The headline of his Washington Post obituary on July 17, 2005, read: “Nelson Good, Sociologist.” Which was accurate, in a narrow, misleading sort of way. But the headline writer deserves our sympathy. Even Nelson Good’s children complained that they never knew what to say when their friends asked, “What does your dad do?”
What did he do? In 61 years of life, this lean, slow-talking, earnest man with a sly and boyish sense of humor never put together a résumé. He created his own jobs, usually part-time, often working with longtime friends for meager pay.
I thought of him as a builder, but not with hammers and nails. His tools were meetings over breakfast, late-night phone calls, and lots of conversations in between. On the surface, those conversations concerned a school he helped keep afloat for 13 years, our church, a retreat center in West Virginia, and the rebuilding of a historic YMCA building in the heart of Washington, D.C. But you realized, after awhile, that Nelson was really building something else. He was constructing human communities, frameworks for whole and healthy lives, assembled mysteriously from people’s donated time, energy, and goodwill. Nelson left us this year, but that web of community remains.
Nelson Good grew up in a Mennonite family, the third of seven sons, on a dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was curious about the world beyond the farm’s fences; while a student at Eastern Mennonite College in the mid-1960s, he tasted, first from afar and then during a summer session in New York, the ferment of the civil rights movement and urban unrest.