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Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Raises Up Her North Omaha Neighborhood and Builds Community

August 13, 2013 4 comments

 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

Appeared 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.

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

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.

 

 

Conestoga_25 anniversary

 

 

“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 easy.

 

 

Apostle with Mayor Stothert and her husband

 

 

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.”

 

Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha

August 8, 2013 6 comments

One of Pam's crosses

One of Pamela Jo Berry’s cross pieces

 

 

When I first posted this, I wrote about the subject of this story, “Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken.”  I could have added that she also doesn’t allow her picture to be used without her permission.  That’s still true but she has since relented to let me post a self-portrait she created.  The fact that we’ve became a couple since I wrote this story may help account  for this change of mind.  She’s still very shy and particular about her image.  What you will see in this self-portrait, which is broken up into two images here, is her heart.  The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters.  The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms,  her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community.  As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood.  The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work.  Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all.  She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.

PAM BERRY
Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.

With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”

“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.

This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.

A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.

The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.

That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21) – Bart Vargas

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson

Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.

Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.

Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.

Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.

Berry’s also showing her own work.

It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.

“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”

PAM BERRY (2)opt

The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it

“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”

She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.

“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”

Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.

Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.

“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”

Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.

John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.

“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”

Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.

“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”

She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.

“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”

She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.

“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”

She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”

Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.

“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”

That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.

“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”

In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.

“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”

The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”

Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.

For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.

“I love my community.”

For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina never forgets his Latino hertitage

July 18, 2012 1 comment

As a cradle Catholic I knew little or nothing about the Episcopal Church until a dozen years ago when I began attending services at Church of the Ressurection in North Omaha.  That particular church formed in the 1980s when the all white congregation and the all black congregation of two small, failing churches merged or blended together.  While my knowledge remains fairly sketchy today I’ve come to feel warmly about the Episcopal faith and its great tolerance and acceptance of diversity.  In the following piece I profile an Episcopal priest here, Rev. Ernesto Medina, who has made quite a splash since arriving from Los Angeles in 2007.  His life and work embody much of what the Episcopal Church stands for.

 

 

 

Rev. Ernesto Medina

 

 

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina never forgets his Latino hertitage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

As a person of color and priest in the Episcopal Church, Rev. Ernesto Medina is a minority in a moderately diverse denomination.

The California native practices inclusion as a matter of conscience and as a consequence of being Latino in a white world. This self-described “edgy liturgist” is also a confirmed social justice activist.

The new rector at St. Martha‘s Episcopal Church in Papillion, Medina came to Omaha with his wife Susan in 2007 to serve as Dean for Urban Mission at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Omaha. That position entailed outreach with Hispanics and Latinos in south Omaha. He remains connected to that community as a Latino Center of the Midlands board member. Those ties help keep him grounded.

“I need that home base. I really feel good about it,” he said.

Though he shepherds a predominantly white congregation at St. Martha, Medina implements his heritage into services. He recently presided over a Day of the Dead ceremony in which he had members bring photos of deceased loved ones and place them around the altar. He led worshipers in prayer for the departed. He is happy his congregation’s welcomed an extended Latino family at the church.

Like many mainline Christian churches, the Episcopal Church has struggled with racial diversity, though there are pockets of Spanish-speaking members. “The challenge is they don’t have a voice,” he said. “There’s significant more voice than there used to be. My generation stepped up about 10 years ago. For the first time we produced liturgical material written in Spanish for translation into English.”

Clear back to growing up in San Diego Medina’s balanced being true to his ethnic roots while navigating white America. He was the first in his family to attend college. To his own people, he’s not Latino enough. To whites, he’s too ethnic.

“People don’t get me. I grew up as a Mexican in this culture, yet I’m excluded from both realities. The reality of being in both worlds is normal to me, that’s just who I am,” he said. “I preach in English, I dream in Spanish. I’m American educated, my blood is Mexican. American culture sees me as brown. Latino culture sees me as different because I don’t speak with an accent.

“There’s some real pain in it, but it’s OK, because there’s more joy. There’s certain things I do because of it — I will always seek inclusion for everyone.”

He’s on the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative. It promotes interfaith dialogue among Christian, Jewish and Islamic followers, with the goal of a shared campus.

He’s made waves for his candor. About the Episcopal Church, he said, “structurally it’s the most racist institution I know — at the same time it’s the most inclusive of any denomination I know.” He’s broken barriers, too. “In 2000 I became the first Latino in charge of a cathedral in the church’s history,” he said, when named Provost of the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles. It put him on the front page of the L.A. Times Metro section.

“I understood what I became a steward of. I know as a priest and by virtue of who I am that I have a responsibility for people. My largest congregation was Spanish speaking and 90 percent of them were undocumented.”

 

 

 

St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Papillion

 

 

Long before L.A. he became sensitized to the undocumented when as a seminarian he worked in a pear orchard with migrant workers.

“That summer we got them all legal and documented,” he recalled with glee.

At a reunion he was pleased to find the men and their families leading successful lives.

Fast forward to L.A. in the mid-2000s, when he found himself immersed in the immigration reform movement. “I got caught up in the fervor of it,” he said. Part of the machinery of “making it happen,” he was at meetings that organized the mass marches in L.A. He was also among a contingent of religious leaders who went to the nation’s capital to lobby elected leaders.

“We kicked butt in D.C.,” he said.

Medina earlier announced himself a maverick figure when, in 1995, he was named Missioner for Christian Education for the Diocese of Los Angeles.

“It’s what put me on the national map. I was part of that small group that married the two schools together in the Episcopal Church — the liturgists and the educators. It was very exciting.”

It was in that role he co-developed Authority of Generations, a widely adopted guide for church decision-making and program development that emphasizes inclusion of all ages, particularly the elderly and the very young.

Medina, whose love of travel has taken him all over the world, got to know a group of elders in remote Kivalina, Alaska, located above the Arctic Circle. They inspired him to embrace the doctrine that “elders are the gift of wisdom.” It’s a lesson that was also impressed upon him by his family elders and by a mentor priest.

Early in his own priesthood he served in a parish with a school, and it’s then, he said, he came to appreciate “religion in a pluralistic community and the gifts that children bring to community that go beyond innocence.” That experience led him to advocate for the leadership role children can play in various aspects of church life.

His impassioned interest in building bridges and inviting everyone to the table, he said, “is a continuation of a promise” he made his mother. He said she and her mother once went to a priest for help but were ignored in favor of a wealthy parishioner. After Medina announced his intention to be a priest, he said his mom made him swear he would never forget where he came from or snub anyone.

“That was the condition she placed on it,” he said, “which has been what I hope is a constant in what I do. I have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

He and Susan, parents to two adult children, have traveled far and wide but they feel they’re right where they need to be now.

“When we came to Omaha it felt like we moved home,” he said. “It’s very consistent with our values set.”

 

 

 

 

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

July 15, 2012 4 comments

One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center.  These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha.  A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way.  This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.

 

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”

The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.

This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.

But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults  takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.

“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.

There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.

“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”

The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.

Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.

Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.

“It’s close to a miracle.”

For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.

“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.

“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”

Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”

Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.

“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”

Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.

 

 

 

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Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.

The project’s  comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.

Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.

It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”

He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.

“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”

Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.

“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”

On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.

The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.

One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds

June 13, 2012 3 comments

I am a cradle Catholic but until Sunday, June 10 I had never observed or participated in a procession.  I intentionally immersed myself as a reporter in the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession that weekend for the purpose of not only getting a story, which follows, but of furthering my own spiritual journey.  I was not disappointed on either count.  There’s something ancient and ancestral and magesterial about a religious procession that taps deep currents in many people, including me as I found out.  I am glad to have experienced it and I intend to do so again.  I have always responded to the high theater of sacred services and I believe I am more open today than before to feel the spirituality of these experiences.  Hopefully this story, soon to appear in El Perico, does a fair job of capturing the event.  My blog doesn’t feature many stories related to religion and spirituality but there are some, including a feature on the sponsor and organizer of the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession, St. Peter Catholic Church.  You’ll also find a features on Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its pastor, Rev. Tom Fangman.  Check out the story I did on some followers of the Latin Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Omaha.  I recently posted an upcoming cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the Omaha-based Tri-Faith Initiative, a collaboration between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that is well on its way to building a campus with a church, a synagogue, and a mosque.  There are also features to be found here of various religious figures, including Rev. Don Doll and the late Fr. John Markoe, and extensive profiles of some of Omaha’s leading African-American ministers.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Seven hundred Christian faithful followed a 1.4 mile procession route on June 10 in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The pageantry-filled Catholic procession celebrating the body of Christ began at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on South 32nd Ave. and ended at St. Peter Church on 27th and Leavenworth, Each worship space was filled to overflowing.

Corpus Christi processions are a centuries-old tradition but until recently Omaha hadn’t seen one in years. When Rev. Damien Cook arrived as St. Peter’s pastor in 2004 he found a growing immigrant Hispanic membership hungry for processions and devotionals and he organized the first march in 2006. It’s been held annually since and more parishes have followed suit.

“We try to make it more and more festive each year. It’s just beautiful,” says Cook.

“This is a big day for our Catholic church,” says Teresa Ribera.

The ceremonial ritual takes months of planning and scores of volunteers. It’s part of St. Peter’s restoring the sacred mission.

For most, the procession’s a testament of faith.

“This is a public expression of our love for Jesus,” says Don Carney. “There’s something splendid about a public expression. I get a great peaceful feeling when I do this. The neighbors seem to like it too.”

