I was born years before the Civil Rights Movement. But the day I was born is historic, because a courageous Alaska Native woman appeared before the Alaska Legislature to speak for equality among all peoples. On Feb. 8, 1945, Elizabeth Peratrovich eloquently advocated for Alaska Native civil rights. On Feb. 8, 2010, I attended my 7-year-old granddaughter’s Harborview Tlingit Language and Culture Program presentation. The fourth and fifth grade classes reenacted that special day in Alaska history. We celebrated the life of a woman who stood up for the rights of her people with the goal of bringing equality to all. I was surrounded by diversity and loved every minute of it.
Sitting there, I reflected back on my homogeneous childhood in northwest Iowa. I could not have envisioned how my life would unfold. Today, my own immediate family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchild reflect the gift of diversity. Our family has grown up with a respect for our Norwegian roots. In fact, they know and choose to pray the Norwegian Table Prayer at dinner. But there is also Alaska Native dancing, singing and drumming in our living room. We appreciate the racial and ethnic diversity with which we are gifted.
Welcoming diversity presents opportunities for personal growth. In fact, sometimes we “fall” into life-changing opportunities. I remember vividly watching the Detroit race riots of 1966 in the living room of Pastor Hans Christian Mamen, near Oslo, Norway. He had been my confirmation teacher a few years earlier and now was one of our “away from home” parents, while my wife, Laura, and I studied at the University of Oslo. Two years earlier, Pastor Mamen gave the keynote address for Martin Luther King Jr. when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, in the very hall where Laura and I were matriculated into the University of Oslo.
The walls of the Mamen home were filled with pictures and awards from the Israeli and Norwegian governments. During World War II, he was a leader in the Norwegian underground movement that saved thousands of Jewish people from certain death. He showed us the cabin on his property where those rescued stayed until it was possible for him to personally escort them to safety in Sweden.
Six years later, Laura and I, along with our newly adopted son, moved to the village of Brevig Mission, on the Seward Peninsula, where I served as pastor. It was a defining year for our ministry and life. We were the “taught ones” who absorbed the culture and blessing of the people of that Inupiat village. Twenty-five years later we returned to Brevig for a visit. One of my Brevig confirmands, a teacher in the village, brought us from Nome. Her dad, a village elder, greeted us with the affirming words, “Welcome home!” Later, at a community worship service, I could honestly share my appreciation that our time with them was my most defining year as a pastor. It changed our lives forever.
Our experiences have changed our philosophy of life and opened us to a greater understanding of God’s creative presence in this diverse, unfolding world. The growth changes that unfolded within us involved struggling with each experience.
Growth opportunities are not always well received by people who are comfortable with things as they are. Our time in Brevig dramatically and permanently changed us. Upon our return, my mother was so uncomfortable with who we had become, that she would tell people, “They aren’t normal yet!” Later she came to accept our “new normal” and grew with us.
Our mixed racial family, firsthand experiences with brain disorders and appreciation for cultural, ethnic and racial diversity and advocacy for the “least of these” can cause people discomfort. But in many cases, the discomfort becomes an opportunity for growth to unfold.
Life is a collection of events and experiences that help define who we are. I thank God for the many experiences that open doors to compassion, love and humility. We join nearly 8 billion people who are loved by God and have value. Psalm 133:1 can be our guide: “How very good and delightful it is for all to live together in unity.”
• Pastor Larry Rorem is a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor living in Juneau.