Gravitas – Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers
The more I look around the more I appreciate just how many interesting stories are available to me right in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. if I just open my eyes and my heart to what’s here. As I expand my vision, I see more than I did before. There’s also a law of attraction thing going on whereby as my personal spiritual journey ramps up more and more stories of people’s own spiritual journeys and personal transformations present themselves to me. One such story is that of Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism, which I’ve posted here. This feature for Omaha’s Metro Magazine is really a profile of the married couple behind the center, Christopher and Phileena Heuertz, and a chronicle of the serious traveling they’ve done – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to arrive at the place of healing they operate for fellow healers like themselves.
Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
After serving the poorest of the poor, an Omaha couple now helps heal fellow healers
Omaha is a world away from the slums of Calcutta, the killing fields of Sierra Leone or the red light districts of South America. But the human pain found there is never far from the hearts and minds of a spiritually enlightened local couple who worked among the suffering in these and similarly challenged places for nearly two decades.
Christopher and Phileena Heuertz are 40-something-year-olds who’ve devoted much of their adult lives to social justice activism with the poorest of the poor, all the while led by the scripture admonition “faith without works is dead.” Growing up – he’s from Omaha and she’s from Indiana – each had powerful do-the-right-thing examples of radical hospitality in their own lives. His parents took in foster care kids in crisis and adopted two at-risk children. Later, his folks founded and ran a local agency to help resettle Sudanese refugees. Her father is a Protestant pastor and the senior chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
By the time the couple met at a small liberal arts Christian college in Kentucky Chis had already done service work on a Navajo reservation, in Cabrini Green Chicago and in South India and Southeast Asia. In love with him and their shared commitment to serve others, Phileena joined him overseas.
The many hard things they witnessed brought them to a crucible of faith that now has them dedicated to nurturing the spirits of people whose human service vocations align with their own.
A new path
In 2012 they founded the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Officed in the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, where kindred spirit creatives, entrepreneurs and social justice warriors (at Siena/Francis House) are their neighbors, the center is the arm for their new outreach focus. The couple’s new mission finds them leading prayer sits and pilgrimages and giving retreats and spiritual direction in support of people like themselves committed to humanitarian work. The Heuertzes know first-hand how draining that work can be and therefore how vital it is to have a discipline or method or sanctuary in order to get refreshed.
Chris says, “We’re trying to create this sort of pit stop for the activist soul to catch their breath, to be refueled, to find practices that will help sustain their vocations and journeys.”
Many of the practices are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize silent prayer, meditation and reflection which nurtures self-awareness or consciousness. Centering prayer is one such practice.
Gravity does some of this work right at its spacious office, such as the weekly prayer sits and spiritual direction. and holds retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb. and around the country. The husband and wife team leads pilgrimages to historic sacred spots around the world (Assisi, Italy) and to historic social justice locales around the world (Rwanda). In the U.S. pilgrmmage has focused on “21st Century Freedom Rides” revisiting civil rights sites in the South. The couple also does workshops and makes presentations for communities, churches and universities across the nation.
“Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place,” says Phileena, who completed her certification as a spiritual director. “Since Gravity opened its doors we’re finding that people from all different walks of life are coming. Even if they’re not in formal social justice work many of these people want to make the world a better place and they’re doing that in their way through their unique vocation.”
The couple came to start Gravity after reaching a point where they needed their own reset. They intentionally took time off to minister to themselves, along the way finding some spiritual practices they found beneficial for their own peace of mind and spiritual growth and that they now share with others.
After years working in the trenches with the destitute, the desperate and the dying they took a sabbatical in 2007. For part of their time away from the fray they made a famed pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, that saw them walk almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) across southern France and northern Spain on a 33-day trek. There, under the stars, unplugged from modem life, they discovered some essential truths.
“Every night on the Camino we’d stop at a convent or monastery or pilgrim house,” says Chris. “For 1,100 years these folks have practiced hospitality. You’re so exhausted after walking 25 or 30 kilometers, carrying everything in your pack, and then these folks welcome you in, saying, ‘Here’s a hot meal, here’s the shower, you can wash your clothes, we’ll make you breakfast in the morning and send you on your way.’ And it just always refreshed our spirits, our souls, our bodies, and that’s what we want to do through the center. We want to offer these little glimpses of hope and tools of nourishment for the activist soul to keep going, to keep fighting for a better world and not give up.”
During that same sabbatical period the Heuertzes received a fellowship from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.
“They hosted us,” says Chris,”and we found it such a great place for reflecting deeply on very difficult things in the world with a very diverse group of people.”
These experiences of taking time out for solitude, reflection, community and rejuvenation set this always searching couple on a new path, this time not directly tending to the suffering but to those who serve the suffering. Thus, their new mission is healing the healers.
In all the time Phileena and Chris served the oppressed, the exploited, the hungry, the sick and the dying, surrounded by a sea of want and hopelessness, they saw many of their colleagues lose their bearings.
“We worked all over the world and saw pretty messed up stuff and we saw a lot of great people burn out and walk away from their beliefs or faith or communities or vocations,” says Chris.
The couple came close to their own personal breaking points.
He says, “What we experienced in 19 years of really grassroots, gritty, on-the-streets, in-the-neighborhoods difficult work was that we gave a lot of ourselves. We saw lots and lots of terrible things that started to weigh on us. The work that we did impacted us and we absorbed a lot of that. What we saw in our own lives, in our own health and bodies, in our marriage were things that were hurt, that were wounded.
“It did take some emotional, spiritual, physical toll on us.”
While they were still wrapped up in that work though it was hard for them to see that damage. Only after being back home – Chris headed the North American office of Word Made Flesh from here – could they grasp just how much trauma they’d stuffed. There were the tragic figures at the Mother Teresa-founded House for the Dying, the maimed victims of the Blood Diamonds War, the Latina and Asian women recovering from being trafficked in the sex trade.
Phileena says the burden of it all came to a head for her one day.
“Back home a friend asked me after listening to what we had experienced, ‘Do you ever doubt the goodness of God?’ Immediately it was like a dam broke loose and the emotions took over and I just wept and wept and said, ‘Yes, I doubt the goodness of God.’ What I realize now is that in all my work social justice work up until that point I was operating in terms of finding someone to blame, someone who’s responsible for the state of the world and the suffering and injustice that is there.