Jean Fisher says, “It’s very uplifting to have so many people here, It just kind of jumpstarts your faith and really confirms you in what you believe.”

Solemn services kicked things off at OLL and culminated at St. Peter, their majestic sanctuaries well-suited to the occasion. Plenty of reverent activity happened in between, as did a melange of the sacred and secular that resembled Easter, Fourth of July and Day of the Dead.

In this intercultural convergence of Old World meets New a very public and colorful declaration of faith unfolded in the streets.

There were priests in golden vestments, deacons and seminarians in black and cossacks, nuns in brown habits, children in white First Communion-attire and Knights of Columbus honor guardsmen wearing red sashes. The centerpiece was a golden vessel, called the monstrance, holding a consecrated host. Priests, including Cook, took turns holding it aloft under a fringed canopy borne by escorts.

 

 

 

 

The faithful, including many families, dressed in everything from Sunday best to picnic wear. Parents pushed strollers and pulled wagons. Only stray sprinkles, not forecasted storms, dampened the breezy, overcast day, though the threat kept numbers down, says Cook.

Inside, for the exposition, elaborate praise and worship services featured organ and choir music.

Servers carried flags, banners, incense burners, chalices, crucifixes and altar bells. Outside, the sound of jangling bells mixed with recorded choirs reciting hymns, psalms and chants in English, Spanish and Latin. Piped-in music and prayers, relayed by speakers in a pickup truck, cued the crowd to respond.

Girls carrying baskets filled with rose petals and confetti strew their contents along the path to symbolize heavenly showers of grace.

En route from OLL to St. Peter the multitudes stopped for benedictions at makeshift altars in Hanscom Park and the Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens. Adoration of the eucharist found people kneeling in the grass and intoning verses as priests hoisted the monstrance for all to see.

As the procession made its way down Woolworth Ave. and Park Ave. the incongruity of the ethereal and the earthy struck home. The area’s been plagued by run down, high crime rental properties. A sign of hope amid the blight is restored apartment buildings, whose clean facades and landscaped yards pop. In what community activists are trying to return to a walking neighborhood a procession helped lead the revival.

Steve, an area apartment dweller, looked out at the passing caravan from his stoop and said, “I think it’s very inspiring to be honest with you. It’s something you don’t see every day and it’s something I think a lot more people need to see. It’s a gathering when there’s not a lot of people to be gathered anymore, you know.”

Procession veteran Jim Keating says, “We process through the streets as a way to give witness to Omaha that God loves the whole city.” Ramon Davila echoed others  in saying he participates “to be a witness that Jesus is alive.” Some call it “walking with Jesus.”

By the time the slow moving pageant reached St. Peter’s at 4 p.m. the crackle, pop, sizzle and whistle of fireworks joined the singing, chants and peeling church bells.

A huge banner of the risen Christ hung from the church’s balcony. Streamers and flower garlands decorated the exterior.

A gawking area resident said, “It’s awesome, I’ve never seen it before.” Two women watching with wonder etched on their faces said the “impressive” sight was worth the drive from Council Bluffs.

The event began at 2:30 but many gathered at OLL before 2. The grounds, parking lots and streets served as staging areas for the religious and lay contingents participating. Members of the sponsoring parishes were joined by believers from other local churches and apostolates.

Among the early arrivals was St. Peter member Julie Steadman. For her, “the reverence” of the event and its communal spirit are what draw her.

“Just to have everybody come as a community together and follow the blessed sacrament and pray and offer the devotions is a very powerful, very spiritual experience,” she says. “A wonderful calmness and reverence comes over the whole ceremony and procession that says something important is going on here .”

Steven Kiernan, a visiting seminarian from Philadelphia, has seen his share of processions and he described this one as “beautifully executed,” adding, “So many people coming out for something that long is especially unique.”

Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art

June 11, 2012 5 comments

Art.  I know it when I see it.  Well, sometimes.  It’s true, I’ve never studied art history but I’ve looked at a fair amount of art in my lifetime.  I worked at a fine art museum for a spell.  I make it to a few exhibitions every year.  I feel more comfortable or knowledgable when it comes to film, photography, theater, music, and literature than I do when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture but because of my lack of formal art studies I don’t feel I’m qualified to be a critic and so I don’t write reviews.  As a journalist though I cover a lot of artists of one kind of another and I do feel it’s part of my job to interpret, where I feel capable of doing so that is, their work.  The following profile of artist and public art advocate and organizer Eddith Buis of Omaha contains little interpretation because I don’t know her work very well and besides I was far more interested in describing her and her full on immersion in a life of art than I was attempting to explain her work.  I hope you agree I’ve introduced you to a personality and spirit that’s well worth your time and interest.  I know she was worth mine.

 
Eddith Buis

 

 

Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Eddith Buis is immersed in art.

Nearly every facet of life and work for this 64-year-old Omahan, who resembles Andy Warhol, gives expression to her creative impulses. She’s perhaps best known for leading the popular J. Doe public project that placed symbolic figurative sculptures all around Omaha in 2001. An inveterate reader from early childhood, Buis is a self-described seeker in search of personal growth. Her desire to reach her potential is expressed in her humanistic art, in her Unitarian faith and in her adherence to certain Eastern philosophies and practices that promote harmony.

Born in North Platte, Neb., she grew up there and in Hastings, before her family moved to Omaha when she was 7. She attended Franklin Elementary School, where her father, a failed lawyer and sporting goods store owner, worked as an insurance underwriter. Nearly every summer found her visiting the farm of an uncle and aunt in Lorimar, Iowa, where she’d bring two suitcases — one filled with clothes and the other with books, including the latest Nancy Drew novels.

The 1958 Central High graduate married, for the first time, early in life. She began college at then-Omaha University with a dream of becoming a novelist but soon dropped out to have children. She was a mother of three youngsters before she resumed college and then, her life changed forever after discovering a latent talent for drawing. “I’d never taken an art course in my life. I remember taking this first class in drawing. It was in the fall, and the teacher had us go outside, where he had us drawing trees. The world became three-dimensional for me when I was drawing. I had the feeling when I looked at things I could draw them. My life just went like that,” she said, snapping her fingers to indicate the dramatic turn it took. “It was the luckiest thing in the world I switched to art. It just made my life.”

She went on to teach art for 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools, the last eight at an alternative high school where she also staged dramatic productions. She’s since gone on to teach at Joslyn Art Museum and Metropolitan Community College, where she continues to instruct in an adjunct capacity, and to direct a number of projects that have brought art to diverse sites in and around the city. In her own art, she’s worked in oil, watercolor, drawing and sculpture. Recently, she’s collaborated with sculptor C. Kelly Lohr. But she considers herself “a draftsman” first and foremost. Until its recent closing, she showed her work as a cooperative member of the Old Market’s 13th Street Gallery.

Her signature public art project to date remains J. Doe, which scattered 100-plus life-size sculptures, by a like number of local artists, at a variety of sites across the city. Using the same precast mold of an anonymous, androgynous, feature-less John Doe-like figure as their base, artists added an amazing variety of colors, materials, themes, ideas and visions onto their blank slates. Some of the works have found a permanent home in the outdoor cityscape. Others reside in private collections.

Buis not only served as project director, but as one of its artists. Her two J. Does reflect many of her own concerns and beliefs. Jung’s Doe — Journey Toward Wholeness is an erect orange figure that’s been split and its halves joined by a spiral. “The concept came to me complete as a dream,” said Buis, who often works from dreams. “The warm orange color represents everyone…the tribe…or our connectedness. The spiral symbolizes the life path we all tread, hopefully learning our lessons so we can become whole. This Doe is still on its journey, incomplete.”

Machu Picchu Memory is a whole Doe whose body is covered in iridescent rainforest colors, jagged arterial lines and exotic animals. “Several years ago, I ‘saw’ and drew these lines, colors and animals while meditating at Macchu Picchu (an ancient Inca fortress city in the Peruvian Alps). The next day, we found a huge rock inscribed with nearly the same line configuration. Who knows the meaning?”

Glory of the West, by Patsy  Smith, from Buis’ J. Doe Project

 

 

The success of J. Doe launched subsequent public art projects Buis has overseen at such high-trafficked locales as the Gene Leahy Mall, the Lauritzen Gardens, Fontenelle Forest and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail along Omaha’s riverfront.

“Bringing art to Omaha” is her credo. “I’m a teacher first. I’m not one of those artists that works in a closet. I collaborate all the time. I push other artists. I want their work seen and sold, too.” Once she quit teaching full-time, she kept a promise she made while serving on Omaha’s Commission for Public Art. “I vowed that if I found an occasion to bring public art to Omaha, I would. We’d gone too long without public art.” Besides, she said, she possessed the requisite qualities to run a public art project. “I had the time. I had the energy. I’m indefatigable. I truly am a workaholic. Plus, I know the artists. I know who’s good and I know who’s dependable. And I have the organizing capabilities I learned as a teacher.”

Perhaps her greatest contribution to Omaha culture is the three-story Arts & Crafts style home she resides in in Omaha’s Field Club neighborhood. It’s art-filled interior and exterior is the focal point for her seemingly boundless creativity. The former OPS art teacher has lovingly restored the 1908 red brick Pasadena Bungalow residence, a stately, studied place with its rich dark woodwork, fine cabinetry and built-in bookcases. Designed by noted early 20th century Omaha architect John MacDonald (whose credits include the Joslyn Castle), the house was built by bridge-builder J. W. Towle. Buis said, “He really built it right. He poured the foundation for the basement walls. The walls are steel mesh with plaster over them and it’s like breaking through a fortress when you try to put in a doorway or something. He started a lumber yard so he could choose the wood for his house.”

