The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Dr. Sunny Sue Jonas and CCDA founding member, Dr. Mary Nelson.
I had the great opportunity to meet virtually with Dr. Mary Nelson this summer; we discussed things long past, and things very much present. She shared some of CCDA’s history and the way that God used the convictions of her heart to build up the communities and people that she was afforded the chance to be proximate to. Her evident love for God and His people was an inspiration. I hope you share in that strengthening and join us in our time together.
Dr. Sunny Sue Jonas: How did you first get involved with CCD and civic engagement?
Dr. Mary Nelson: “I’ve always believed in starting people where they’re at and building on up. It’s hard for us white middle class folks to get ‘woke’– we are subliminally part of a white supremacist culture. But we have soaked up the trappings of all of that, and it takes a while to identify, ‘No that’s not the way it is.’ … Jodie Cresman and John McKnight– we were often stumbling around not knowing what to do.”
Dr. Sunny Sue Jonas: What are some of your strategies in empowering others’ practice in civic engagement both locally and nationally?
Dr. Mary Nelson: “I wrote a book for CCDA on empowerment … People have power, they just don’t realize they have it– it’s midwifery. Our role is to help others birth or unleash what they have. It’s sometimes messy: it doesn’t happen nice[ly] and neatly…
Once, we used parts of Amazing Grace-the movie (about Wilburforce) [From the film, we learned that] … it takes a long time, [and] you need to use unusual tactics. A whole variety of tactics to draw parallels to what we wanted and needed to do… About 8 or 10 of us got arrested for doing CCD work, and it galvanized the notion that public advocacy could be done with a Biblical framework.”
Dr. Sunny Sue Jonas: How have you used the CCDA August recess toolkit in the past?
Dr. Mary Nelson: “I helped develop it with Barbara Skinner– the right to vote is a sacred thing. Instead of diminishing who can vote, we need to expand and elongate the opportunities. Foundational to the work of Biblical Justice is the imago Dei- we are ALL made in the image of God, [with] no room for thinking some are better than others. I’ve worked with Common Cause and Common Fight with phone-a-thons, not on a partisan basis but making sure our Senators and Legislators support that and not diminish it. Our faith compels us to get involved. As CCDA-ers, we are committed to living with those who are hurting. Proximity is essential. So we HEAR and LISTEN to the voices in our low wealth communities and help to amplify them through our wider networks.
As we look at the critical issues of 2021, we are called to action in the fierce urgency of NOW; we can’t be bystanders. God’s justice calls us to be activists.
So, here are some points of what do we can do in our communities with these understandings:
- Listen to the voices of hurting peoples and help amplify them. That means together going to forums, local politicians’ gatherings and assisting the voices of the hurting and marginalized to be heard.
- Identify the groups that are working on these issues in our area and joining with them in advocacy. As Christians, we bring a value-added aspect, with our commitment to justice, to love and the long haul.
- Continue to engage in dialogue, sharing experiences and information all along the way, seeking to involve even more people.
- Actively work on helping people get registered to vote, also by being informed on the positions of candidates on the issues we (and those hurting), care about.
- An example of a larger faith-based activist groups to connect to, includes the Poor Peoples Campaign (Rev. William Barber).
- Keep involved with the long term CCDA focus issues of immigration, incarceration and education. Participating in these settings in hands-on kinds of ways gives impetus to knowing first-hand the need for change.”
Dr. Sunny Sue Jonas: What are ways you can give us some encouragement on staying with CCD for the long haul?
Dr. Mary Nelson: “As CCDA practitioners, we sometimes feel burned out; too many disappointments, too many challenges, not enough sleep. Here are my tips after more than 50 years of being at it, when justice seemed elusive and far away:
- Stay rooted in Bible study and prayer, both individual and collective.
- Have healthy habits; I either do a 2 mile walk or use the treadmill in the mornings.
- Include things you love as a part of your routine. I sing a list of songs that lift my spirit each morning as I exercise.
- Celebrate the small victories (with others), a block cleaned up, an event completed, a policy impacted. Lament together the challenges in ways that acknowledge, yet move from lament to determinative next steps.
- Sometimes you just need to get away. I have been fortunate to have a family cabin in Minnesota that has been a healing place for me, with family and friends, swimming and sing-alongs, etc.
- Continue to learn and be connected to larger groups of people working on advocacy”
The mere mention of “more than 50 years of ‘being at it’”—as someone in their 40s who has been working with refugee youth and education, since 2009, it was an honor to listen to and learn from Dr. Mary Nelson. We are, as in the book of Hebrews, and the theologian CS Lewis, “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”/“surrounded by our betters.”
Train with Mary Nelson
We want to help you set up a meeting with your representative during August Recess. Dr. Mary Nelson has graciously offered to coach 5-8 people in how to meet with your representative. By filling out the form below you will provide us with the information we need to help get you started. We are committed to shepherding you through the process and giving you the tools you need to bring your community’s priorities to your legislator’s office.