“And certainly some of us are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our actions. But in Freetown, Sierra Leone everywhere I looked I found the person to blame was also victimized and so then I had nowhere to turn except to blame God for the state of the world and for the condition of my friends.
“I was in a crisis of faith.”
Just when things seemed bleakest a ray of hope shone through in the person of Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest who is a leading proponent of the Christian contemplative prayer movement.
“Keating came to Omaha to speak at Creighton University and he introduced us to the contemplative tradition and centering prayer,” says Phileena. “That was really a lifesaver for me. It was immediate grace. There was a way for me to just be with the terrible suffering and trauma of the world, the human brutality, the questions, the doubts. There’s a way for me to be with my anger towards God and my questions and doubts about my faith. There’s a way to live faith without having all the answers.
“The answers I grew up with in church in mid-America were not connecting with the real problems of the world. Keating was just so helpful in providing a way for me to stay connected to faith, to God in a way that would allow me to deepen and grow.”
It should be no surprise then that Keating, the author of several books and the founder of the St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colo., where he resides and teaches, is a founding board member of Gravity.
Keating’s oft-professed lesson that a test of faith is an opportunity for growth resonated with the couple.
“Keating teaches that if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough we’ll come to the point where the practices that have sustained us in our faith journey fall short, they no longer nourish us, and when that happens it can be completely disorienting,” says Phileena, who went through this dark night of the soul herself. “A lot of people walk away from their faith at that point but Keating says it’s actually an invitation to go deeper.”
She and Chris chose to plunge the depths.
The contemplative way and paying it forward
“What we found is there’s a real difference between faith and certainty,” she says..”Faith is being able find yourself being held by something bigger and greater than you and not having all these answers. Doubt can be contained within our faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith. I think a lot of spiritual or religious people put a lot of bank in our certainty, but that’s actually a barrier to faith. Certainity can be a disguise for pride and superiority and thinking we have all the answers and have figured it all out and can figure God out. But faith is something that carries us. It’s a grace that helps us to be a part of the mystery of life and God and any goodness that is in us and that can flow through us to heal and transform the world.
“It really gave us an understanding for what we had witnessed in Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in South India. Mother never talked about this but we saw in her this pure model of contemplative activism, where people were dying at her doorstep and she was disciplined to see that they were taken care of but also to see that she and the Missionaries of Charity would take regular time out to meditate and pray. They had these regular rhythms of withdrawal and engagement and getting connected to a source that is greater than them.”
Reflecting on their own and others’ service experiences, Chris says he and Phillena concluded that many “folks in social justice actually take better care of someone else than they do themselves,” adding, “Where’s the integrity in that? If we don’t really know how to love ourselves how well can we really love someone else? We also saw folks who had really beautiful compelling vocations were sometimes being very unpleasant, grumpy people. We did see a lot of people burn out and a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burn out.”
He says he and his wife resolved they and their fellow social justice workers “don’t have to do this at our expense, we don’t have to do this in a way that ends poorly for us or that ends with people walking away from their work, their faith, their beliefs, their community.” That’s where Gravity comes in. “The idea is we want to accompany or journey with folks in this formation of helping ground our social engagement in a deep contemplative spirituality.”
They’re guided in their new mission by the wisdom and example of figures as diverse as Keating, Father Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Phileena says the monastic teachings of Keating, Rohr and Merton “have done a lot to bring contemplative spirituality out from the monastery and into the secular world. We’re a part of the next generation who are making it even more accessible and demystifying it. I think a big part of what we’re offering is accessibility to mysticism or contemplative spirituality. At the retreats the demystifying comes by practicing together and talking about our experiences.”
Gravity is a resource center whose programs, activities, books and videos help fulfill the mission statement tagline: “…do good better.” Both Chris and Phileena are published authors on matters of faith and spirituality.
The spiritual experiences that led them to Gravity, including all the insights gleaned from their teachers, colleagues, friends and role models, is their way of carrying the message.
Visit http://gravitycenter.com for a schedule of upcoming retreats and programs and links to materials.
Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten. A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century. The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own. In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here. My story about this art imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.
The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.
Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.
“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.
“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.
“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.
“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”
The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”
Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”
Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.
“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”
Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.
“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”
As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.
Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.
The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.
“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”
Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.
The events made an impression on Camille.
“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.
“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”
The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.
“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.
Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.
Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.’”
Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.
The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.
“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”
On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.
“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.
The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.
Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran
Northeast Omaha is often portrayed as an exclusively African-American district and while it’s true that it is the historical center of the city’s black community and it’s where a large number of the metro’s black population still resides, it has always been and continues to be a mixed race area that sees much interaction between black and white folks. Increasingly, Asians and Hispanics are part of that blended dynamic. Trinity Lutheran doesn’t have much diversity in its pews for its main Sunday services though it does host chapel services for a Sudanese congregation. But its social justice conscious husband and wife ministry team of pastors John and Liz Backus take the lead in making sure the church actively engages with the diverse community around it. They bring very different styles to the pulpit but at the end of the day they are all about love and welcome, service and community, faith and action. My New Horizons profile that follows fleshes out these two very human servants of God and charts the paths they’ve taken to do the good work they do and to lead the exemplary lives they live, warts and struggles and all.
Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
The husband and wife pastor team of John and Liz Backus minister to an old-line Swedish-American parish in Omaha, Trinity Lutheran, at 30th and Redick Streets. But their real mission is tending to the church’s impoverished mixed-race neighborhood beset by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and sexually transmitted diseases.
Upon arriving in late 2008 they found a parish little engaged with its community and desperate to retain a shrinking membership. Under the couple’s leadership Trinity’s stabilized its numbers and added new members. The church adopted nearby Miller Park Elementary School and its predominantly African-American student body. John runs a reading program there for 2nd graders. Trinity conducts neighborhood cleanups, participates in Crossroad Connection Prison Ministry, supports the North Omaha Summer Arts Festival and partners with Omaha North High School.