Buis, who occupies a ground floor apartment and rents out the rest, is proud to be the caretaker of what she considers “a landmark” estate. “I like the idea of saving a place that possibly would have disappeared if we hadn’t bought it, because it was on its way down. It was in terrible condition,” said Buis, who bought the structure in 1983 with her former husband. “When we divorced in 1987, the restoration wasn’t finished. I finished it and I’ve been running it on my own ever since. I lived here 14 years before I broke even. It’s a very expensive property to keep up.”

The petite, precise Buis enjoys the home for the “grace of it. It’s comfortable. It isn’t fancy or foo-foo. It’s pretty tailored and that’s the way I am too. I like things fairly simple. It’s the kind of home you feel you can put your feet up in.”

Over the years, she’s softened some of its hard, masculine edges by introducing softer, rounded corners, but she’s careful not to “do anything that would destroy the physical beauty of it.”

The house is impressive all right, but the real show piece is the extensive landscaped grounds. There, Omaha’s most vocal advocate for public art has installed a sculpture garden featuring works, many for sell, by herself and other area artists. The property is also home to her stand-alone artist’s studio and to a series of cozy gardens and patios whose tranquil spaces and healing motifs reflect the daily meditation rituals she follows to keep herself and her home in balance.

Buis’ Pacific Street address directly north of the Field Club Golf Course is part home, gallery, garden and meditative retreat. In this serene sanctuary carved out of the sturdy urban landscape, her muse feels free to run wild. Dreams, it turns out, supply the inspiration for her art. “I work mostly from dreams. I listen to my dreams. Most of my prints are straight off dreams, and I usually figure them out once I draw them,” said Buis, whose sculptures go from dream to drawing to maquette. “Before I decided to quit teaching, I started chafing, because I really wanted to do more art. Then, I had a dream, which I did up in art as a print calledNancy Drew Drives Off. That dream told me I needed to drive off on my own and start anew. So, I quit (OPS) in 1997.”

 

 

Print by Eddith Buis

 

 

Nancy Drew Drives Off is part of a dream-inspired car series that, like other series she’s created, whimsically and ironically explore human relationships and roles, often times from a strong feminist slant. Another series, entitled Suits, includes a work in which a man trudging along in his gray flannel office attire has stopped to look up, as if suddenly realizing there may be more to life than the rat race, his precious suit and ever-present briefcase. Dropping out of the ranks of elementary school teaching is one of several breaks that Buis herself has made with convention in pursuit of achieving self-actualization.

During a “a burn-out” leave from OPS she studied other cultures for an interpretive materials project for the Omaha Children’s Museum. “I investigated Indian, African, Mayan and Egyptian cultures. I just had a ball. I got to sit around and read and write. For an Omaha Healing Arts commission, I actually ended up going to Peru, which I really wanted to study. It was more of spiritual journey for me,” she said.

Finding out about other peoples, places, traditions and beliefs, she added, sates her huge appetite to sample it all and to take from these things what she wants. “I couldn’t possibly stop with just our culture,” is how she puts it.

Buis feels her curiosity about the world “goes along with being a Unitarian. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself religion. I discovered it when I was 18. I’d given up on Christianity.” She was attending UNO at the time, when a professor there sparked her interest in trying Unitarianism.

“I went to church the next Sunday and I never left. There were all these bright people around me. I thought, This is where I want to be. It turns out that it’s hard. It’s a liberal religion and there aren’t any answers. You are not handed anything. We use quotations from the great minds of the ages. One time, it might be Albert Einstein. Another time, Victor Frankel. Sometimes, Christ. And you make your own decisions. My particular decision is I really watch my karma. I try not to ever lie and I try to be good to people because I really do believe you make in this life who you are by how you live and by how you act. This is why I give my time away so much. I’ve chosen art as a way to make a difference. I think it’s my purpose.”

The stimulation she gets from her faith, she said, is “my inspiration.”

Her embrace of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese practice using placement to achieve harmony with the environment, is another example of her ongoing quest for knowledge. “I saw these books about it. I got interested, and I started reading.”

Originating some 7,000 years ago, Feng Shui is rooted in the Chinese reverence for nature and belief in the oneness of all things. It’s predicated on the assumption that the key to harmonious living is in striking a balance of nature in daily life, as expressed in Yin-Yang, Chi, and the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

“With Feng Shui, there are ancient Chinese rules on how to make energy move through your life in order to keep your life radiant and positive,” she said. She even studied its principles with an instructor, she said, because of negative vibes she felt in her abode. “I wanted to heal my house. We had ghosts. I wanted to make it easier to live in. It was really a weight on me.” Buis believes the repositioning of objects in the house, which is replete with art work, combined with chanting and shaman drumming, eventually “healed the house” and “got rid of all the ghosts.” She said, “It’s a very healing place to be and I know that’s because of…clearing out what needed to move on.”

Although she follows some Feng Shui tenets, Buis doesn’t pretend to follow all of its many rules. “Feng Shui is very rule-driven and that’s not the way I run my life,” she said. “It has to be like religion, where I take what I want and I walk on.”

Still, she bristles at the suggestion the practice is frivolous. “I don’t see it as a New Age thing. “For me, it’s in combination with what I already understand of the world.” It’s also part of a whole regimen she does to stay healthy. “The other thing I do every day that goes along with Feng Shui is a Tibetan exercise called Chi Kung. It’s a moving meditation. Feng Shui and Chi Kung are more for health and well-being, and I’m very healthy. I feel very positive. I very seldom hit a depression. And I know what that feels like because as a young housewife with kids to raise and bills to pay I suffered depression. Now, I know, it honed me for what I needed to learn”

Meditation works for her the way prayer does for others. “I meditate to find answers. It keeps me radiant…settled…centered. I think the wisdom’s within us. It’s whether or not we listen to it and act on it. I see all life experiences as lessons. What I’m learning more and more now is to be the kind of person I can be.” For the well-read Buis, who drops references to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Jung, meditation also feeds her imagination. “It makes me much more intuitive and it makes me pay attention to my ability to make intuitive decisions. Whether it’s reading or Feng Shui or Chi Kung or shaman drumming, it all goes together.”

After some unhappy pairings, the twice-divorced Buis has eschewed romantic relationships the past decade and, instead, has poured her energies into making art, organizing art displays and befriending a diverse cadre of artists, male and female and young and old alike. “I feel like, in a sense, I’m married to a higher ideal. I want to make things beautiful for people. I have a lot to share.” Her home has become an artists colony where she entertains some of Omaha’s brightest talents in literature, poetry, theater and art. All of it — from the people she interacts with to the historic home she maintains to the artworks she creates to the exhibits she mounts — flow out of her yearning and searching.

“I am totally a searcher,” she said. “I read a lot. I think a lot. I like to be around people that are thinking and talking about life.” It’s no accident then that her work challenges viewers to think. “I feel strongly that I have to do things that have meaning…about the human condition. It’s not enough to be pretty for me.”

 

 

Bench art by Eddith Buis and Timothy Schaffert

 

 

That’s why she takes issue with the realistic prairie-nature art First National Bank spent top dollars in acquiring for its downtown Tower headquarters. “That is so retro…so old. People will travel thousands of miles to see good art. Nobody is going to come to Omaha to see the First National Bank art.” She’s upset First National did not consult the Commission for Public Art and did not give any commissions to local artists. In response, a bank spokesman said First National did work with other art consultants and did consider Omaha artists as part of the process, although none were selected. While Buis admits she’d like “a say in Omaha’s public art,” she said that even if she doesn’t have a voice, “there are plenty of people in Omaha that really know good art.” She just wants art patrons to be accountable.

If she sounds picky, it’s only because she’ so passionate. “As Matisse said, art is my religion.” Her travels, whether to the art centers of Europe or America, always include time for seeing art. She’s been to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Paris, Rome. She’s looking forward to see the new Guggenheim museum in Spain.

There’s still the occasional bump in the road. The 3,200-hours she devoted to J. Doe “just about killed me,” she said. This past summer was tough. A major commission fell through. The 13th Street Gallery closed. The Wind and Water exhibit at the Gene Leahy Mall was plagued by vandalism. Her house was damaged by raccoons and infested with flea mites. Her car was stolen, her camera nabbed and her purse snatched. Adding insult to injury, a dog attacked her.

“I’m doing my darndest to pull ahead of all that and just look at it philosophically. The only thing I can think of is there were more life lessons I needed to learn.”

On the heels of so much happening, she’s thinking of taking a year or two off to heal her spirit. “I want to investigate. I want to explore social issues. I want to read and study and dream. If I’m too busy, I don’t dream and if I don’t dream, I don’t get art. I don’t know what’s next, but I want to reinvent myself. I believe I have a big sculpture project in me. I’m at an age now where, if not now, then when?”

She remains hopeful. “My life is incredibly rich. It’s the power of being able to bring beauty to people…to be of service. I’ve got a lot of love for people. I’ve got granddaughters that hug me. I have people in my life that really care about me.”

Then there’s her perfect dream. She stands amidst an Omaha oasis for art that people from near and far have come to see. “I would like to see a downtown sculpture garden. I want that for the city. That’s my dream.”

 

  • “Nancy Drew Drives Off,” a linoleum cut with watercolor by Eddith Buis.

