Catching Up with Mary Nelson

Mary Nelson is a leading Lutheran social activist who lives on Chicago’s west side. In addition to consulting, teaching, writing, and serving on several boards, she is Chair of the Board of Directors of Sojourners and President Emeritus of Bethel New Life. Journal of Lutheran Ethics recently caught up with Mary, hearing her latest reflections on social activism.

JLE: Tell me about your parents and their work as activists.

Mary Nelson: It was during the years in Washington, D.C., growing up in a Lutheran parsonage, that I learned the importance of faith leading to action for social justice. Our church in the 1950s was situated in a community with affluent white people on one side and poor black people on the other. Dad understood the role of the church for the whole community, so he organized Operation One Mile, where parishioners went out two by two to the area around the church inviting people to join us in worship. As the congregation changed, some people left the church, but others said, “This is the kind of church I want to belong to.” We were the first mainline church in D.C. to integrate (racially and economically), long before the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision, and it is so exciting to see that Augustana Church is still integrated today.

My mom did a Bible study out at the women’s penitentiary, and in getting to know prison inmates as individuals, soon found out that women were released on a Saturday afternoon with no where to go. Our house became a halfway house for a while, and my mother pounded on the doors of Congress to insist that interim housing be made available for people coming out of prison with nowhere to go. Our dinner table was always full with the lonely, the stranger, the left out. So, my parents shared the lessons of God’s vision for community and justice in an experiential way.

JLE: How did you discover your vocation as a social activist?

Mary: I didn’t intend to be a social activist. But I joined my brother as he became a pastor to Bethel Lutheran Church on Chicago’s west side in 1965, and three days after we got there, the first of five riots took place, with national guard troops and tanks on the streets, and fires in the stores. God’s justice call meant that we had to move into the pain of the people and step-by-step walk and work with people to open up opportunity. But each thing one touched kept pushing us past the band-aid action toward the justice issue.

Kids were dropping out, getting kicked out of schools. So we worked with a number of churches and started an alternative high school of which I became the principal. And over the years, the continuing causalities of public schools pushed us to be a part of school reform efforts. Lack of affordable housing in the community pushed us, Bethel New Life, to develop affordable housing around the church. We bumped into banks not making loans, so we joined with others to institute the Community Reinvestment Act. Affordable housing isn’t affordable if one doesn’t have a job, so we started employment services, etc. One thing leads to another; you bump into the injustice stuff as you get involved with almost anything you touch in an under-resourced community.

JLE: What motivates your commitment to social change today?

Mary: The biblical call to justice and the beloved community. Bethel New Life’s early mission statement is from Isaiah 58: 9–12, which says, “If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt and to every evil word, if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…you will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses.” In other words, the way to a healthy community is through the combination of justice and compassion. The way to give witness to God is through concrete social action. People like Martin Luther King, John Perkins, my brother, my mother, etc., influenced me, too.

JLE: What are some of the fears you’ve faced in your work?

Mary: I live, work and worship in a very low-income community where there’s a lot of violence. Effective community work requires presence, so I have been exposed to the same risks as other residents, such as home invasions, car vandalism — and I was beaten, raped and robbed a number of years ago. But unlike many others in my community, I have the freedom to move out any time I want.

There is a lot of talk these days about empowerment. But “empowerment” makes me uncomfortable because it could smack of superiority. Perhaps we need to think about power transfer. Organizers say that poor communities need to realize their own power and push for equity of opportunity, access, and education. A lot of us churches are still stuck in the charity mode, doing things for people, or in the “savior” mode, rather than in a partnership approach. That’s a lot harder, because it means sitting at the table together, discovering what we each bring to a situation, and working together.

JLE: Tell me about your experience with positive social change.

Mary: Social change is a long, slow process and it takes a kind of holy impatience and persistence to see things through. It took us, Bethel New Life, ten years to turn a closed down inner city hospital campus into a community campus with residences for the elderly, a children’s day care, and other community-based options. In the process we had to scramble and push for various forms of financing, zoning changes, and changes so seniors and childcare could co-exist, etc. And then there are the tools that make development in an under-resourced community possible, such as New Markets Tax Credits. I was personally involved in a several-year process of lobbying Congress, the rule makers in an administration, etc., to help make these tools possible for development in low-income communities.

There were a lot of vacant buildings standing idle in our community and in other low-income communities. Seeking solutions to the problem, the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing discovered that a lot of these buildings had large unpaid back real estate taxes. After further investigation, we discovered that crafty owners didn’t pay their taxes and then had surrogates “buy” the properties and set up a new corporation to run the properties, now free of prior tax debt. The Lawyers Committee discovered that the county could do a non-cash bid for unpaid taxes, so our group devised a program: the Cook County Tax Reactivation Program (the allurement that they would get taxes that had gone unpaid before). We had to persuade the county board to agree to the program. Bethel looked at its suburban church connections, identified the key swing commissioner votes, and got supporting churches to contact suburban commissioners and open the door for us to meet with them. As a result, the program passed. We eventually got the buildings in our community into a rehab process. It was a win-win situation.

JLE: How have you addressed concerns about public schools?

Mary: Early in my 27 years at Bethel New Life, parents came to us at the church and bemoaned the schools — kids getting kicked out and not learning much. We knew of so many youth who were on the streets, not in school. So at a retreat one year, when we were decrying the public schools, Stan Hallett, a creative urban thinker, asked, “So what do you want in place of what you don’t want?” That was a challenge that led to starting CAM (Christian Action Ministry) Academy for drop-outs. I quit my job and became the founding principal of the “second chance” high school. With a loosened up schedule, curriculum related to the students’ situation, and caring teachers, we were able to graduate students who started four and five years behind in reading and math, who went on to college and successful lives. So it isn’t the kids who are dumb.

There are systemic inequities built into our system. Jonathan Kozol wrote about the “savage inequalities” that are built in. In many instances, a significant portion of public school funding comes from the real estate tax base, ensuring that poor communities have less money per student than wealthier communities, when more money per student is needed. And then consider that poor schools usually get the inexperienced teachers, the old textbooks and less equipment — built-in inequality. We are damning our future when some kids don’t get the chance for a full, quality public education.

JLE: You’ve mentioned the importance of lamentation in all of this.

Mary: Separations, divides and lack of civility in discourse are rampant in our country today. Strong language labels people as terrorists, as illegal aliens (instead of undocumented immigrants) and separates us. We label and demonize, rather than listen and seek to understand before we share our point of view. As God’s people we are called to be reconcilers. But reconciliation is not some nicey, nicey thing, some soft conversation. There is a process that means engagement and discovery of the chasm, of lamentation about the divide, about the hate, about the injustice before we can even begin to move toward reconciliation.

I remember when at a church convention a group of us were trying raise awareness regarding the injustice of celebrating the anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of “America” without acknowledging the abuse of the Native Americans. So we pasted RRR stickers on people who were willing to talk about it: REMEMBER the people who were already here, who were victimized and denigrated; REPENT of the abusive history; and RENEW a commitment to change the way Native Americans are treated. The journey includes lamentation. Remembering, repenting and renewing a commitment to justice and community are just as important in these times.

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.