Sunday, August 22, 2010

An angel of nonviolence

Genny Nelson is the Dorothy Day of Portland, Oregon, beloved by thousands hereabouts. She and I had dinner a few weeks ago and discussed many things, as we often do, but one was her planned trip to Indiana to visit her mother and then to Chicago to visit her children.
We met in August, 2002, introduced by a former student of mine, a brilliant schizophrenic whose periodic bouts with mental illness landed her in the street, homeless and wandering. We were all crying, not because our meet-up was sentimental, but because we were all tear-gassed by the Portland police, who were protecting the Hilton Hotel from us, since there were a couple thousand of us and George W. Bush was in the Hilton. It was the perfect place to meet Genny and to begin a sweet friendship.
Genny is the matron saint of all those in Portland who are in trouble. Like Dorothy Day, she connects to people at a human level of profound respect and care for each person. Indeed, Genny Nelson typifies the soul of charisma, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not about fiery oratory or defiant leadership. The center of charisma is the near magical ability of some gifted humans to actually care about you and transmit the authenticity of that care to you, even speaking to a large crowd.
Genny is charismatic. The genuine connection she makes with everyone who crosses her path is rare, remarkable, and game-changing. Leadership like hers comes seldom. It was tough to see her retire this year.
And it's even tougher at this moment. She's had a heart attack and is in the Intensive Care Unit at Lutheran Hospital of Indiana in Fort Wayne. Genny is younger than I am--she was born in 1952--and that is always hard to take. She's not yet 60 and I want her to be in good health as she works on her writing and enjoys retirement.
To learn much more about Genny's work, visit the website of Sisters of the Road Cafe, which she started more than 30 years ago, and watch the Get Well video posted there.
In all her talks and trainings, Genny's primary grounding was nonviolence, a word she used to bring the tone of the group to a centeredness around what she called 'a place of nonviolence.' The last time we had dinner, on July 28, we envisioned doing some trainings together at Sisters, of establishing her emeritus status there, and we discussed co-teaching a class at Portland State University, using some of the materials she had developed over the years in her work.
Genny Nelson, get better now so we can move all those plans forward. You are one of the most precious people I've ever met, beloved and rightly so. I've never seen anyone more capable of calming the troubled waters so overwhelming to so many. Aside from Dorothy Day, I doubt anyone in the US has given more of the lumpenproletariat a more accurate, understandable and usable structural analysis--the grassroots-organized initiatives that have sprung from Sisters, such as Dignity Village, speak to that. She was joined annually by Utah Phillips in this--he would come perform in a benefit for Sisters every year while he was alive (pictured here with Genny and Jack Tafari of Dignity Village) You've fed their bodies, their minds, their spirits and their hearts for decades. Now we want your heart to heal and your beautiful spirit and healthy body back here in Portland, your town.

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