My wife was looking through some old files recently and came across an article that she thought I might appreciate. She was right.
The article was taken from the December 10, 1983 edition of “The Minneapolis Star and Tribune” newspaper, and the title was, “A ‘Friendly Bur’ Helps Poor of Central America.” Its author, Henry Bellows, had succeeded in doing something that lesser reporters had not: he convinced Harold Nielsen to sit for an interview. And so, some 33 years after the fact, a portrait of Harold Nielsen, co-founder of Winds of Peace Foundation, reappeared. It reminded me why the Foundation and I miss him so much. (I have also borrowed quotations from One Couple’s Gift, by Steve Swanson.)
“The second day [in Central America] you wake up at 3:00 A.M. and start to cry,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the university to see something is wrong… You don’t have to study.
“We visited the worst slum I had ever seen- filth, terrible housing, no roads, bridges or infrastructure. Nothing. As I stood looking at this mess, something encircled one of my legs. There at my knee was a little fellow, about 2 years old, naked as a jaybird, his arms wrapped around my leg, hug fashion. and looking up at me with a big friendly smile. He ran off then, and was out of my life forever. But he has been in my thoughts ever since.”
That image may have been the flame that kindled the fire which burned in Harold and his wife, Louise, over the years, as they developed the vision for putting their resources to work in Nicaragua. Harold possessed both the sensitivity to recognize the injustices of deep poverty, but also the vision to see how he might be an unwitting contributor to that condition, as well as part of its solution. By the time he had completed his first trip into Central America, Harold was quick to admit to being a “rampant capitalist.” But he also recognized that he had become hopelessly “infected.”
Harold had mused hard and long about his experiences. He shared some of those thoughts when he addressed the employees of his company, Foldcraft, upon announcing his intention to sell the firm to them in an ESOP. Harold spoke about:
“…our corrupted capitalist system of which I had unknowingly become a part. I devoted the bulk of my career to succeeding within that system, and now, I find myself disenchanted with the system- the same system in which the company had succeeded So now I sell a portion of it to you who, in turn, become capitalists yourselves. Hopefully, a long time before most of you reach my age, you’ll have come to some of the awareness that I gradually have come to.”
Harold’s conscience not only infected him, but quietly and thoroughly worked its way under the skin of those around him and challenged one’s sense of fairness and morality. He had not only become infected, but contagious.
With gratitude, many of us came down with the symptoms. My own journey eventually led me from Harold’s company to Winds of Peace. And while that “bur” aspect may have dissipated since Harold’s death in 2013 at age 95, the same focus on the poor of Nicaragua still drives the organization which Harold and Louise founded. Since its inception, the Foundation has learned a great deal about development in Nicaragua, and even many perspectives since his passing. But curiously, most often it is driven by the image of that little boy who Harold described so emotionally.
“Harold says that he hates getting attention for his giving. Several times during the interview he said he didn’t want to talk about what he is doing, ‘unless it benefits the kids of Central America.’ And while his neighbors’ feelings toward him are important, Nielsen said that he doesn’t care about the politics of the people he is trying to help. ‘Politics is secondary to survival in Central America. Here, people are worried about who is going to move in next door. There, they are worried about how they are going to get enough to eat. They don’t care about politics as long as they can stay alive.”
Harold’s analysis may not have been perfect, but his sensitivities were. How else might one explain the decision which he and Louise made thereafter, to use essentially all of their assets to fund Winds of Peace and its beneficiaries.
Harold was adept at being a voice of social conscience within his church and broader community, but he was also an architect for building an initiative, one that could help to create sustainable change in the organizations of the peasant communities. This committed capitalist became a generous steward, a fierce voice for social and economic justice, and an irritant to the comfortable thinking of those who heard him.
I did not need a newspaper article from the archives to recall what Harold and Louise Nielsen were all about. I am blessed to have worked with Harold for 39 years, to have witnessed his transformation and to have been infected with my own. But every so often, it’s nice to look back upon someone else’s amazement at the impact of just one “ordinary” person on the lives of so many. I re-read the article with my own renewed sense of wonder, appreciation and love….