From generation to generation
In a recent letter from my nephew Mark Nelson, he described an experience that he had nine years ago. At that time he was working as an accountant for a firm in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. On his way to work he encountered a young woman who was living under a bridge. Michelle, the 18-year-old under the bridge, was a runaway and addicted to meth. Unfortunately, there were many others like her, homeless and suffering with a variety of personal and social problems. Mark realized the distress of these young people and was moved to leave his job and to initiate a ministry for youth, which today is called “Freedom for Youth Ministries.”
Freedom for Youth Ministries now has a campus located in one of the inner city areas of Des Moines and offers programs that are intended to help those who come there to gain a measure of success and realization of their personal worth. After-school programs for young people from ages six through 17 are conducted in cooperation with Des Moines schools and offer tutoring in school subjects. Additionally, the basics of music, creative arts and sports skills are taught.
A large portion of the campus is given to facilities for teaching activities of a vocational nature. “Freedom Blend Coffee” is served in the coffee shop, where the courtesies of serving the public can be learned. There is a kitchen used to teach the art of cooking and the rigors of kitchen cleanliness. Sewing and needle work can be learned and there are opportunities for gardening. What is learned in these activities may serve as a stepping stone to employment, personal fulfillment or as skills for survival.
There is transitional housing available for young men and women ages 18 to 22. House parents reside in and oversee each of two separate buildings. There is a shop for woodworking and one for welding where operational skills and safety, the maintenance of equipment and working cooperatively with others are taught. Of equal or perhaps greater importance than the projects completed is the use of mathematics and science that are applied in solving the problems associated with these activities. Fundamentals of construction are taught, including framing, plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall installation, painting, roofing, and landscaping. There are many teaching and supervisory opportunities for volunteers who want to share their expertise with young learners. What is learned may lead to employment or serve some more general purposeful end. Irrespective of the application, participants engage in gainful activities that can help to develop characteristics of dignity and personal value.
Freedom for Youth Ministries is entirely funded with contributions from individuals and interested organizations. This is a Christ-centered mission and there have been no attempts to obtain governmental support because of the restrictions that would result. A major responsibility for Mark is to reach out to potential donors and to share his belief in the power of the Gospel as it is practiced at Freedom for Youth Ministries by a dedicated staff and volunteers.
How did Mark come to give up a trajectory of success as an accountant and enter into this less secure venture? His response is, “Grandpa was my inspiration.” Mark’s grandpa was Pastor Herbert Bjorkquist, who was ordained into the Augustana Lutheran Synod in 1924 and served congregations of that church until his retirement at age 70 in 1967. He was the son of Swedish immigrants. His father was a contractor and bricklayer, as were the other men of the family. Grandpa’s use of Swedish served him well in that he conducted services in Swedish at least once a month in each of his calls until 1945. He preached, as he was taught, that every sermon, whether in English or Swedish, should remind us of our sinfulness and celebrate the good news of God’s forgiveness and grace. He always served multipoint parishes in small towns and rural places. His first call was to the Minnesota communities of Warroad, Swift, Roosevelt, Graceton, and Spooner. My mother, Anna, was from the farm near Warroad that had been homesteaded by her father. She and Dad were married in Warroad and soon thereafter moved to congregations in Mora and Henriette, Minnesota. This was during the depth of the Depression and in 1935, when his monthly salary was cut from $100 to $50, he and his family, of necessity, moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to churches in Munising and Newberry, where he was pastor before and during WWII. In 1945 he was called to a two-congregation parish, Elfsborg and Trinity, in Pocahontas County Iowa. His final parish was at Nyman, which is rural Red Oak and Strand, Iowa. Thereafter he and mother retired to Red Oak, which was also home to my sister and her family and provided for frequent contact between Mark and grandpa.
The Elfsborg Lutheran parsonage was on a gravel road in the country and located a quarter of a mile from the Evangelical Covenant Church lead by Pastor Edmund Carlson. There were several family ties between the two congregations and what I always understood to be a supportive, although somewhat competitive, relationship. Pastor Carlson and I shared an interest in chickens and I took care of his flock and he took care of mine during vacation times. The sale of eggs from my chickens provided me with my high school pocket money.
I do not think that grandpa would feel completely comfortable to be named as Mark’s inspiration. He was more inclined to see himself as an instrument of the Holy Spirit. He worked to the best of his ability where he was called without complaint and with humility. Perhaps this is what Mark remembers. The two of them have shared a willingness to meet people where they are and to bring the news of hope. They have realized that as messengers of the Gospel they are junior partners with God’s Spirit, and they have been sustained by a continuing sense of being lead by the Spirit and belief in the power beyond what humans understand.
Mark wrote that he had received a letter from Michelle, the woman under the bridge. She said that she is living in Florida, clean of drugs, and has two wonderful children who she is raising on her own following a divorce from an abusive husband. She attends church with her family and wants to teach her children God’s way, “…like you did for me,” she told Mark. She continued, “I guess I just wanted to say thanks so very much for showing me the path to life and most importantly to have faith in God. He’s seen me at my worst, like you, and never turned away or gave up on me.”
And so the Faith goes on, from generation to generation.