The pastors continue the church’s hosting of the Ruth K. Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy. They’ve deepened relations with the Blue Nile Sudanese congregation that worships in Trinity’s chapel. They’ve taken a personal interest in Trinity’s long partnership with a sister church in Tanzania the couple visited in 2010.
Children at the Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy
Social justice and multicultural inclusion come natural to the couple, who are adoptive parents of children of color.They support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. Everyone’s welcome at Trinity.
They live three blocks from the church in an old California bungalow-style house they extensively restored. Their home is an extension of their ministry as they host garden parties and meetings there. They also embrace efforts like the Minne Lusa House across the street.
“We’re glad to be in partnership in caring for the neighborhood,” John says. “We’re doing amazing things at Trinity and now we’re getting the community to do amazing things with us. The first step in redevelopment is recognizing that if you’re not involved in the community you’re just a dead body that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. I’m determined to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Trinity.
“Lutheran churches are often self-insular. But the building at 30th and Redick is not there just to hold services or to be a social organization for us. The church is to be a hospital in a sick place, to be a gathering place for God’s people to go out of the building and do God’s work. It’s not about how many more posteriors can we place in a pew, it’s about are we being faithful to the call of Christ when we walk out the door.”
The Backus’s are among few ordained spouses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They say what makes them stand apart from other clergy couples is that they pastor together. Married in 1976, they’ve been co-pastors since 1982. Trinity is their third shared “call” after pastoring stints in Kansas City, Mo. and in Minnesota
“it’s really just a way of life,” says Liz. “We can play on our strengths and we have the other person to talk things over with. It’s been good for us because we can do what we want to do. I was senior pastor in Kansas City and I’m not now, and it’s John’s time to run with it, and that’s good, too.
“Why would you want two of the same people?”
Depending on who’s leading Trinity’s 10:45 a.m. Sunday service, worshipers will either get his high energy flamboyance or her subdued solemnity. His charismatic stage presence was honed during 10 years performing with the touring gospel quartet, The Fishermen.
Despite their differences they stand firm in solidarity about their shared passion to serve others.
“When we’re really wrong we’re really wrong together but when we’re right it strengthens us,” Liz says.
But there’s no getting around they do come from two markedly different backgrounds.
Ordained ministry was his goal from as far back as he can recall while Liz only felt the call after meeting him. Three years older, John entered the seminary while she was in college. Liz soon followed his path.
“I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was a little kid I would run up to grab the pastor’s leg when he was trying to preach, and my parents would usually catch me but not always, and I’d scream, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.’”
He grew up outside Chicago. She grew up in rural Indiana. Both came from interfaith families. The only reason he became Lutheran is that his German-American father, who came from an abusive home, found refuge in that church as a boy and remained faithful to it.
“There was this Lutheran family down the street that would take my dad to church. Anything to get him out of the house was good. He loved the church. It was a place of safety for him. He loved his pastor and he wanted to be a pastor. There was no money for him to go to school so he left school in the 8th grade and went on to become a railroad machinist. But he always wished he’d been a pastor.”
John says things got so bad for his father as a boy that he “was kicked out of his house” at age 8. “He walked from Chicago to the suburb of Downer’s Grove and moved in with an aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s who I always knew as grandma and grandpa growing up.”
John was born in Chicago but his family moved to the suburbs when he was a child to escape the harsh legacy of his Italian-American mother’s gangland family and their link to infamy.
“My mother’s father was a driver for Al Capone in Chicago. I know that when Al Capone went to jail and my grandfather needed a job he voted for a certain mayoral candidate a number of times in one election and as a result got a job driving a garbage truck for the City of Chicago.”
He says the story goes that “when my grandfather died a gentleman came to the funeral and put an ice pick in the corpse’s shoulder to make sure he was dead.” Backus says quite a few older relatives on his mother’s side worked as mob functionaries. Some died in prison.
“My mother’s brother is either still in prison or he’s died now. He was a minor league leg-breaker.”
Dysfunction ran through his clan.
“You know in all of your good mafia dramas one person will turn to another and say, ‘You are dead to me,’ well, I watched that play out in my extended family over and over again. My maternal grandmother was angry my mother married someone who wasn’t Italian. That dismissing another human being doesn’t solve the problem because you just fight it out with someone else. That is something my beloved Elizabeth has taught me – that you need to just see things through.”
John’s grateful his folks survived the chaos and made a deliberate decision to move from that environment. Still, Backus is mindful he’s inherited a dark side that if he’s not careful can overtake him.
“That past is true and it’s woven into who I am. It’s so long ago now and yet when someone really angers me my first thought is, What do I need to do this person to get my way? How bad do I need to beat them? That’s horrible and I’m not afraid of confessing this. That’s not who I want to be and so that’s who i choose not to be.”
His love of singing is a byproduct of his parents, who moved the family to Neb., first to Lincoln and then to Elmwood, when he was a teen because of his dad’s railroad job,
“My father loved to sing hymns and my mom was a rook ‘n’ roller – Elvis Presley, roller skates, poodle skirts. She sang rock ‘n’ roll all the time. And I always liked to sing.”
At one point the man he most admired, his father, who taught him to fix anything, was ready to disown him. In 1972 the Vietnam War and military draft were still on. Backus, then 18, held genuine pacifist beliefs and had already applied to seminary, but the real reason he didn’t want to serve is that he feared the obesity he battled then – he weighed nearly 300 pounds – made him an easy target.
“I knew if I got sent over there I’d be dead. I knew some people who’d gone and died. At that time the deferments were all gone.”
Exterior and interior images of Trinity Lutheran
He joined other war opponents in a public protest that culminated in them burning their draft cards. He served a few days in jail for his action and was put on the military’s undesirable list. He’d considered more drastic action. “I was prepared to run. I figured I’d head north (to Canada).” He says his dad disapproved, telling him, ‘If you go you can never come back. But if you stay I will do everything I can to help you.”
Backus gets emotional explaining why his dad reacted so strongly.
“My father was an Army infantryman in the Second World War. He never talked about it but at the end of every month he woke up screaming. We found out later he was in the group that took Peleliu.”
