Category Archives: Making An Impact

A Sadder Place, A Happier Place

Louise NielsenToday we lost Louise.  At age 95 she most certainly led a long and fully engaged life to be celebrated.  But today Winds of Peace Foundation is a sadder place as it grieves the loss of one of its founders, and the one who might be said to have birthed the organization in the first place.  Yes, Louise was a “mom” to a lot of us.

My intent here is not to chronicle a long life filled with accomplishments and adventures. If you want to know more about the challenges and energies of her long life, read Steve Swanson’s book, One Couple’s Gift (C. 2009, Nine Ten Press).  But noteworthy among her many legacies was her hallmark of living a life of unabashed caring and unpretentiousness.  Among recent generations who have found this increasingly difficult to comprehend- let alone emulate- Louise was a model.   The empathy which she felt for others the world over was truly matched by the strength of her convictions and actions.  A woman of heart and compassion, she understood what really mattered in our connections with one another around the world.  She did as she said.

Louise had occasion to meet and build a Habitat for Humanity home with former President Jimmy Carter.  She was amazed at a kiss of her hand by Nicaraguan politico Daniel Ortega during one of her many excursions there.  But the faces she most remembered were of little children in need of food, shelter and clothing, images that remained with her long after the Central American trips became physically too difficult.  Simplicity hallmarked her attitudes: if a little boy is hungry, feed him.  If a little girl is homeless, shelter her.  And if children are naked, clothe them.  And she did.

Few of us who ever had the good fortune to visit Louise at her home will ever forget her gracious giving of herself on those occasions, always inquiring about family, making meals from scratch to accommodate day-long meetings,  preparing bedrooms for overnight occasions and always curious to know the workings of every initiative posing itself for consideration.  Louise brought a quiet presence to those times, a presence that bore the essence of calm, of confidence, and yet necessity for those whom we served.  One might have surmised that it was Louise, in part, who we were trying to satisfy in our work, and that feeling might have had some merit: Louise desired justice for those too small to secure it for themselves.  Now they have lost one champion’s voice.

So today and in the days to come, Winds of Peace is a sadder place, but only because in her own special way Louise made it a happier, better place.  The work may continue without her physical presence, but it will never cease to exemplify her will, her spirit and the unshakeable care that she felt for other human beings.  And in the end, that is the very best that any one of us can give….

 

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New Year’s Eve, Really?

New Year’s Eve day.  Like many others, I am spending at least parts of the day recalling the events of 2010: my mother’s death in January and our loving tribute to her in June, Katie and I making a first visit to spectacular Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons, the blossoming success of all four of our children in school, three more memorable visits with Foundation partners in Nicaragua, the impressive people I met in my Employee Ownership Foundation talks in Virginia and Idaho.  These are among the experiences that will continue to impact me well into the future.  Some wise person once said that we become the totality of all our experiences combined; in that case, I was deeply enriched during 2010.

In part my thoughts about 2010 were driven by a news retrospective on one of the television networks.  The story highlighted “notable names who departed from all of our lives” during the year, a nostalgic and sometimes surprising litany of names which frequently left me muttering, “No, too soon.”  I readily admit to pangs of the heart when I heard names including Fess Parker, Merlin Olsen, Barbara Billingsley, Peter Graves, Sparky Anderson, Jill Clayburgh, Elizabeth Edwards and others.  In each case, I associated some event or period of my life that gave special meaning to the name.  Of course, by definition celebrities have our recognition.  But perhaps they never fully know the effects that they may have had upon us, the important influences they provided.

As I listened to more than fifty names reviewed in the news story, I thought about all of the impact generated by these journeymen and women, all of the gifts that they brought to the  rest of us, all of the potential that each and every one of them tried their best to reach during their lives.  The list of fifty names was only overshadowed by the breadth of accomplishments they achieved.

Fifty well-known individuals, names which most of us would readily recognize, and they are now “departed from all of our lives,” as the news anchor said.  But as I contemplated the collective achievements of this notable group, I wondered about the less renowned people who died this year.  Millions of other people ended their journeys upon this earth in 2010, as well, but with far less fanfare, far fewer accolades and, for many, with far fewer opportunities to realize their gifts to the world.  Somewhere this year, we lost a young campesina with the soul-filled voice of a Lena Horne.  On the other side of the world, undiscovered, life ended unceremoniously for a man who wrote with the razor insight of J.D. Salinger.  An Indigenous tribe in South America lost the voice and strength of a Wilma Mankiller, without that voice ever being heard.  And the young prodigy, born into stifling poverty, who might have brought the gift of a cancer cure to the world, never reached his tenth birthday. 

