“Why did you, American Mother of the Year, commit civil disobedience in front of the Trident nuclear submarine?” a reporter asked the white haired, 78-year-old woman as she left the courthouse.
The woman, accused of being in a little boat blocking a nuclear submarine, answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“I did it for the children of the world,” she said.
That was Ruth Youngdahl Nelson, wife of a Lutheran pastor, writer, speaker, homemaker, advocate for justice and peace — and my mother.
My mother lived out her faith: that we are all loved by God, created in the image of God, and a part of God’s family — no matter what word we use for God.
She became alarmed at the country’s nuclear arms race, especially after she visited Hiroshima, Japan. She stood with the women of Japan, joining peace demonstrations and accompanying local efforts for peace. In a wheelchair after cancer surgery at the age of 80, she joined a Minneapolis demonstration against weapons of mass destruction.
Earlier, Ruth Nelson lived in Saudi Arabia when her husband was pastor to oil company workers. There she found ways to reach out to the Muslim women in the Arabian Desert, creating relationship and the opportunity to share stories between women from the oil company and Arab women. Sharing food and families were a common denominator.
The Nelson parsonage in Washington, D.C., was a house of hospitality. Meal times were an experience of God’s wider family: sharing, listening, and engagement in the issues of the times with international guests, lonely G.I.s, people coming out of prison. All were welcome at the table (and stayed overnight if needed).
She sponsored a weekly Bible study in the women’s prison and got to know the women and their circumstances. Later she pounded on the doors of Capitol Hill and local government to get women’s halfway homes established to ease the transition from prison to community.
In the 1950s, the Nelsons’ church was one of the first mainline churches to racially integrate, losing some members and gaining others, as it reached out to the community. Elsie, a Costa Rican domestic worker brought in under contract, came to be a part of the church family and a part of our home, sharing Sundays and vacations with us. Home was a feeding place, a healing place, a family place for so many.
Years later, when I was deeply involved in the struggle for justice and sustainability in a low income African-American community on Chicago’s west side, I would call my mom in frustration and complain about what wasn’t working and how hard it was to continue on in the face of disappointments and disparities.
She would say, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
There was no time for opting out or negatives in her eyes. But she would surround us with prayer, encouragement, and share what few resources she had.
At the age of 80, while writing her final book A Grandma’s Letters to God, she learned her cancer had spread. The last words of the book, written just months before she died, shared her feelings:
“I love life, Lord, and if you should give me more time, I would want to be about your business. I want to challenge my beloved country to put its trust in you — not in nuclear bombs. I want to challenge people everywhere to be stewards of what you’ve given them — and for those of us who have been given so much to share our skills and resources and love with those who have so little. What a world that would be — the kind you meant it to be!”
Ruth Youngdahl Nelson, an inspiration, an encourager, and a pusher — and a prayerful reminder to be about the work of justice and community.