The small Pacific coral island, now known as Palau, was occupied by Japanese forces embedded in trenches, caves and tunnels. Enemy positions could only be rooted out by men on the ground and by so-called “tunnel rats.”
“My father was a tunnel rat. The island was supposed to be occupied in a week but it took months. There were heavy casualties. So it was very difficult for him to see his son refuse to serve his country.”
Father and son reconciled and when John was ordained no one was any prouder than his old man.
“He loved it, he was so happy I stayed with it.”
By comparison, Liz says she comes from “a normal” background minus all the drama or rancor. When the liberal, long-haired John swept into her life it caused a rift between the young lovers and her parents. Her folks ran a printing company in Maryville, Indiana. They expected Liz to complete college and start a career before getting involved with someone, and then preferably with a well-off, buttoned-down fellow.
Spirituality fascinated her from the time her father took her to guitar masses at the Catholic church they attended during her childhood.
“I was always interested in church. I loved the liturgy, I loved a lot of things about it. But I knew I didn’t want to be a nun, so there wasn’t really a place for me I didn’t think.
“I was exploring all kinds of things.”
She aspired to a career in journalism but one year studying it at Indiana University convinced her she wasn’t cut out for it. She was still in high school when the singing group John was in came to town. She joined other area youths to campaign for a man running for congress, Floyd Fithian. The candidate’s nephew was The Fishermen’s lead singer and so the quartet, Backus included, drove to Indiana to lend their support. The youth volunteers were boarding a bus to go canvassing when Backus noticed a lovely coed.
He remembers, “I literally grabbed Floyd by the arm and said, ‘Do you see that girl who just got on the bus?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That’s Liz Danko,’ and I said, ‘Put her with me.’ And 300-plus letters later, because we lived 500 miles apart, we moved into the same town, Dubuque Iowa, where she was in college and I was in seminary, and a year later we were married. I asked her to marry me the third time I saw her.”
“An unusual courtship,” says Liz. “Yeah, we do not recommend it,” John says, “because you look back and it’s romanticized but at the time it was really hard.”
Among the difficulties was gaining her parents’ approval.
“My father and John had a lot of arguments having to do with his pacifist leanings. The rest of my family loved John but you know parents have such a high stake in everything.”
Then there was their resistance to her being a pastor’s wife.
“My parents thought a pastor’s wife was too hard of a job, that you don’t get any notoriety, you’re not a person in your own light, you’re in somebody’s shadow, you’re on their coattails. They worried, ‘You’re going to marry this man, get pregnant and quit school.’”
John understood their misgivings. “Elizabeth has always been brilliant, an incredible student, great grades. Her dad and mom looked at it as she’s bound to do great things and I’m going to ruin it.”
“They were so upset,” says Liz,
It didn’t help matters, she adds, that “John was cocky and arrogant” and I was young.” Against her parents’ wishes the couple got married after her second year of college. “Not a real happy day but they were coming around.” All was forgiven when her parents saw none of their fears realized. Liz finished school as planned, then after embracing Lutheranism went on to seminary and got ordained. Instead of playing second fiddle to her husband she became his equal partner.
“John and my father got to be really good friends,” she says.
Women ministers were still a new reality in the Lutheran Church and thus Liz was one of only a few females in her seminary class. John’s father was delighted to have a second preacher in the fold.
“His respect for our profession was deep and he was very happy when Elizabeth entered ordination.”
They feel they made the right decision to enter ministry, though there have been doubts and struggles along the way.
“I think at first I was trying to save myself but I learned you can’t. What keeps me going is when the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I just had a baby,’ and they are so happy and they want to tell me. Or they call and they say, ‘My father is dying,’ and they are so sad and they want to tell me. I get to live the heights and the depths of people’s lives and just stand with them and be there with them through all of it.
“It’s an incredible joy and what tells me it’s right is that I’m 60 years-old and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. It’s great.”
Liz says, “I think at first I just was so drawn to the mystery. The call is such a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with people. I think I can make a difference sometimes. Like you can be in the right place at the right time and that’s really humbling and captivating.”
John, Liz and their granddaughter Presley
Their first assignment together was in Lanesboro, Minn. When they adopted children from Korea and Thailand they introduced the only people of color into an otherwise all-white community.
“Everybody loved them,” Liz says. “Being the pastors’ kids they were aware they were treated really nicely but increasingly they felt they were the only people of color. They were big fish in a little pond. Also we didn’t feel we could afford to stay. We couldn’t have sent them to college making what we did. That was really the only reason we moved. It was a wonderful way of life.”
It was there the couple began their advocacy for LGBT rights. The church sometimes moved more slowly then they wanted but they’re pleased by the progress it’s made.
“When we first started speaking out about this in church assemblies it was just a matter of we need to let gay and lesbian people in our churches,” John says. “It’s ended up in this wonderful place we are now where persons who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered can have life partners and be pastors in this church. It took a long time to get there.”
“Gay-lesbian rights has been very important to us,” says Liz, who was active in groups that lobbied to get women bishops.
In Kansas City the couple brought already progressive St. James Lutheran Church into the reconciling or affirming movement It was a congregation in turmoil after the previous pastor resigned in the wake of accusations he had inappropriate sexual relations with members.
John says the unsavory situation “left the congregation divided and angry.” “Some of our predecessor’s strong supporters had left but some of stayed and that was part of what we dealt with,” Liz says. The couple set about healing the wounds and doing things the right way.
“One of the strengths of being a married couple is that we have good boundaries,” she says. “We were real intentional in what we did. We didn’t tell an off-color joke. The two of us were always present when somebody was in the office. We kept doors and windows open.”
Before their arrival in 1995 it was a church that talked social justice but they encouraged members to begin practicing it in their own backyard. The couple found a real home in that church community and in the neighborhood they resided in. But in 2007-2008 things changed.
“The work got more difficult,” says John. “Our leadership had always been greeted well. All of a sudden we realized things just weren’t going the way they should. We decided if we didn’t get good results at the next (parish council) meeting then it’s time to leave. The meeting went very badly. We would find out later a relatively small group of individuals had committed to having us removed. It’s much easier to get a pastor to quit then to get them removed.