 

From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule


I have had the opportunity to meet and interview many men and women of God and most of them exhibit a humility, gratitude, and generosity that I can best understand and articulate as grace. They cultivate the attitudes and take the actions of mercy and love that all of us are called to do, no matter what our faith tradition or even if we do not claim a faith that has a name or creed.  The best ministers are open-minded and compassionate and committed to what they believe and do. They’re also unafraid to ask questions and to rattle the status quo now and then, even to challenge their own beliefs from time to time.  The retired Rev. Richard Linde is such a man.   I wrote this profile of him more than 20 years ago and in one way or another this piece has always stuck with me, not because of my writing, which is pedestrian at best, but because of the man and his unconditional embrace of life.  I liked the fact. too, he was both a minister and a filmmaker and while his work making travel films didn’t have anything to do with the church or religion or spirituality per se it was still another expression of his love for humanity and the wonders of creation.

I was also impressed by Linde having studied at Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a business degree of all things, and having earned a doctorate as well.  Again, like any good minister, he has always been a searcher and seeker in pursuit of knowledge.

NOTE: In preparing to post this I discovered that Rev. Linde now lives in Colorado and that he has authored a couple books: The Christ of Every Road, a fitting title for a man who has traversed so many paths: and Chaplain Richard Linde, We Also Fought, the chronicle of his own experience as a young navy chaplain during World War II counseling sailors readying for the planned invasion of Japan, casualties from the Pacific Theater, and submariners returned from torpedoing Japanese ships.   I have no doubt that he followed his plans after leaving Countryside to make the film about the United Church of Christ and to do more traveling. I also have no doubt he’s still as active and engaged as his physical abilities allow and that he’ll remain a seeker in some way, shape, or form until his final breath.

 

 

BEN_4794
Countryside Community Church altar, ©photo Ben Semisch

 

 

From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update

 

Retirement is a state of mind.

Take the Rev. Richard Linde for example. Although the 60-something Protestant minister is fast approaching his August 1 retirement date the veteran globe-trotter isn’t planning to slow down much. Sitting idle just isn’t his style.

Besides, Linde has better things to do, like chasing rainbows and memories half-way around the world.

Soon after stepping down from his 17-year post as senior minister at Countryside Community Church in west Omaha Linde will slip into his worn, but comfortable shoes as a traveling man and go off to meet old and new horizons.

Much of the United Church of Christ minister’s life has been a search to balance his fiercely independent and inquisitive nature with organized religion. His many travels mirror his quest to somehow square knowledge with faith. His guide, he said, has been God. “A lot of my life has been serving God as I feel God directs me, not as the church directs me to go.”

While long ago coming to peace with himself, he’s still a restless spirit and has many miles to go before retreating from life. “I’ve never been a person who hangs around the house and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to play shuffleboard in Forida either,” he said. “I have some other things I want to do. I’m probably going to work nine months out of the year and my wife and I still like to travel.”

Linde concedes he may cut back his work schedule to 40 or 50 hours a week during “retirement.”

He will combine work and travel when he begins filming a documentary September 1 for the national United Church of Christ, a project that may take two years.

It may surprise some of Linde’s acquaintances that for 25 of his 45 years in the ministry he made travel films as both a hobby and second profession. Indulging his love for travel, he photographed the diverse cultures of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco and other parts of the world. He lectured widely with his films and sold several to television.

While Linde hasn’t made a film for more than 10 years the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries knows they have a filmmaker in the fold. With his newly commissioned film they want him to retrace the church’s early Congregational roots in Europe and migration to America. The denomination is the result of a 1961 merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Linde will document the historic route taken by church followers, including Pilgrims, by shooting overseas and in the States.

“We’re talking about staying in England, then in Switzerland, and coming to New England and Pennsylvania and later going across the Plains with the great migration to the West. And I’m hoping to end up in Hawaii because the Congregational story there is interesting. Author James Michener, in his story of Hawaii, downplays the part of the missionaries. I think his emphasis is wrong,” said Linde, who wishes to set the record straight as he sees it.

Hawaii has special meaning for Linde, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor while a Navy chaplian in the Second World War. At age 20 he was one of the youngest chaplains in the Pacific. Anxious to be part of the war effort before it ended, he left seminary college to enlist in the chaplain corps and was assigned to Pearl’s submarine base in 1945.

 
Pearl Harbor submarine base chapel

 

 

“The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the rest and recuperation annex for the sub base and I became the chaplain of the hotel, holding my services in the Bamboo Room,” he said, laughing at the incongruity of it all. “It was neat duty. I had a lot of interesting counseling there. The officers and (enlisted) men were very, very tense. A lot of fighting would go on among themselves. There was blood and teeth through the Royal Hawaiian from sailors fighting.”

On a lighter note, he said big band leader Ray Anthony and his orchestra often gigged there. “Some of his instrumentalists would play for my service the next morning. They would be so tired from playing most of the night that I’d tell them, ‘Oh, c’mon guys, play a little faster,’ and they’s just go, ‘plunk, plunk, plunk,’ he recalled with glee.

Linde also traveled all over the Pacific on the sub fleet flagship tender, the USS Holland (AS-3), where he saw firsthand how superstitious sailors coped with fear. “The submariners were very individualistic. On most subs they had a Buddha (effigy) and before they would fire a torpedo they would rub the stomach of the Buddha for good luck. But the guys, surprisingly, were quite religious. At that time there was only one chaplain for every 1,000 sailors – there was a lot of counseling.”

royal-hawaiian-hotelPhoto: Royal Hawaiian Hotel

 

Although Linde never saw combat he said he was scared plenty of times.

The veteran returned to Hawaii with wife Randi three years ago. It was the first time he’d been back since the war. And at his wife’s urging they stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel he’d been “bragging about all these years.” To his dismay the place had changed and the Bamboo Room was only a distant memory. He realized how much time had passed when, after regaling the desk clerk with his stories, the young man said, ‘I wasn’t even thought of then.”

Linde, who never preached in the base chapel because he was too “young and junior an officer,” found he’d gained stature with time. “When I went back I asked to go onto the base and they asked me to preach. All the ranking officers of the fleet were there lined  up in front me,” he said proudly.

It’s doubtful whether Linde’s hoped-for return to another exotic port of call from his Pacific past – Shanghai, China – will prove as inviting given ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. “I want to go back to Shanghai, live there a month or so and do some writing about the way it was then and the way it is now.” Then was 1946, when Linde was the only chaplain for 15,000 U.S. Navy personnel in Shanghai, which even then was a large cosmopolitan city and sea port.

“I loved Shanghai. The Bund (its waterfront), the Palace Hotel, the famous clubs. Like so many of the major cities in China it was built by western nations. I was on the edge of the Bund, where the ships were in the Whangpoo River. They would tie up there and the sailors would come ashore.

“I had my services in the Majestic Theater, which was very large, the size of the Orpheum (Theater in Omaha) I suppose. I would get written up in some Shanghain papers for things I would say. You see, there were some very conflicting things going on there,” he said, alluding to the city’s weird melding of sophistication and feudalism. “For example, they had just started to invoke the old Chinese custom of, when there is theft, cutting off the thief’s right hand, and thievery went way, way down.”

Crime, including a thriving black market, was rampant. So were anti-American feelings. Adding fury to the maelstrom were growing tensions between the country’s Nationalist and Communist factions.

“I remember one time I pulled up to the Park Hotel, where I lived, and ran up and ran right back down. In the little time I was up there all three of the locks of my jeep were stolen. I never did know whether they were thumbing their noses at the U.S. Navy or they just didn’t have time to steal the jeep. I was part of practically the last group to get out before the Communists took over.”

 

 

Seven V-boats with submarine tender Holland.

USS Holland (AS-3)

 

 

After his discharge Linde finished his theological training, which began at Princeton, by getting his degree from Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. He also worked as youth director at a Los Angeles church for a time.

Still unsure of the ministry as his life’s work, he applied to the Harvard Business School. “The amazing thing was that I got accepted. That was a great surprise to me and I thought it was too good to pass up. I used my GI Bill to go there.” His Harvard years marked a turning point in his personal and professional life and a crucible of faith.

“The people that went there worked so hard, and I knew I’d be just like the rest of them if I went into business. I wouldn’t have any time then for religion. I decided my real emphasis, my real interest in life was religous faith. I decided to go with the church rather than do religious work as a sideline, which I had been thinking of.”

He did earn an MBA degree. But more importantly it ws while his back East that he met his wife of 40 years now. She was a Wellesley girl.

“I met her the night she had signed a contract to teach school in Turkey. She was leaving in two months and when she left she was wearing my (engagement) ring. We had a furious correspondence writing to each other every day. After about 10 months we met in Geneva, Switzerland. I came from Boston and she came from Izmir, Turkey. We were married in the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where John Calvin, the famous Medieval reformer, preached.”

Linde and his wife led a tour group to Geneva four or five years ago. When informed of the cathedral’s significance to the couple some group members had the sextant open the closed chapel where the Lindes took their vows. “We stood at the altar where we had been married and all the women had tears and the flashbulbs popped.”

He has been leading tours for many years, including recent excursions to England and Holland. He’ll lead a Scandinavian trip this summer.

Summers have long been Linde’s time to travel. Taking advantage of the month off he had each summer he used his vacations to “moonlight” as a filmmaker. He began tinkering with movie cameras in the 1950s while preaching in his native Ohio. It wasn’t long before he turned his 16 millimeter Bolex on the international sights he visited each summer.

