed his entire life as one long walk on his way home; such was the constancy and deliberateness of his role in the community. Appropriately, I found him squarely in the center of a photo that I took during one of my recent visits to Telpaneca. There he is, exactly in the center of things, white shirt and cowboy hat, surrounded by new generations who will assume the leadership roles that Don Mercedes took on during his life.
I suppose that some in the community might have looked upon Don Mercedes as part of "the old ways," perhaps a bit of a relic who wouldn’t understand the changing ways of Nicaragua. But not many. For those who have assumed responsibility for the preservation of historical truth and cultural rights for the Indigenous, Don Mercedes was an important fixture between the past and the future. His long life allowed a bridging of two ages, and even offered some lessons about what to expect in the coming age. His importance was marked by the many Indigenous who turned out for his funeral and burial: the young men of the community were especially affected by his death, such was the feeling and regard which they felt for him.
As a global leader, Don Mercedes possessed no standing; perhaps few outside of the Indigenous communities ever heard of him. But he influenced the niches of his life with commitment, intent and a sense of serving something more than himself. No world leader, no corporate executive, no philanthropist can ever do more than that.
I last had the privilege of his company on August 13, following a meeting with the leaders at Telpaneca. Don Mercedes asked for a ride to a spot outside of Telpaneca where the footpath to his dwelling meets the road. On the way, he noted my straw hat on the back seat of the truck and commented on how fine a sombrero it was. We invited him to try it on and he did so with enjoyment. Without question, the hat belonged to him and he accepted the gift with gratitude. And I received in turn a feeling of connection with the elder, the memory of which I now treasure even more than before.
We are all connected, whether we acknowledge it or not. It has been speculated that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Central America will influence the rage of a hurricane in Asia. In that sense, the entire world is a poorer place without Don Mercedes.
Within days of the news of Don Mercedes, another butterfly’s wings were stilled. But Ron Rivera impacted far corners of the globe first-hand.
Ron Rivera called his ceramic water filters "weapons of biological mass destruction." For 25 years he traveled to remote outposts throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, teaching local potters to make what appears to be a big terra-cotta flower pot but is in fact a wondrously simple-but-effective device for purifying water.
"You put dirty water in — gray water that many communities still drink — and it comes out crystal clear," he would tell his audiences. A recent study in Cambodia found that the filters cut in half the incidence of diarrhea, a leading cause of death in the third world, especially among children. After Hurricane Mitch wreaked its destruction upon Central America in 1998, Ron, who had been doing development work in Nicaragua for the previous decade, joined with a tiny American organization called Potters for Peace and went into high gear.
Ron often said that his goal was to set up 100 enterprises, but he died on Sept. 3 in Managua, Nicaragua. He had contracted falciparum malaria, the most dangerous form of the disease, while setting up a water-filter factory in Nigeria. The factory in Nigeria was his 30th.
For the last decade of his life, Ron traveled all over the world setting up microenterprises in Ghana, Cambodia, Yemen, Colombia and other countries. Many thrived, especially after he began organizing the workshops as profit-making microenterprises. Beverly Pillers, the chairwoman of the board of Potters for Peace, said Ron’s factories had produced about 300,000 filters, selling for $5 to $25, and used by about 1.5 million people. At present, 13 more filter factories are scheduled to begin operating by the end of next year.
I never had the opportunity to meet Ron face-to-face; I knew of him and his work through his family and colleagues. But I learned enough to recognize that Ron lived the notion that we are all here for a finite time, and as stewards we create a legacy within that frame. His legacy became tangible and its influence indelible.
Stewardship. Servant-leadership. Changing the world. There are those who profess intentions with regard to such ideas, many of whom run for public office and/or maneuver their ways to positions of status, celebrity and renown. They appear in the news frequently. Don Mercedes and Ron Rivera, of little places in Nicaragua, were unknown to most of the world. And yet their departure from it leaves us all diminished, and the very world itself quietly weeps for its loss….