“That group of people was making life difficult for us. I don’t know their reasons but I know they wanted us gone and worked very hard to make sure that happened. What was most painful for us is that no one came to us and said, Do you know what’s happening? We had the sense no one had our back.”
Feeling it was time to exit gracefully rather than subject the church to another upheaval, the pastors stepped down, though they hoped their self-imposed exile would be temporary.
“We thought, We’ll let them sort this out and let them get back on their feet,” says Liz.
But as time went by the severing became permanent. Stunned, John and Liz felt they were through with the ministry. They gave away all their theology books. That meant finding new jobs, only the timing couldn’t have been worse because of the economic collapse. John tried selling cars and digging ditches. Liz worked at a Panera’s.
“We just couldn’t make a living,” says Liz. “Things just did not work out.” “I applied for 200 jobs,” says John. “It was a very difficult year.”
They vacationed in Yellowstone to clear their heads and unburden theirs hearts. Upon returning home John announced: “I cannot be without a church.” So they searched for pastorships all over the nation. Omaha’s Trinity Lutheran, dedicated in 1922, proved the right fit for this pair with so much to give. They were just what was needed to awaken this somewhat sleeping, struggling urban parish.
Pastor John and Matt Kong talking social justice
He says the Lutheran Church recognizes “there are all these inner city ministry sites that have dwindled for 50 years and are incredibly important places for ministry to take place,” adding, “Often because of financial resources or not knowing what to do they’ll put someone there, a first year seminarian, who’s not ready to tackle the challenges that we as an experienced couple have tackled.” He says he believes “there are ways to make those congregations not just survive but thrive and we’ve already taken the first couple steps toward that at Trinity.”
They acknowledge the way they left K.C., where they expected to retire, hurt them, but they’re grateful to have their new ministry home.
“I think I’m broken now because of St. James,” Liz says. “Probably every other day we have a discussion about why things went wrong there. I mean, this is not over for us. I feel really bad about we were unable to take them to the next step.
“But I also think there is a call here (at Trinity) and that while all this has messed me up I’m not as afraid as I was. We have a steadiness and a wisdom and we’re not afraid of failing. And we have an energy and a drive that just may be what these people need.”
John says, “In eight more years it is our intention to have the parish so ingrained in missionary service that Trinity will be a teaching congregation. My passion and goal is that people can come out of seminary to Trinity and be taught how to do street ministry by a faith-filled congregation.”
The couple see a neighborhood and parish believing in themselves again and feeling good about the difference they can make, a sharp contrast to the hopelessness they found.
He’s encouraged by the generosity people are displaying and the progress beige made. A woman donated copies of The Littlest Lion to every 2nd grade student at Miller Park Elementary. An anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $500 and a note that read. “I like what you’re doing at Miller Park, use this.” Miller Park’s gone from one of Omaha’s lowest achieving public grade schools to one of its highest. Parishioners donated boots to prison inmates on work release.
“That’s God’s physical presence in our life today,” John says. “God doesn’t have to be anything more than that to me because God is alive and active in that gathering of people to love one another.”
Liz says, “We just abide and we keep doing it day after day.”
For a list of services and events, visit trinityomaha.org.
To Tanzania with Love: Mary Williams to Make Documentary on Alegent Creighton Health Mission in Africa Led by Bob Kasworm
Good works come in many forms. So do life transformations. Former Omaha, Neb. resident Bob Kasworm has always tried doing the right thing. This devoted family man has been a model employee and he’s also faithfully served his church and his community. But he took things to a whole other level when after several mission and fact finding trips toTanzania he decided to live and work in that African nation. He made a life-changing commitment to Alegent Creighton Health and its onging initiatives in Tanzania in collaboration with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to improve the health and medcal care, living conditions, and opportunties for residents there. As the point person for the organizaton’s work in Tanzania, Kasworm will be featured in a documentary that former Omaha television reporter-anchor Mary Williams will be making with videographer Pete Soby. The reporter-videographer team will be traveling to Tanzania in early 2014 to document the project’s efforts. My Omaha Magazine story about the mission in Tanzania and the planned film follows.
To Tanzania with Love: Mary Williams to Make Documentary on Alegent Creighton Health Mission in Africa Led By Bob Kasworm
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Life-changing work by Alegent Creighton Health in Tanzania, Africa is the focus of a forthcoming documentary from a one-time Omaha television news personality. When former KMTV anchor-reporter Mary Williams and videographer Pete Soby travel to Tanzania in February their main point of contact will be ACH’s man on the job there, Bob Kasworm. whose life has been transformed by the calling he follows in that distant land.
Kasworm, a biomedical engineer and devout Christian, combines career and faith in Tanzania, his home the last 10 years.
“This was never in my plans. I really wasn’t thinking I would ever go to Africa or have a life of service,” he says.
He first visited in 2001 on a Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America sponsored trip. He went to evaluate the potential of Alegent assisting hospitals. dispensaries and public health programs there.
The pull of Africa began then.
“From the very first trip there was never a day and rarely an hour when Africa was not on my mind. Yes, it was the poverty and the need, but it was more than that. Somehow Africa just got into my blood.”
He made a dozen or so additional visits in a three-year span as Alegent committed itself to working with the evangelical church and various health and civic partners in Machame, Tanzania. He cultivated and coordinated the growing relationship between the partners and implemented various initiatives.
The organization’s efforts there include training medical staff at Machame Hospital, developing Machame Nursing School, providing nursing scholarships and delivering medical equipment and supplies. Kasworm leads the Homes for Health program that uses local laborers to build new, cleaner, safer homes for residents.
A Homes for Health project
At the end of 2004 Kasworm decided to live in Tanzania full-time. He says it was then his wife “realized that what she thought was just a temporary ‘mid-life crisis’ was something I was powerless to resist.”
He’s since learned Swahili well enough to speak it fluently.
Machame Lutheran Hospital, founded some 110 years ago by German missionaries, is at the center of much of Alegent’s work there.
“We have the hospital with about 120 inpatients and many outpatients and clinics. We also have a Clinical Officer Training school and now the nursing school. There are about 20 homes for staff,” says Kasworm.
