Kathy Nelson: Living Her Love

It all began with a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters with her church youth group when Kathy was 13 or 14, a trip she describes as, “one of the best experiences of my life.”  Not long after, Kathy was the one taking church groups into the wilderness, and she’s been paddling her social justice canoe ever since.

Kathy grew up in the UCC at Union Church in St. Louis Park.  After she completed her degree in journalism, she took a year-long position through the UCC Board of Homeland Ministries at a settlement house in St. Louis. Her experiences working with youth there cemented her calling to continue that work in youth ministry.  She went on to attend Union Theological Seminary, and began her work as a youth pastor in New Brighton and St. Anthony Park.  She had envisioned herself working only with youth for the rest of her life, but as time passed, she grew to love all aspects of ministry, which brought her to Peace Church.

At Peace, Kathy’s social justice ministry expanded in multiple directions, and Peace was ripe for that.  She inspired and encouraged members of the congregation to extend Peace’s social justice mission into the community and the wider world.  As she says, “a minister’s job is to help them remember their lines; whisper to them from the wings—‘to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)—and to love your neighbor as yourself.’  Peace is a wonderful community—they show up.”  Kathy says that the willingness of people to roll up their sleeves, dive in, and do the work is such a huge blessing.  “I love this church.”

She has been inspired in her faith journey by Anne Lamott and Barbara Brown Taylor, as well as by Micah 6:8 and Romans 12:9-21. Kathy is a genuine lover of all humanity. She embodies the message in Romans 12:  “Let love be genuine.” “Extend hospitality to strangers.” “Feed them…give them drink…overcome evil with good.”  She has worked to overcome the evils of poverty, racism, homelessness, and the criminal justice system with her genuine and generous love and good works—and food. 

For Kathy, faith and action are always interconnected.  They can’t be separated.  As she says, the “love” of “Love your neighbor” is a verb.  Such love needs to be enacted.  “I’m more a person of action,” Kathy says, “not a contemplative.  I love people. I love serving breakfast at CHUM—talking with the people. I love the one-on-one ministry.  I love to learn people’s stories.”  The partnership with St. Mark’s AME Church has also been very important to Kathy.  “It’s important to be present, to show up, to keep the Arthur Foy Scholarship going—he was a friend.” She continues to be a friend to his memory.

Kathy is emphatic about the inspiration she receives from the Peace Church community as a whole.  She is humbled to work alongside so many inspiring people—in the Sanctuary movement, the Dismantling Racism team—all the people who do the work, who step up to act on their commitments to justice.  “We are known,” she says. “We stand for something.  People know they can come to us. There is so much quiet giving of time, of money, meals. The Gabriel Fund has given out over $35,000 this year alone.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 9:15). Kathy’s social justice ministry has extended to the nearly 300 weddings she has performed. Doing weddings for the LGBTQ community, long before the state recognized LGBTQ unions, has been especially important for her, and as she says, “requires a continual witness,” an affirmation of the loving and kind nature of all relationships.  She especially loves that the kids of LGBTQ parents know that they come to church in a place where their parents are loved.

“Weep with those who weep” (Romans 9:15). Kathy has buried nearly 300 people during her years at Peace.  The funerals of young people—and this year there have been so many—who died far too young of illness, or of the social ills which drove them to end their own lives—have been especially difficult, and her witness to the meanings and stories of their lives is a great blessing and honor to them and their loved ones.

It is hard for Kathy to name one or two social issues that are most important to her.  As she says, there are so many. But what rose to the top were the women at the county jail and all the interconnected issues reflected in their lives and struggles—the structural racism, inequality, lack of access to services, mental health issues, criminal justice reform, the impact on families of moms being incarcerated. She is particularly concerned about this last issue.  “We don’t care about children as a society. We need to do better.”  Kathy began spending time with the women at the jail twenty-five years ago when the chaplain at the jail, Sue Maas, asked her to come preach.  All the other preachers were male and conservative, and she hoped Kathy would bring a different message.  When Sue saw how the women at the jail connected with Kathy, she asked her to do Bible study with them.  “I love the women at the jail,” says Kathy.  She gets to know people through their stories. It breaks down barriers, and is truly transformational.

The things that Kathy would most like to change are institutional racism—“all the interconnected inequalities, the criminal justice system—and women’s lives—how women have been silenced.” She would like for women to have a voice.  As she acknowledges, she has been privileged in that regard.  “I have literally had a pulpit for all these years.”  She has used that pulpit to lift up the voices of women—the women at the jail, the many unnamed women in the Bible, the women who have been given voice in song in the New Century Hymnal—one of Kathy’s first initiatives for inclusion at Peace.

But the highlight of Kathy’s social justice ministry is in her first and last love–-working with youth.  “I love the youth—watching the youth grow up, continuing to be a part of their lives.”  She has confirmed over 450 of them.  She has especially loved the extended time she has had with them at the work camps, and of course, the canoe trips, where she can spend an entire week with them uninterrupted, “letting them know they are loved, and they should love others.”  And so the dip of Kathy’s canoe paddle ripples far beyond herself, far into future generations. “The paddle guides liquid to our upturned mouths…We go on, and on, and on.” (Claudia Schmidt, “Replenish”).

~Interviewed by Beth Bartlett