The self-taught filmmaker became serious about his hobby when he discovered his low-budget productions were not only engaging but marketable. He sold eight of his films to national syndicated television networks.

“I guess I have a good eye for what a good picture is and what good action is,” he said. “I was showing one of my films in New York City to the Jamaican Trade Board and their officials said, ‘That’s the best film that’s ever been made on Jamaica. If you ever want to go again and update Jamaica you see us.’ So one summer I didn’t have anything else to do and they gave Randi and me plane tickets, reservations at the best hotels and a car.”

He said sponsors, such as national trade boards or airlines, usually paid his and Randi’s ways overseas. While he sometimes used local cinematographers on location he mostly handled the camera himself. He also scripted the movies after compiling and editing the footage. “It usually takes me two summers to make a film.”

Linde retained an agent to book himself and his film on the national lecture- travel film circuit. There were enough engagements that he had written into his ministirial contracts permission to travel on the road as needed. He spoke and presented the travelogues at universities and art centers nationwide. In 25 years he missed only one engagement – due to a raging snowstorm.

“I never ended up with any profit. The money went right back into the next film. It was something fun for me to do.”

A lecture stop 20 years ago introduced him to Omaha. “Impresario Dick Walter brought me here to lecture at Joslyn Art Museum for one of his travel film series. That’s when I first saw this beautiful city and became interested in living here. Before Dick Walter brought me out here I was like other people who thought this was someplace you fly over on your way to someplace else.”

After taking the Countryside Community Church position in 1973 Linde continued making films and lecturing for a time. He quit filming because new, more expensive technology overtook his grassroots methods. He sounds a little wistful talking about those halcyon days when he and his films were featured attractions. Perhaps that’s why he jumped at the chance to lead this United Church in Christ faith community. He thrived on all the travel then (and still does) because it relieved stress. “From a health standpoint I think it was really the making of my job. I could go an airplane and fly to Denver or Miami or Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy in my life, so I can fly someplace, give a lecture and come back on the red-eye express and still be at my office the next morning. I was able for years and years to do that. And I considered it fun. I liked the plane ride, the people applauding and the whole thing. For me, it was a lot more interesting than puttering around the house.”

He also credits his wife for helping smooth his comings and goings. “Fortunately I have a wife who understands the necessity of my being away from home a great deal. Usually I am at home for dinner but if I’m not some evening it’s not a crisis.”

Although he said his film career really didn’t “have much to do with the church, that’s one reason I’ve liked what I’ve been doing because I’ve been involved in a lot interesting, different things.” His openness to new, eclectic experiences is consistent with the liberal underpinnings of his church.

“One reason I’m in the United Church of Christ is that there’s an enormous freedom. We call it autonomy. You really don’t have a hiearchy over you telling you what to do. It’s mostly a relationship between the people here at Countryside and the staff. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be a churchman as much as I wanted to serve people. Counseling has been important to people over the years and I decided just before I came here to go back to school and get a doctorate in counseling (from Butler Univrsity) so I could be a professional rather than just a gifted amatuer.”

He said his search for knowledge has helped resolve personal crises of faith. “I’ve gone through two maybe three periods of intense questioning of everything I believed, and I think I’ve come out with a much stronger faith each time.”

Early on he chafed at his fundamentalist upbringing. “Pretty much what I grew up on was, ‘Well, you have to take it on faith. Just believe.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to know why. That’s partly why I went to get a doctorate – I wanted to know why.”

Jamaica

 

 

Despite straying from the fundamentalist teachings he was reared on in Ohio Linde said his early years “did give me a strong impetus toward religious faith.” He added, “My mother particuarly was very religious. She read Bible stories to me.” Even as a child Linde challenged prevailing wisdom: “I always thought I knew more than the Sunday school teachers, which I probably did.”

When as a young man he told his mother of his plans to enter the ministry, he said, “she was disappointed,” adding, “She wanted me to be a good Christian boy but she wasn’t quite sure about my going into the ministry. I was surprised by that but I went anyhow.”

“I’ve really wrestled with my faith and I’ve come out with answers that, to me, are satisfactory. But they’re not the answers I had when I was a little boy in Sunday school.”

Linde feels many of Countryside’s 2,000 members are, like himself, questioners who demand answers. Others, he said, are from conservative backgrounds. He welcomes them all. Whie\le describing his church as liberal, he adds, “It doesn’t mean we don’t beleieve in anything. It means we will accept people of many different variations of faith. We don’t stuff people into one little box and say, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ This is one reason why people join Countryside. In our denomination we’re one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S.”

To appeal to what he calles “a very young congregation on the sunny side of 40,” Linde has adapted his preaching style.

“I was brought up in the era when you weren’t supposed to use any personal references or illustrations and preaching was pretty stuffy. Years ago I rebelled against that. Using Jesus as a model I’ve used more illustrations and stories, trying to show what life is like and what it can be like and sometimes what it isn’t like. The fact is I’ve tried to preach like I make movies – a series of sequences and images, without trying to explain what it means.”

In general, he said “churches are learning what people really need. There is an ethical, a values and a religious hunger. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something deep down inside of each person that does want values. People will come to a place where you don’t try to pound it into them but where it’s openly discussed.”

He said people are just as receptive to men of the cloth today as in years past. He feels his role is as vital as ever and perhaps more so not only because times are hard but because he views his vocation differently than before.

“My own perception has changed. When I first started out I was embarassed to be a minister. I’m not anymore. I think what I’m doing is very important. The reason, for instance, I’ve been in the church doing counseling is that I think what the church, what religious faith has to offer is more important than what a secular counselor has. Just adding the element of faith to psychological knowledge is a plus.”

A new building on Countryside’s campus will help the church further address people’s needs. He said the Family Life Center, set for an Easter completion, will offer “counseling, therapy and enrichment” to families.

Overall, Linde said the church’s mission is “essentially to improve the quality of life in our community and city and world.” An example of  its world outreach is Countryside aiding 18 children and their families in Amaititlan, Guatemala, where the Lindes visited recently. “My wife and I want to go back to Guatemala and go to language school. During our winter it’s their springtime and just beautiful down there.”

After all the trails he and his wife have followed, it’s not surpising then that the couple’s three grown sons have heeded their parents’ wanderlust ways and tranplanted themselves about the globe. One lives in Vail, Colo., another in New York City and the third in Taiwan.

Linde is not the type to dwell on his own many traveled roads because he’s always on the verge of some new journey. He confided, “I haven’t talked about myself this long in a long time.” But with his Countryside career about to draw to a close he thought the time right to reflect.

“We have an outstanding church here and I hope it will continue. I followed a good minister here (the Rev. Bob Alward) and we’ve continued to grow, the church has prospered in the 17 years I’ve been here, and I just hope the fella who follows me can continue what’s been done. Having the church prosper is very important to me.”

A Story of Inspiration and Transformation: Though Living on the Margins, Aisha Okudi Gives Back, and She Nurtures Big Dreams for Her Esha Jewelfire Mission Serving Africa

December 11, 2011 4 comments

 

Aisha Okudi with Dell Gines at North O Cultural & Arts Expo

Life is what you make of it, the saying goes.  Attitude is everything, goes another.  Aisha Okudi is living proof  that when these aphroisms are put into action life can take on a whole new meaning and direction.  By being intentional about how she apprehends the world, Okudi is no longer living the self-centered life that led to ruinous consequences.  Her life today is focused on positive self-empowerment through service to others.  That doesn’t mean hard things don’t still happen to her. But she’s much better equipped to handle what the world deals her in healthy ways rather than the destructive ways she used before.  Her inspirational story of transformation and recovery is beginning to get her noticed.  That has a lot to do with her charming personality, high-energy, and humanitarian vision.  She has very little in the way of monetary means or material goods, yet she’s embarked on an international mission that she seems destined to fulfill.  She’s not likely to let anything stand in her way either.  You go, girl!

A Story of Inspiration and Transformation: Though Living on the Margins, Aisha Okudi Gives Back, and She Nurtures Big Dreams for Her Esha Jewelfire Mission Serving Africa

©by Leo Adam Biga

When buoyant, self-made social entrepreneur, visionary and humanitarianAisha Chemmine Mure Okudi reviews how far she’s come in only a few years she can hardly believe it herself. It’s not so much that her three-year old Shea Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of organic shea butter bodycare products is such a thriving success. It’s more to do with her business being an expression of her ongoing recovery from unfortunate life choices and setbacks as well as a conduit for her African missionary work.

At the base of her products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the very rural West African provinces she serves.

After years helping poor African children from long-distance by sending supplies and donations, she visited Niger, West Africa for the first time last spring through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She engaged children in arts and crafts and games and she enlisted the support of tribal leaders, church-based volunteers, Nigerian government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting local churches on board with her missionary work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or a title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.”

She intends returning to Africa in May. Her long-range plan is to move to Niger. She envisions growing her business enough to employ Africans and to open holistic herbal health clinics. She’s studying to be a holistic health practitioner.

Aisha Okudi

Contrast this with the desperate young woman she was in 2004. The dissolute life she led then found her crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who ended up driving her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks and poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

The Des Moines native had been heading for a fall a long time. Growing up, her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”

At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The confrontation that ensued only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. My mom and dad struggled and we didn’t get everything I thought we needed, so I did my own thing. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

She got caught up in the alcohol and drug abuse that accompany this sordid life. Stealing, too.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money. I was in and out of trouble and the streets.”

She served a one year sentence for theft by receiving stolen property.

That night in jail seven years ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says.