Neema, the first graduate of Machame Lutheran Hospital Nursing School
The campus is on a rare paved road. There’s running water (“usually”), electricity (“much of the time”) and Internet access – though slow.
Progress is plodding but satisfying.
“The most satisfying thing is that in many cases if not for our efforts and involvement many would simply not get help. A child with a club foot would become an adult with a club foot. The nursing student would not have had a chance to study. It is not like you can just go down the street to an alternative. There is no safety net. We do it or it won’t happen. We can now point to a number of successes.
“There is such a shortage of trained healthcare workers that our efforts in education may well be our biggest legacy. If you educate one nurse they will care for thousands over their career.”
Williams, who interviewed Kasworm on one of his periodic visits to Omaha, describes him as a “strong, driven” man who “sees opportunities where others don’t.”
ACH mission integration consultant Lisa Kelly says. “He’s so embedded in that culture now it’s amazing. He’s definitely a problem solver, which is huge in that country. Everything from unloading containers of things we send to fixing machines to keeping a water source going or getting an Internet connection set up, you name it, Bob is the guy who figures out how to do it.
“He has to navigate what’s possible in the developed world with what’s possible there in that culture and that setting. So you have to think of medicine in a whole new way and what he has been able to do is to bridge that gap.”
Williams and Soby are eager to tell this story from a grassroots perspective.
“You can’t really tell the story without talking to the people on the ground who are being helped and that would start with the patients coming through the door,” says Williams. “You cannot tell the story without talking to all the players – the patients, the nurses, the young women who have a fighting chance now.
“We can’t tell the story unless we go past the borders and see how exactly the people live and the challenges they face every day. We’re going to experience that first hand. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
When Williams left KM3 in 2009 and launched her own marketing and media production company she set her sights on telling stories that engage people’s hearts and minds. From reporting medical news she knew Alegent had compelling stories to be told and she wanted to be the storyteller that shared them.
There wouldn’t be a Tanzania story without Kasworm, whose year-round presence in that county makes the Alegent Creighton mission model unique. Much emphasis is placed on building relationships and making connections through ministry and medical mission trips organized by ACH and the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA.
For Williams, who’s only previous overseas assignment was covering local airmen serving in Desert Storm, this is an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a life changing experience.”
She and Soby expect to complete the 30-minute documentary in the spring.
Kasworm sees the project as another vehicle to foster awareness between Tanzanians and Americans.
“Our experience lets us serve as a bridge between the cultures and reduce misunderstandings. It seems much of our important work has not come from analysis or needs assessment – the work has just found us. I am sure more will present itself.
“As long as the doors keep opening and my health stays good, I hope to continue.”
Westerners have a long history of aiding developing nations through mission work. Sometimes though the assistance that Americans or others from the Western world provide can appear to be coming from a colonial mind space and consequently the recipients can be made to feel less than. That’s why what Dr. Joseph Dumba does through his Healing Kadi Foundation’e medical mission trips to South Sudan is different. Dumba lives in the States, with his wife and children in Omaha, Neb., where he practices family medicine, but he is a native of the very South Sudan area that his medical mission trips serve. He was and will always be a Sudanese and he infuses the work that he and his teams do there with cultural sensitivity. In the following Metro Magazine piece I profile Dumba and the work of his foundation.
Healing Kadi Foundation
Joseph Dumba and his Healing Kadi Foundation Make Medical Mission Trips to South Sudan
A U.S. doctor brings relief to his African homeland
When Dr. Joseph Dumba leads medical mission trips to South Sudan through his Omaha-based Healing Kadi Foundation, it’s personal. The Methodist Physicians Clinic doctor grew up in the same deprived, war-rabaged area, Kajo Keji County, his mission teams serve. His father, siblings and their families still live there.
His parents were subsistence farmers. As the oldest child he worked the fields before school. He grew up in a mud hut with no electricity or running water. Despite the struggles his folks paid for his and his siblings’ education. Life was interrupted when hostilities between government and rebel forces reached deep into southern Sudan.
Dumba fought in the civil war that forced his family into a Uganda refugee camp. He ended up in a Kenya camp. The war still raged.
When peace came in 2005 refugees returning home found conditions little improved from when they left. Dumba’s persistence to make a better life brought him to America in 1990, where he followed his dream to become a physician. He initially resettled in Tacoma, Wash., where he put himself through college and medical school.
He and his wife, Sabina, a fellow South Sudan native and advanced practice registered nurse, began a family on the west coast. The couple have three children.
Dumba came to the Midwest for his residency. After completing graduate training Alegent Health hired him in 2004 and then Methodist in 2010. The Omaha church he joined soon after moving here, Covenant Presbyterian, did mission trips to Nicaragua he went on. In 2007 he led his first South Sudan mercy mission through Covenant.
He’d long wanted to aid his countrymen. “I was looking for that opportunity,” he says. His resolve grew after his mother fell ill and died in the bush. No doctor was around to treat her. He vowed to help prevent such tragedies. He has by providing care to thousands via the Healing Kadi Foundation he formed in 2009. Its South Sudan clinic opened in 2013.
Last spring, KETV reporter Julie Cornell and photojournalist Andrew Ozaki accompanied Dumba for a documentary, Mission to Africa, profiling the foundation’s work serving what Dumba calls “the poorest of the poor.” The film shows the arduous life of residents who line up to receive care at mobile clinics conducted by Dumba’s team in remote villages. Most patients have never been seen by a doctor before. Women, many widowed from the war and raising children alone, present chronic illnesses from their backbreaking work.
“I think the documentary really did bring some light to how things are,” says Dumba. “It’s had tremendous impact, especially in bringing some awareness.”
He says donations to Healing Kadi are up since the doc aired last year.
The film doesn’t skirt showing how tough things are. Cornell was struck by the contrasts of a country rich in beauty yet beset by suffering and hardship. She says Dumba’s “spirit, calm and sense of purpose” impressed her, adding, “It’s clear that faith guides and directs his life.”
Dumba says everything’s in short supply in South Sudan, even things taken for granted in the States, such as medical syringes and gloves. What’s disposable here is reused there. Nothing’s wasted.