I mourn these losses, too.  I never knew any of them, never watched them on TV or even heard them speak.  But they, too, arrived on this earth full of potential and answers and insights that could have enriched us in ways far beyond the legacies of the fifty who were remembered this week.  As I take time on New Year’s Eve to rejoice in the lives that touched us all, I am stirred to think of those other lives, ones that we will miss without even being aware.  I am less than I might be by never knowing of them, and so are we all….

Strays

My home church here in Decorah is First Lutheran, an ELCA church with a long and storied history and, at least in recent years, its share of good preaching ministers.  That, combined with an activist orientation to social justice issues, makes it a fertile place for hearing stories.  The ministers have been careful to integrate real-life stories with the message for Sundays and it has made for some inspiring moments.  Unfortunately, it has created some despondent moments, as well.

In the sermon during this past Sunday’s service, our pastor referenced a letter which she had received, presumably from someone in the community, if not from within the congregation itself.  Reportedly hand-written and some six pages in length, the letter contained a diatribe against the local practice of providing food for the poor, particularly those families who have immigrated to this region, legally or otherwise.  I suppose the note could have been sent to any of the area churches, but it was likely directed to First Lutheran because our church actually houses the community food pantry (as well as the Free Medical Clinic for those families without the resources for health insurance-covered care).  The author stated that the practice of providing food to potentially undocumented workers was an illegal act in which the community should have no part, that feeding such people constituted an act “no better than feeding stray cats.”

I like to think that I’m accustomed to hearing tough messages in church, that the challenges of leading some kind of good life necessitate facing hard lessons.  But I confess that I had been totally unprepared for the the analogy made by the letter-writer.  I swallowed hard at the words, fighting off a soul-shaking sob that rose up from somewhere deep within my sensitivities. 

I am not a naive sort. I am no longer shocked at examples of human depravity or callousness.  (A visit to Dachau concentration camp years ago cured me of that.)  I understand the presence of evil in our world and have come to know it as a reality of the human experience.  But there was something so cold and straightforward about the writer’s message that it momentarily choked me.  Perhaps the harshness of the feeling struck me  due to the time of the year, a time when so many are able to at least temporarily rekindle feelings about “goodwill toward men.”  Maybe it was the idea that someone actually sent the letter to a church, as if half-expecting that the “logic” of the content might possibly sway the pastor’s or church’s activities.  Or perhaps I was simply feeling too comfortable in the season, in my “lust for comfort” as Kahlil Gibran cites it, or the ease with which I am able to exclude thinking about the less fortunate, now suddenly brought into unexpected focus.  Whatever the cause, the writer’s words struck me with  severity and  grief.

For two days I have wrestled with the acerbic words and my visceral response to them.  They have been particularly disquieting, perhaps moreso because I do not know the author’s name: frighteningly, the words could be the words of anyone.  But I have come to feel this about the unfeeling analogy: if the poor among us are to be considered as little more than stray cats, then the logical extension of the analogy must be that we are all strays.  If fellow human beings are seen to be of little greater worth than stray cats, then so are we all, because we are all made of the same stuff.  And I think it is interesting to observe that, to some extent, even cats will take care of one another.

From time to time we all wander from what we know to be right and fair and loving.  We stray from our humanity, not necessarily because we desire to do so, but because we are imperfect creatures who seek to survive physically, even at the expense of dying spiritually.   While I personally find myself very centered at this time of year in the reason for the season, I am saddened at the awareness of those whose hearts have missed the entire point of our journey….

"All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance"

Although it might seem early to be talking about it, the 23rd Annual Peace Prize Forum, March 4-5, 2011, is already taking shape on the campus of Luther College, this year’s host school. 

This year’s Peace Prize Forum will focus on the importance of courageous action in the work of peacemaking. Nobel Laureate Barack Obama—whose work inspires the 2011 Forum—states that to truly honor ideals like peace, justice, and human rights, we must uphold these ideals “not when it is easy, but when it is hard.” In this spirit, the forum will highlight the work of those who have acted with courage to confront difficult issues of religious discord, social and economic injustice, and the threats of nuclear war and environmental degradation.

And in support of this important gathering of thinkers and activists around the elusive concept of peace, Winds of Peace Foundation will again serve as one of the co-sponsors of the event.    This forum is one of very few which invites people from all walks of life to gather and learn, to listen and speak, to actually make a commitment of time and energy toward the furthering of peace.  It’s a grassroots opportunity that is right in line with Winds of Peace philosophy.

Winds of Peace encourages anyone who has felt discouragement, a sense of impossibility or even apathy on the topic of peace and justice between nations and peoples to consider attending this two-day event.  The making of peace does not belong to others; it belongs to each of us.  If it is not to be, it is because we allow it so.