My town of Decorah, Iowa is not far from the site of the largest U.S Immigration Service raid in U.S. history, at the Agriprocessor plant in Postville, Iowa. Naturally, there has been a great deal of news coverage of events there and the aftermath, and one recent story caught my attention and my imagination. The article in the August 5, 2008 edition of The Decorah Public Opinion featured native Guatemalan David Vasquez, Pastor at Luther College, and the important support that he has been giving to the immigrant population in Postville. The article began with a quote from the Dr. Suess story, Horton Hears A Who!: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (You may recall the story of Horton, the sensitive elephant who hears voices on a speck of dust attached to a flower. It turns out the voices belong to residents of Whoville, and they need Horton’s help in relocating their spot in the world to a safe place. As if that’s not difficult enough, Horton is seemingly the only creature able to hear the Who’s and he suffers the taunts and threats from other jungle creatures as a result.) David Vasquez recounts how emotional he became when reading the story to his son before bed one night, and how the words seemed to capture the plight and the hope of the immigrants with whom he was working now in Postville.
I admire the work that David Vasquez is performing on behalf of “small” people who really need all the help they can get, and I enjoyed reliving my own memories of the great Dr.Suess classic. The courage and selflessness of such a giant creature made an instant and lasting impression on me as a young boy, and remained with me as I grew into my very own rather elephantine-but-gentle dimensions. The newspaper article brought the lesson to light beautifully as related to the immigrants’ plight; David Vasquez is working tirelessly to help others remember the story and its lesson, as well.
Curiously, the stories of David Vasquez and Horton remained with me as I made my way down to Nicaragua on behalf of Winds of Peace Foundation last week. And as coincidence would have it, the in-flight movie being shown was none other than “Horton Hears A Who!” I decided that, my book reading requirement notwithstanding, I’d at least half-watch the animated film out of respect for my childhood. I’m glad that I did; new truths often arise from old sources.
The story- especially as told on film, with all of the requisite “enhancements” that today’s filmmakers believe important to mesmerizing their young audiences- is ostensibly about that faithfulness and heroism which Horton exhibits toward his microscopic charges. He will not abandon them and there is no limit to what he is prepared to do to provide the protection and voice for the Who’s, regardless of the cost to himself. After all, “an elephant is faithful, 100%.” That personal cost even seems to be leading to an eventual physical assault on Horton, as the jungle creatures, following the lead of an intolerant, controlling kangaroo, are whipped up to an antagonistic frenzy against him. Yet, still he holds onto the flower and his heroic intentions with the undying hope that somehow the Who’s can be saved.
I confess to have having returned to my reading at this juncture in the movie, only occasionally glancing up to the screen to check on old Horton. But this was the moment of denoument, and for me, a new epiphany on an old story. For at the very moment that Horton’s plight seems beyond hope, the Who’s themselves rescue both Horton and themselves. Collectively, collaboratively, with the participation of virtually every Who in Whoville, they generate a noise of protest and self-presence that cannot help but be heard by the broader world beyond. The jungle creatures, at the very moment of Horton’s destruction, hear the sounds and are forced to acknowledge the truth of what Horton has maintained all along, but which they did not want to hear. Horton is saved and celebrated as a hero for his faithfulness, 100%.
I love Horton, the way he looks and the way that Dr. Suess gave him such moral character. But I also awakened on that flight to the realization that ultimately it was the Who’s themselves who saved the day. To be sure, they could never have achieved it without the presence and accompaniment of their strong partner. The happy ending at the conclusion of the story is a result of the friendship and support given by both Horton AND the Who’s. They needed each other, relied upon each other, and were eventually saved by one another. And for me, THAT’S now the theme behind Horton Hears A Who! After all these years, I finally get it!
By most worldly measures, the people of Nicaragua are small. Geographically, economically, politically, or in the media, they are at times nearly invisible. But they are there, with families and hopes and aspirations and knowledge and contributions to be made that would inspire Horton or anyone else who might make the effort to hear them. And perhaps of greatest importance of all is the realization that we need those voices- every last one of them- for our own salvation. It’s not a matter of saving them, or even their saving us, but of our absolute need for one another on this cosmic speck of dust called the Earth.
Dr. Suess got it all correct, and I’ve now added all of the Suess books to my NEW reading list to see what else I’ve missed along the way….