She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her great surprise and relief the judge didn’t give her jail time. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious. It wasn’t a game because it used to be a game to me. I enrolled in school.”

Seven years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I ain’t doin’ no jail time, I’ve paid all my fines, I never looked back, I kept going. I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” She’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober.

In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award winning gospel artist.  They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

“He didn’t treat me right — the way he should have,” she says. “Facing that really hurts. God, I wasted these years with this man. But my kids are a blessing. I love them. They’ve really kept me focused. I try not to be bitter, I’ve forgiven him. I’m friends with him. We do have kids”

If there’s one thing she’s learned in her own recovery journey, she says, “You’ve really got to forgive, forget and let God, and He will move you in ways you can’t even believe.”

But she’s only human, therefore doubt and self-pity still creep in when she considers her sundry “trials and tribulations.” Even though she’s forgiven her husband, the betrayal still stings. “I’m going through that, too,” she says.

“Even though I’ve grown,” she says, “sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end?’ But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

The last three years have been equal measures triumphs and tests. The difference this time around is that when good times happen or adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out.

She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother (in Des Moines). I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”

 niger, africa, hut, home, house, mud, straw, village
 A typical rural Niger village mud hut

Since childhood Okudi’s cultivated a fascination with all things African, including a desire to help alleviate poverty and hunger there. Her visit to Niger last spring and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I’m a true African and I know that’s where my calling is. It’s natural. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some of the native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil extracted from the shea nut that grows in West Africa and is used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

shea nuts Stock Photo - 8442686

 

Shea nuts

In its gritty, foul-smelling natural state, sheer butter held no interest for her. But, she says, “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it brightens, it just makes you shine. So figured out what I needed to do with it.”

She experimented with the substance and developed organically sweet shea butter products and began marketing them under the name, Esha Jewelfire, which means to empower, serve and honor the almighty.

She gets the raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her handmade products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. She presses the fresh fruit and herbs herself. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils and spices and herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. I hand-package everything, too.”

Esha Jewelfire Products

Selling at networking events, trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. “It was prophesied to me I will have a warehouse and be a millionaire one day and I believe that. Getting prepared is all I’ve been doing.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production unfolds in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic or wherever she can find usable space. She’s placed her products in several small stores but having a store of her own is attractive, too. Earlier this year “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 — as a loan — to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann of Omaha is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed that I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality has always attracted people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence that “things work in mysterious ways — you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store at 3019 Pinkney St. opened last spring after she returned from Africa. It was a labor of love but it proved a star-crossed venture when after two months her landlord evicted her.

Her reaction was to ask, “What is going on God and why does this keep happening to me? I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.”

Stripping’s fast money tempted her before she rejected the idea. Then she found a haven at Restored Hope, a downtown transitional housing program for women and kids.

“Restored Hope has been stability for me. It’s a year program. It keeps me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

A Restored Hope residence

It’s why she doesn’t dwell on the past or worry about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I live the way I live, basically homeless, I realize I am very blessed. And I’m grateful.”

She’s aware her ability to stay positive and keep moving forward amid myriad struggles inspires others. She says some of her fellow Restored Hope residents tell her as much,

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy person. Even when I’m going through something, I pick myself up. I’ve always been a giving, loving person. Even my father said, ‘Because of you my life’s changed. I’ve seen where God has taken you through and you still hang on. If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

Her own rebirth would be hard for some to believe. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She doesn’t let skepticism or criticism get her down.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. I’m not in control, God’s in control. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope.

“Too many people are hopeless. You can see it in their facial expressions and the way they do things. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.”

She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

View Aisha’s entire product line and read about how you can help her African mission at eshajewelfirellc.homestead.com.


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Aisha Okudi shares the mission of Esha Jewelfire



Nancy Kirk: Arts maven, author, communicator, entrepreneur, interfaith champion

October 21, 2011 10 comments

There are people who talk about doing things and people who do things. Nancy Kirk is the latter. That’s not to say she finishes everything she starts. Like those unfinished manuscripts of hers she’d like to get to one day. But lots of us can say that. She’s also a model of reinvention – of following one path in life and then finding a new direction and then another to feed her ever-searching sensibility. In truth, all of her paths have followed a similar humanistic and cultural track. She began her career in the arts, then went entrepreneurial in the antique quilt and fabrics world, and more recently has taken up interfaith work as executive director of an initiative whose ultimate aim is to bring together a synagouge, a church, and a mosque on the same campus in Omaha, Neb. The following profile I wrote about this intriguing woman will be the November cover story in the New Horizons. Read it here first.

 

 

 

 

Nancy Kirk: Arts maven, author, communicator, entrepreneur, interfaith champion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

 

Long before becoming executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the Omaha collaborative that finds Jews, Christians and Muslims building a shared worship campus, Nancy (Timmins) Kirk made a name for herself in the quilting world. Only not as a quilter, she’s quick to point out, but rather as a designer and aficionado.

It’s only natural to assume she’s a quiltmaker since she and her late husband owned The Kirk Collection, an antique fabrics supply, restoration and appraisal business that gained an international reputation and clientele. Nancy still carries on aspects of the business by conducting workshops, making presentations and producing DVDs and CDs on antique quilt restoration.

“I still love the teaching and the writing and the speaking,” she said. But the grind of multi-day conferences takes more of a toll these days on Kirk, who has survived a heart attack and open heart surgery.

Much like her work with the nonprofit Tri-Faith, whose groundbreaking plan for a synagogue, church and mosque on adjoining property is drawing worldwide interest, Kirk came to quilting an inveterate seeker always curious to know more. She’s learned enough to speak with not only passion but authority about quilting as art, craft and healing process and quilts as potent, touchstone objects of utility, aesthetics and humanity.

“Quilting serves many different purposes,” she said. “For some people it’s a craft activity, a stress reliever. Studies have shown the activity of quilting changes the brain’s alpha waves. For other people it’s an art medium, a very expressive way for a designer to work. For others it becomes very therapeutic.”

Quilts evoke intimate feelings tied to memories, rituals and relationships.

“For the viewer or the recipient, quilts exist for people at an emotional level that is really very primitive,” she said. “People respond with a part of their brain that usually has no language. Quilts represent people’s deep emotional connections with home, with comfort, with safety, with love. You see people wrapping up in quilts or touching quilts and being reminded of parents and grandparents and places they used to live. And you start hearing these wonderful stories.”

The way Kirk sees it, every quilt has a story to tell.

“All you have to do is plant yourself near a quilt, particularly an older quilt, at a quilt show and by the end of the day you’ll hear dozens of stories from people because they’re so evocative, especially in this part of the country, where people grew up with quilts. They’re very powerful objects.”

Before The Kirk Collection became a mail order source of antique fabrics for quilters the business made its name as a supplier to Hollywood film and television studio designers and costumers in need of period materials. Nancy and Bill Kirk provided fabrics that ended up in costumes of such major motion pictures as Titanic, Forest Gump and Wyatt Earp and network shows like Brooklyn Bridge and Homefront.

The couple ran the business out of their Bemis Park home before opening a store at 45th and Military Ave. Their customer roster extended to Europe and Asia.

Before she got into quilting, Kirk worked in the arts, where her aesthetic sensibilities were honed to give her a deep appreciation for not only the fine and performing arts but antiques, including textiles and fabrics.

The daughter of university professor parents who divorced when she and her sister were young, Kirk grew up in her native New York City and a variety of other locales.

She absorbed a classic liberal arts education at Antioch (Ohio) college, where she studied social sciences and journalism. She’s put her writing skill set to good use over the years as an arts administrator and public relations professional. Her unplanned fascination with arts management was fired when she spent two years with an Antioch theater project in Baltimore, MD.

“At this funny little free theater we brought in very experimental theater and dance companies from all over the world — The Medicine Show, Pilobolus. It was the out of town try-out place for experimental theater and dance. I became absolutely in love with experimental theater and dance and I was exposed to some of the best in the world. We were always at odds with the state and local arts councils because we were doing and promoting this work that was very outside the mainstream.”

By the time she earned her master’s in arts management from the University of Illinois and moved to Omaha to work a paid internship with the Nebraska Arts Council, she found herself in the midst of a cutting edge arts movement here. She arrived only a week after the devastating 1975 tornado and neither its widespread damage nor the paralyzing blizzard of ’75 that followed that winter could scare her away. Neither did the relative uproar over the Bicentennial I-80 sculpture project, edgy stagework by the Omaha Magic Theatre and the counterculture head shops, avant garde films and art happenings in the then-fledgling Old Market.

Indeed, she was won over by how open-minded Nebraskans were to new ideas.

“In all the time I worked for the state arts council and then 11 more years for the local arts council there was no one who said we shouldn’t have art.”

She recalled an I-80 sculptures forum in some backwater Neb. town where “an old man in coveralls got up and said, ‘I sure don’t understand this stuff, but I want to make sure my grandchildren have a chance to see it,’ and that was the attitude pretty much for anything.” One of her roles with the state arts council was traveling to rural hamlets and educating the local populace about the touring programs coming their way.

She said resistance or suspicion to unfamiliar art disappeared when she framed the needs of artists “in terms that (rural) audiences could understand from their own perspective,” adding, “That was a big part of my job.” Like the time she went to a small town in advance of a touring opera program. She laid to rest concerns singers were divas for requiring humidifiers in their rooms by explaining that the artists needed the devices to keep their throat and voice supple in the same way farm tractors or threshers need routine maintenance to run right. Once she put things in practical terms, she said, humidifiers were readily volunteered.