Plan to attend this year.  Decorah is a lovely place.  Peace is a lovely space….

Remembering When

Copy_of_2Sunset[1][1] As another gorgeous autumn weekend unfolded a week ago, I took a moment mentally to note a milestone.  In the midst of an Augsburg College Board of Regents meeting, it dawned on me that I had reached a 5-year milestone in my work with Winds of Peace Foundation.  I took my early retirement from Foldcraft Co. on September 30, 2005 and essentially commenced my work with the Foundation the next day.  Founder Harold Nielsen was in the hospital with pneumonia at the time, and inquired whether I’d consider stepping into the Foundation world temporarily until he recovered.  Within a very short time, I recognized that the nature of the work was, in fact, a calling.  During a visit with Harold in the hospital, he offered me the opportunity to join the Foundation’s work, an opportunity that has become one of the most important events of my life.  And suddenly, five years have passed by.

Last Saturday evening, I took some time to reflect on these past years and considered whether the new experiences have changed me in any ways.  Knowing full well that they had, I was nonetheless a bit surprised when I inventoried the ways.

*Gratitude- I’ve never been one to take people or things for granted, but the experience of working with very poor people has clarified the incredible and unwarranted good fortunes of my life in ways that I would never otherwise have experienced.   There is nothing particularly special or deserving about those of us who have all they need in life.  To the contrary, when it comes to deserving, one could make a compelling case on behalf of those who have struggled through life with far less than they need.  I have been just plain blessed.  I cannot answer as to why.  But I have gained a deeper gratitude in recognition.

*Compassion- Shortly before she passed away earlier this year, my Mother said to me, “You always feel for other people.”  It was a nice thing for her to say (moms always say the nicest things about their own kids, right?) and I suppose that generally I agreed with her observation.  But developing a true feeling for the reality of those in need requires something far more than an innate sense of injustice or inequity.  To truly feel, to know the truth of those realities requires being among those for whom serious need is a way of life.  To see pictures of hunger is sad and sobering.  But to actually know individuals who are hungry every day is devastating and unshakable.

*More Tolerance- I have recognized with greater clarity how few answers I have about life and all of its complexities.  The surety which I felt as a younger man has given way to  many more shades of gray, and on most of the issues over which we debate these days.  I have discovered that the problems are far more complex than I ever knew, and that the solutions are neither simple nor single-faceted.  In fact, my tolerance stems from the recognition that, indeed, each of us represents a piece of every solution.  I need those others, and so do we all.

*Less Tolerance- The words and inaction of political, social and business “leaders” have created a great and uncomfortable skepticism in me.  it’s difficult for an optimist to struggle with skepticism.  But I feel great impatience with the self-serving nature of those who are elected or otherwise chosen to serve as stewards for the common good but who exemplify only a drive to craft their own welfare.  Their behaviors represent a double theft: a theft of whatever material wealth they have commandeered and a theft of the public trust and welfare.  The examples they have set will continue to plague us for years to come.

*Hopefulness- In the shadows of enormous inequality, injustice and injury, there are the people of Nicaragua.  And they continue to pick themselves up after each blow, whether it comes from natural disaster, political disaster, economic disaster or, in some cases, self-imposed disaster.  To witness such buoyancy and persistence is to experience the sense of hope that resides within us all, even when we cannot feel it.  Nicaraguans have the propensity to rekindle hope in those of us fortunate enough to know them, from the sheer resilience of their spirit.

*Generosity- Like most, I like to think of myself as being a generous person.  My parents taught me at an early age that generosity was a major component of character and thus, support for those less fortunate than me has always been a priority.  “Comfortably” so.  But my work among some very poor people in Nicaragua has convinced me that “comfortable generosity” isn’t enough, that what I am called to share of myself is something more than comfort and, in any event, more than money itself.  I have learned what it is to be generous with self, with presence, with compassion.  I’ll likely never be good enough at this.  At the end of the day, generosity is a relative thing, ultimately to be measured only by one’s self.  But being in Nicaragua has provided a very different standard for me to think about.

There are undoubtedly other changes in me, as well, perhaps changes that I do not see in myself or that I am unconsciously reluctant to recognize.  But especially given the relative shortness of my time with Winds of Peace, I find that the experience has shaped me at a time in life when change is more often to be avoided, something about old dogs and new tricks. It has been a discovered treasure in my life that bears sharing with others on this wordly journey.  Whatever the norm or the expectation may be, five years have come and gone like the passing of a summer rain, but with the refreshment of an early autumn breeze….