“We’re so far from being able to provide the most comprehensive care but at least we’re there to provide some of the most basic things they don’t have.”
The foundation’s set up a permanent clinic containing everything from x-ray machines to a surgical room. Thousands of dollars in medicines are brought over each trip, much donated by Omaha families and organizations.
In addition to doctors, nurses and pharmacists, the team includes prayer ministry members, mental health professionals, educators, water purification specialists and financial literacy experts.
All the foundation’s work depends upon donated time, expertise, money and supplies. Everyone pays their own way.
“All of us doing this do it on a volunteer basis,” says Dumba.
Healing Kadi hopes to build a roof atop its open-air clinic to better shield patients from the elements. Dumba says the foundation also hopes to construct a patient admitting structure and a hydration station. A longer term goal is building an acute care hospital. Dumba says there isn’t a single intensive care unit in all of South Sudan. The sickest patients must go to hospitals in more developed border nations.
In late March Dumba will lead a seventh mission trip. He and his team. including colleagues from Methodist, will put in grueling hours.
“We work for five days, very intensively, Monday through Friday. They’re long days. We work from sunrise to sundown until we can’t see anything. Then we go back to where we base and there we find patients also needing care, so sometimes we work until 10 or 11 pm. Then we just go to sleep and wake up and start all over again.”
Sometimes I think what did I get myself into because you think you’re making progress and you hit a standstill. But then God opens the door and you move forward.
~ Dr. Joseph Dumba
As the film details, Dumba is welcomed as a hero and his team accorded great respect. Expressions of gratitude abound.
Dumba says his greatest satisfaction is “people coming to the clinic and saying, ‘Thank you for being here.’ The clinic is delivering care to thousands who wouldn’t have had any care at all. They don’t have anywhere else to go.” He knows the missions are making a difference as more and more people come for treatment.
“The last trip we saw about 10,000 patients, averaging about 2,000 a day, and even with that we’re not able to see everybody.”
Patients are required to pay a small fee or to barter, he says, in order to “empower” the people to be self-sufficient in the future.
He arrives in advance of his team to arrange logistics. As a well-placed South Sudan native, he’s able to cut through red tape.
“I know most of the leaders in the country. It makes things a lot easier. When my team arrives at South Sudan airport the appropriate authorities have already been informed and all the proper paperwork has already been sent ahead so that my team can quickly pass through to start work.”
He says his country’s “very slow” rebuilding can be frustrating.
“Sometimes I think what did I get myself into because you think you’re making progress and you hit a standstill. But then God opens the door and you move forward.”
It’s then he’s reminded how far South Sudan and Healing Kadi have come in a short time. He and Sabina have helped put all but one of his siblings through college and all are productive citizens today.
He’a also reminded how simple health care can be.
“It’s like a relief. You don’t have paperwork there, you don’t have computers, all you do is just take care of patients. You talk to the patient, examine the patient, find out what it is, write down the diagnosis and medicine, that’s it.”
As the film depicts, physically touching patients is a big part of the healing delivered. Dr Jim Steier, who’s been on several mission trips, says, “It’s not only the medicine…it’s the people” that stand out.
Dumba says everyone who goes is affected.
“The doctors who go with me come back with a different perspective.”
Trip veterans return humbled by the experience and grateful for what they have. They think twice before throwing something away or complaining.
Julie Cornell was impacted, too. She senses the film she made affects viewers the same way. She says she finds “intensely satisfying” the film’s “ability to move people, open their minds and call them to action.”
Dumba likes that it paints a vivid but hopeful picture of his homeland’s struggles and of his foundation’s efforts to address some of the needs.
I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture
Dirt, as in soil that you dig in with your hands, is becoming cool among a certain set of young people who are joining the multi-generational ranks of folks practicing urban farming as a response to the food deserts and unhealthy eating choices plaguing many American communities and the disconnect between Americans and the food they consume, most of which is highly processed, pre-packaged crap supplied by corporations that operate out of self-interest, not the public welfare. Two young men fresh out of college have produced a new documentary, Growing Cities, that takes a road trip look at the burgeoning urban farm movement and its cultivation of a healthy, sustainable food culture that aims to put the power of food back in the hands of the people. For their project filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette traveled from our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. across the country to both coasts and several stops in between before ending up back where they started. Growing Cities is playing festivals around the nation. It has a 7 p.m. Filmmakers Screening Oct. 29 at Film Streams in Omaha. Susman and Monbouquette will field questions from their hometown audience folliowing the show. My article about their new film will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com). For related stories, check out my pieces on this blog about three Omaha endeavors: No More Empty Pots, Minne Lusa House and the culinary-horticulture marriage at Metropolitan Community College.
New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary.
In Growing Cities urban agriculture advocates Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette present farming operations around the nation as smart remedies to inner city food deserts. The doc’s. 7 p.m. Film Streams screening on Oct. 29 will be followed by a Q&A with the creators.
Writer-director Susman, cinematographer Monbouquette and production manager Brent Lubbert logged 13,500 miles in a Dodge Caravan van on a three-month road trip to 20 cities in 2011. They searched out the best, biggest, most innovative urban agriculture models and found farmers not just in trippy spots but everywhere and farming everything from front and backyards to lots to rooftops to windows.
The quest was fueled by their disenchantment with scant local urban farming initiatives, though they acknowledge great strides have been made through No More Empty Pots and Big Muddy Farms, for example. The pair run their own mobile program, Truck Farm, that intros youth to growing things.
The urban ag movement has emerged in response to an industrialized food system that leaves consumers disconnected from the sources of what they eat and therefore reliant on processed, pre-packaged products.
Studies show a lack of ready access to fresh, organic foods may contribute to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Susman’s advocate-activist efforts got their start at Dartmouth College. The environmental studies major led a large outing club program, waged a sit-in at the president’s office and helped develop a Sustainable Living Center. He also co-directed a short film about the development of some pristine land.
The filmmakers obtained grants from Dartmouth to fund the Growing Cities road trip and raised $40,000-plus during a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. They’ve since found support among the same urban ag community they tout. Back home, they served as resident fellows at the Union for Contemporary Art and got free studio space there and at the Image Arts Building, whose owner, Dana Altman, became a producer.