“I came to have a real appreciation of what arts councils were doing in terms of opening up the doors to the arts in a lot of communities where there had really been nothing outside the high school play. A lot of them shied away from cutting edge kind of work.”

The arts councils that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, she said, “were bringing the arts out of the urban areas and into the rest of the country.” For example, she said the Omaha Community Playhouse formed the Nebraska Theatre Caravan “and took theater into towns that had never had professional theater and Opera Omaha organized small touring evenings of opera.”

Visual artists, dancers, authors, poets and others began criss-crossing the state to present before general audiences or to do residencies in schools. Her focus on bringing the arts to underserved populations extended to a visual art program in the state penitentiary, where even death row inmates were provided art supplies for their self-expression. Her work introduced her to the man who became her husband, Bill Kirk, who was a theater actor-director and kindred spirit.

She authored an award-winning book, Lobbying for the Arts, used all over the country.

An advantage Omaha owns when it comes to supporting the arts and other things, she said, is that it’s still small and accommodating enough to provide ready “access to power,” unlike other cities she’s lived where access is limited to few. “Here, all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask for an audience with Willis Strauss or Peter Kiewit or Leo Daly or John Bookout. You could be heard. They might not agree with you, they might not end up supporting your cause, but you could make your case. I think it’s very much the same attitude that created Ak-Sar-Ben. It’s this place of kind of infinite possibility and egalitarianism.”

 

 

Nancy Kirk discussing quilt restoration

 

 

She said Omaha’s can-do spirit is what sold her on this place and has kept her put.

“This is the kind of city I wanted to live in. I think this same spirit of civic work still exists now. It’s an attitude that makes the most extraordinary things possible.”

“Tri-Faith is another example of it,” she said of the initiative whose partners are Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, “Not only was there no significant opposition to it, there was a kind of, Well, I don’t quite understand it, but what can we do to help? attitude. When it came to raise money for the land four foundations stepped up.”

The intended Tri-Faith campus is on the grounds of the former Highland Country Club, which Jews formed decades ago when denied admittance to goy clubs. The campus plan is part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development in southwest Omaha that’s presently undergoing site preparation work. Plans call for three worship centers — one for each participating faith group — and a shared interfaith education center Kirk refers to as “the meeting place.”

Support for the project, which launched in 2006, has come together quickly from large though as yet undisclosed donors.

“Basically the donations have been made because it’s good for the city,” said Kirk. “They see this vision that this makes Omaha a better place to live for everybody.”

Tri-Faith was conceived in response to a seemingly mundane dilemma.

“The genesis is parking lots. This is a project about parking lots — very seriously,” Kirk said.

Temple Israel synagogue has long been in need of a new site, having outgrown its current building and plot just east of 72nd and Cass. With its congregation largely residing now in suburbia, a move west only made sense. When synagogue leaders began contemplating what they’d like in a new site, said Kirk, they were “very intentional about finding good neighbors” like the ones they have today in the Omaha Community Playhouse and First United Methodist Church.

She said when Temple heard that the Institute was planning to build a new mosque in west Omaha synagogue member Bob Freeman, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and others contacted AISC president and co-founder Dr. Syed Mohiuddin,  “to discuss looking for land together to share parking lots.”

 

Consistent with hospitality being “such a central concept to all the Abrahamic faith traditions,” she said, representatives from each group came bearing mounds of food for the meeting. That first confab led to more. She said, “When they eventually began talking matters of faith rather than concrete it occurred to them they had two of the three major Abrahamic traditions represented.” As a potential Christian partner the parties approached the Catholic archdiocese of Omaha, whose then-archbishop, Rev. Elden Curtiss, declined. They next made overtures to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, whose then-leader, Rev. Joe Burnett, accepted.

In 2006 Tri-Faith was incorporated as a 501c3 and since then the organization has presented several interfaith events to promote understanding, all while working toward a common goal of a shared campus. The endeavor has made headlines around the world at a time when religious and cultural differences continue to be serious dividing points. Building bridges is an appealing idea as the globe grows ever flatter and more interconnected thanks to online social networking and to grassroots movements like those of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

“It turns out the parking lots are such a metaphor for what’s going on in the world because the fact is we all have to share this earth. — it’s how do we live together,” said Kirk.

Her Tri-Faith involvement began in 2008, when it might be said her decades-long quest for spiritual fulfillment reached a new plane. In some ways, she acknowledges, she’s a most unlikely director of an interfaith project because for the first 35 years of her life she struggled with matters of faith. Then again, her uneasy journey steeled her for leading an initiative about celebrating differences.

“My father was a fallen-away Catholic, my mother was a fallen-away Unitarian, so I was brought up with no particular religion, in a household that wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But both parents allowed us to be exposed to some variety of religions. There was no objection if we went to church with friends.”

On some level, Kirk’s faith odyssey echoed that of her divining rod maternal grandmother, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained a Unitarian minister at 80 and wrote dozens of religious education books. Her last book, The Church Across the Street, was a comparative religions study. The liberal, progressive themes of inclusion and tolerance her grandmother advocated are in line with those of Kirk and the Tri-Faith Initiative.

Kirk comes from a long line of matriarchal figures and accomplished professionals. Her great-grandmother wrote books about her Presbyterian missionary work in China.

So it wasn’t as if Kirk didn’t have ready examples of faith to follow. In fact, she said, “I envied people who had great faith but I didn’t understand the experience and didn’t expect to ever have it. I was never anti-religious, I just was not religious.”

Then, in the midst of building her arts career, what she least expected happened.

“I was one of those bolt of lightening people. Literally in the course of a 24-hour period I came to a very deep belief in the existence of God. I was at home and all of a sudden I felt this incredible sense of certainty. It was so different than the kind of rational approach I’d always had to life. That’s when I started searching and doing a lot of reading. I didn’t talk to anyone about it really for a very long time.”

Before becoming a couple Nancy and Bill Kirk were friends. On a long road trip for an arts program she told him about her spiritual awakening and “how confusing it all felt” because it didn’t necessarily jive with what organized religion prescribed.

“And he said something very helpful — that the personal experience you feel is faith and all the stuff you hear in church and in the bible and other sources is belief, and belief is what happens in your head and faith is what happens in your heart …and that both are OK. The part that is faith is intended to be a questioning process throughout your life. Your responsibility as a human being  is to continue to explore and try to understand and to go through periods of disbelief.”

“The deeper you explore that abyss that you’re always afraid you’ll fall into and never come out of,” she said, “the more you discover there are those dark nights of the soul when you feel faith has deserted you. But usually it’s the belief that’s deserted you, and the faith part can lead you back away from the edge of the precipice. And then you rebuild the belief.”

A Tri-Faith Initiative picnic

 

 

After being stricken with the spirit, Kirk tried on a number of faiths but it was only four years ago she “came to the Episcopal Church.” She’s a member of St. Andrew’s. She was finally swayed to the denomination, which she’d flirted with before, after seeing the church’s presiding bishop in the U.S., Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori on CBS. “I said, ‘I would follow that woman anywhere,’ so when it came to look for a new church I looked for an Episcopal church.”

Coming from where she did to where she is today, Kirk said, has informed and shaped the spiritual life she enjoys today and her work with Tri-Faith.

“So this rather eclectic religious background of growing up outside any one particular faith tradition and not necessarily having a particular belief in any of them for the larger part of my life in some ways really helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. Because I came to the habit of questioning, researching, listening hard and trying to understand other people’s faith journeys as part of my own.”

The discernment she does by opening herself to other beliefs enriches her life and her faith. “I find it fascinating and each of those encounters helps me refine my own faith and without any denial of my own tradition as I have adopted it now.”

Kirk felt drawn to engage in the Tri-Faith experiment after taking an inventory of her life a few years ago and deciding to embark on a new path she felt called to follow.

“When I turned 60 (she’s 64 today ) I made a 44-year life plan. I’ve always made long range plans. Women in my family thankfully tend to be long-lived. My grandmother died at 103. My mother died at 94. Both were active until the end. So it seemed like 104 was a good age to shoot for. I had become really fascinated with the changing role of religion in a pluralistic  society. The Kirk Collection was kind of winding down, I’d closed our retail store. I didn’t want to cut another piece of fabric ever again in my life. After about 25 years in the quilt world I was ready for a change. My husband had died. It was time to reinvent myself again.”

She didn’t tell anyone (at first) about her new life plan. Then, she said, she “finally got up the nerve” to tell her business coach and much to her relief “he didn’t laugh.” “Once I said it out loud it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do — some kind of ministry.’ Lay or ordained, it didn’t matter, but this is the subject area I wanted to be in.”

She felt compelled to give back.

“Sixty is a great place to start because chances are you’ve done pretty much what you intended to do professionally and getting your kids raised up. It’s not really like a bucket list but there’s still a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. We want to make sure by the end of our life we know our life had meaning and this is a great age at which to be doing it. We don’t have a lot of the distractions we had before of raising kids and building career. Sixty to 100 there’s a chance to do things that really change the world and getting it done is more important than getting credit.”

The philosophy reminds her of her college’s motto: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

Fatefully, a group of Tri-Faith board members made a presentation at St. Andrew one Sunday. Until then, she’d not even heard of the venture but she was immediately and powerfully attracted to its vision of three faiths partnering together.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” is what she said she thought to herself. It wasn’t long before she offered her services to help spread Tri-Faith’s message and dream. When she learned the group was seeking an executive director she made a proposal and was hired. She saw the mission as a perfect fit for many reasons, not the least of which is her considerable PR experience and expertise.