The Central High grads lionize grassroots, community-based efforts that support natural, local food production.
Susman, a vegetarian who has a garden and chickens in his midtown backyard, feels they’ve caught a trend.
“What we tapped into is this intense support and desire by people to get involved. We made the film at the right time when I consider this wave because I know it’s only getting bigger,” he says.
“There’s so many different ways to get involved. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can grow a little bit. If you don’t like growing maybe you can cook or preserve or can. Or maybe volunteer at the local food bank. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, so we have this huge population that could be doing this.”
The filmmakers contend there’s great interest in urban farming and that it can be practiced at some level by anyone, anywhere.
“There’s a lot of people who have never worked with a sustainable organization or who have never farmed but they’re super excited about it,” says Monbouquette. “It’s something everybody can do. The biggest thing for us is encouraging people to grow a little bit of something.”
Andrew Monbouquette and Dan Susman
“Grow where you are” is the mantra they’ve adopted
Monbouquette says, “I think our biggest goal was we wanted to inspire people to do something.”
He says warm receptions to the film at festivals indicate its message resonates widely. Susman says millennials are just as likely to recognize “it’s cool, fun, exciting and rewarding to grow your own food” as older folks.
Monbouquette suggests urban farming will scale up in direct proportion to the number of people who participate in it and the amount of resources devoted to it. He suggests the real question is, “How far can we really take all this positive energy around urban farming and solidify it in our culture and just make it one of the things that we do, so it’s not just for hippies and hipsters?”
“Nobody’s saying we’re going to grow everything we can ever eat in cities. We can grow a lot of things there though,” says Susman.
Urban farming has been popular in earlier eras before fading away.
“The closest thing we have to compare it to is the Victory Garden movement (of World War II).,” says Monbouquette. “The statistics from that are astounding. Urban farmers were growing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed.” Will the phenomenon last this time? “It just needs people to embrace and try it,” he says, adding government could do more to promote it by offering incentives to property owners to enter land use agreements that transform vacant lots into gardens.
Susman says some cities go so far as to have urban ag directors.
Rather than take a critical approach about “how screwed up everything is with E.coli or Mad Cow or industrial farming,” Susman says the film is “a really positive” spin on what we can all do to make our communities healthier and more inclusive.
Monbouquette says he became a convert to the cause by working on the film.
“The food and social justice issues really stuck a chord with me. Growing food is such a simple act but it can transform into this hugely motivational, inspiring, positive, productive thing in communities that really need it. You know, everyone has to eat and I subscribe to the view that we’re all in this together.”
For tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
- A farmer’s journey from California to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (blogs.vancouversun.com)
- Growing Power: An urban farm that grew a million pounds of food on 3 acres (poorasfolk.wordpress.com)
- Agropolis – a transitional urban agriculture project in Christchurch’s city centre (thesolablog.wordpress.com)
- Lantzville hashes out urban farming options (nanaimobulletin.com)
- City-based rooftop farms could revolutionise urban food sustainability (blueandgreentomorrow.com)
- Urban agriculture is socio-economic beneficial (City Farmer News) (desertification.wordpress.com)
- Urban Farming (theecologist.org)
It takes a village, the saying goes. To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community. That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday. Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley. The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood. For her, it’s all about building community. It starts with transforming lives. It’s her ministry and mission. Job well done, soul sister, job well done. But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues. She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.
Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.
During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.
“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.
“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.
The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.
That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.
That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.
“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.
She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.
The Hope Garden
“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”
This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.
“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved – the respect.”
That same respect and unity infuse the block party
“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”
Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.
“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”
She’s an admired figure.
“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”
During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”
Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.
Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”
Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.
“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”
The block party features plenty of decorations and food.
Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.
The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.
There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and
Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.
A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.’”
Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.
Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.
“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.
“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”
Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.
“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”
As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.
“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”
But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.
“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”
A tragedy moved her farther down the path.
“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”
She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.
“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”
That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.
The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.
The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.
“My husband was scared for my life.”
Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”
Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.
“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”
Then she went about making it happen.
“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”
From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.
“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”
About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.
She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”
As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.
Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.
“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.
“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”
When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.
“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ‘em or show ‘em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”
He’s proud of her.
“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”
As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.
Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.
“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i
Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.
“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”
But she still retained a presence on the block.
“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”
She didn’t like what she found.
“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”
Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.
“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”
Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.
“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.
“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”
She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.
“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”
While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.
“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”
She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.
“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”
When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.
“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.
We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”
She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.
“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”
Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”
- Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Block party brings neighbors together (triblive.com)
- Omaha neighborhoods celebrate National Night Out with block parties (omaha.com)
- Celebrate the Block to Build Community (bmecommunity.wordpress.com)
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending Food Desert in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens. My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.
No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).
“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,
Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.
In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.
Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.
There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.
“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.
“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”
Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.
Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”
WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.
“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”
Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.
“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”
Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.
“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”
Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.
“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.
She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”
“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.
“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”
NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.
“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”
NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.
Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”
By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.
NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.
“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.
“People are becoming more and more educated.”
Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.
- In this truck farm, the truck IS the farm (omaha.com)
- Is The World’s Most Sustainable Restaurant In Omaha? (urbantimes.co)
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect. Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) offers a small window into a few migration stories.
And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.
The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.
The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.
Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.
“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.
“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”
The family still retains the property today.
Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.
“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.
The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.
Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.
“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”
When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.
“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.
“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’ It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”
Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.
Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.
Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.
Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.
Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.
The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.
Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.
Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.
“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.
“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”
Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.
“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”
Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.
Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.
Both women continue doing hair today.
Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”
“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”
Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.
“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”
She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.
In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”
Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.
“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.
When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.
Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.
“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.
This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.
“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”
Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.
Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.
But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.
“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.
“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”
Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.
Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.
“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”
She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.
“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”
Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.
“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.
“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”
Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.
“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”
Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”
Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.
Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.
“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.
On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.
Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”
Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.
Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”
Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.
She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.
“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”
Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.
Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.
Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”
Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.
- The Jungle and The Great Migration (piperhuguley.com)
- 2013 Stroll Down Memory Lane: Native Omaha Days Celebration (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- To Remember the Great Northern Migration (local.answers.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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