In a world full of noise and mixed messages, she said she aims to keep Tri-Faith on point with its mission of “celebrating the diversity of our religious traditions.” “It’s beyond tolerance and acceptance and respect, it’s really about building relationships among people and celebrating those differences,” she said.

“As one of our board members, Rev. Ernesto Medina said, ‘The reason we know it’s working is we know the names of each others children,’ and that’s what it’s all about. It’s building those relationships.”

 

 

A Tri-Faith Initiative event

 

 

She said in this increasingly global space we inhabit “I think the world is having to live into a new definition of who is our neighbor. I think we’re called on to be really aware of our neighbors and getting to know them.”

Through events like Abraham’s Tent and the Tri-Faith Picnic, she said Jewish, Christian and Islamic rites are celebrated and people learn what to say or do during worship services and ceremonies. As distinct as each tradition is, Tri-Faith  reminds participants “there’s so much the faiths share — we all greet each other with peace, we’re all talking about and praying to the same God.”

She said learning how to offer peace in each faith tradition can be a profound thing, whether saying “peace be with you” or “shabbat shalom” or “as-salamu alaykum.” “Just those few simple words,” she said, “and all of a sudden you feel very comfortable. It’s those little things that take the strangeness out of it.”

Then there is the exploration Tri-Faith inspires.

“A great thing that happens with the Tri-Faith is that as you engage in interfaith work and discussions you feel compelled to learn more about your own faith. You begin to explore your own tradition. You either question or affirm or study why you believe what you do and universally you end up more attached and committed to your own faith.”

She’s impressed by how the Tri-Faith board, composed of both lay and religious, doesn’t stray from its mission.

“I’ve worked with many nonprofit boards over the years and this is truly unlike any other board I have ever worked with. They expect that everything is possible, they have committed themselves to one another to make things possible. There are really no internal politics, there’s no jockeying for position. There’s a spirit that infuses their discussions that they’re really there to do God’s work and that it’s going to happen. There’s such a certainty it’s going to happen. There’s a spirit of peace in the room that is extraordinary.”

She said internal politics don’t surface though she concedes “politics sometimes intrudes from the outside.”

She said the fallout of 9/11 played a part in Tri-Faith’s formation “in the sense that we’re all in this together and we’re the ones that have to find a solution to this, and focusing on the division is not the way.”

It’s not the first time the city’s faith groups have banded together. She said several joined forces to help feed and house Chief Standing Bear’s supporters during the great Indian leader’s Fort Omaha trial. Many were active in the civil rights struggle. A number formed Together Inc. after the ‘75 tornado. More recently, faith groups have united in calling for an end to urban violence. But the Tri-Faith Initiative is something else again. She said Rev. Medina, pastor of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, may have best summed up the miracle of the initiative with, “This was beyond the imagination of many people but not beyond the imagination of God.”

It hasn’t all been perfect.

“There have been bumps in the road,” Kirk acknowledged, “and people who’ve gotten their noses out of joint over this or that, but for the most part even those who were a little suspicious at first have often ended up as the biggest cheerleaders.”

She’s proud of many things she’s done in her life, from her work in the arts to her entrepreneurial success to her raising two adopted children, but she’s pretty certain Tri-Faith will be her most impactful legacy, at least in terms of sheer magnitude.

She can’t imagine making a greater contribution than bringing people together.

“I think the most meaningful part of the work is when I see people come to the table and sit with people of other faiths with excitement and anticipation instead of fear. If we’ve done our job and created a safe place, a place of trust where people feel they can be authentically themselves and authentically interested in the other, that is a real place of grace.”

If heredity’s any guide, then Kirk has miles to go before she sleeps. Reflecting upon her life, her diverse pursuits have “felt to me as a continuum,” she said, adding, “They all enrich people’s lives in important ways and all involve starting something new, whether new types of arts programs, a new small business or a one-of-a-kind religious development. I like being in on the start of things…”


 
 

Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes explores the lamentations and celebrations of Jamaican revival worship

August 28, 2011 5 comments

This is one of many stories I have filed over the years related to the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha and various programs and exhibitions there. The subject of this story from a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and an exhibiiton of his work then showing at the LJAC.  I am not an art reviewer, and thus the pieces I do from time to time about painters and sculptors and photographers are written more from a profile perspective than anything else.  The center has presented many excellent exhibitions over the years that I have had the chance to see and cover, and in some cases I’ve interviewed the featured artists. Hoyes included.  On this same blog you’ll find more LJAC art stories, including one on Frederick Brown and another on collector/explorer Kam-Ching Leung. You’ll also find stories about the center’s namesake, the late jazz musician Preston Love.

 

Sanctified Joy, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes

 

 

Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes explores the lamentations and celebrations of Jamaican revival worship

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Spiritual rapture is captured in artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes’s Revival Series. The exhibition Lamentations & Celebrations on display now through March 10 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center features oil paintings, lithographs and etchings from the series, in which the Los Angeles-based artist explores the Revival worship services of his native Jamaica. He spent a week in Omaha doing school residencies.

Hoyes uses lustrous colors, seductive swirls and overwrought figures to evoke the “spirit at that moment of crescendo.” A cathartic moment when light, sound, music, rhythm and emotion reach a fever pitch of illumination or exaltation, said Hoyes, standing amid his iridescent work on the walls at the LJAC. When he began the series 25 years ago he chose a clean color palette and lyrical line pattern for his dynamic series. “In order for me to attain spirit and spirituality in my pictures,” he said, “my colors had to be pure. I went about by using colors without really muddling or mixing or tapering them. It’s like a sequence of motion and I’m capturing the motion at different points, but at the peak of each sequence.”

His images of incantation, reverie and ritual take place in outdoor, night time gatherings brightened by the glow of candle light and supernatural incandescence,  where worshipers commune with their higher power in scenes at once solemn, joyful and eerie. There’s a power to the writhing figures caught in the spirit’s sway. The congregants worship en mass, buoyed by the communal beat of The Call.

He said, “The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.”

 

 

Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes (the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship) -“The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.":

Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes

 

 

His own experience of Revivalism, an amalgam of Afro-CaribbeanChristian traditions, goes back to his Jamaican youth. His great aunt was a priestess and elder whose backyard was the site for many services. He witnessed the songs, chants, dances, drums, processions, channeling of spirits, ecstatic revelations. The sacred, the mystical, the strange. It frightened and fascinated him. It was inevitable his art would explore these altered states and this mediation of ethereal and terrestrial.

Long after he left the island for America, he returned to Jamaica to observe with the eyes of a mature artist the Poccomanian and Zion strains of Revivalism. In rediscovering his roots, he found an intuitive grasp of it all. “I started to realize I had an innate sensibility about these ceremonies. I knew them,” he said. “It’s like knowing Mass. You know the consecutive ceremonies and where they go. You know the hymns. You can recognize what that special ritual and special consecration is all about without being told. As I started investigating it I saw there were some things being lost over the years. Certain sentiments in the religion. The way there was pressure to get a formal church building, where before worship was conducted in holy sites throughout the countryside or in certain blessed yards.”

He noted, too, the introduction of technology, by means of electrical amplification, to what were all acoustic rites. The changes, he said, gave him an urgency to document a rapidly disappearing heritage.

 

 

Bernard Stanley Hoyes

 

 

Hoyes views his art as an expression of the spirit and the spirit of art. As a veteran of inner city life in Kingston and L.A., he knows the soul killing poverty and crime people of color face. He creates work for nontraditional spaces as offerings of peace and unity amid troubled tribes and times, like his murals and his installations of altars and tables in riot-ravaged neighborhoods.

“We have to move beyond those manic rages,” he said through “spiritual cleansing. We can then start anew, afresh. That’s why I think we’ve seen the pervasive Born Again rituals-religions in America. People see the need for that cleansing. We have to look for the rituals where we find them. Until we do that we become captive to the oppressive nature of urban violence and all the other manic depressive things that go on in our community.”

 

 

Moonlight Spiritual S/N by Bernard Stanley Hoyes 22"x32" Art Print Poster

Moonlight Spiritual S/N, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes

 

 

Art, he said, can be part of “the healing process. It has to be about something that’s pervasive, that everybody can link their spirit to.” His Revival Series, informed by Jamaican and African American rites, is a resplendent multi-faith expression of praise and worship, call and response testifying. “It covers the whole gamut of Western Christianity with the African influence in it,” he said. Ever since his series struck a chord” a few years ago, his work has been collected by celebs like Oprah Winfrey, bringing thousands of dollars for originals and hundreds for prints. Why? “I think for the first time people with spiritual longing and spiritual connection see that part in it. They see the passion and the emotion of worship that is in the DNA of anybody that’s been to a Pentecostal or Baptist service.”

It’s about getting caught up in and overcome by the spirit. It’s what moved him when he began the series in a flourish of productivity. The spirit dictated “the style and motif and energy…the drive. One painting would beget the other — suggest the idea for the next,” he said, until he’d done 40 paintings in five weeks. “While I’m painting it becomes unconscious. It’s a classic inspired-work. That’s what it is.” He’s quit the series, but has always returned to it, finding the “inexhaustible” subject lends itself to “variations on a theme ” It numbers 500 to 600 works now. He means to retire the series with this exhibit, but suspects he’ll be drawn back to it again.

The LJAC, 2510 North 24th Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 502-5315 or visit www.lovesjazzartcenter.org for more details.

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