My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

==========================

[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989

For my second Salvadoran asylum case, I decided that I needed to go to El Salvador to do investigations for the case and to learn more about the country. In April 1989 I made my first of six trips to the country. I went with a group led by Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education at Augsburg College.[1]

The Salvadoran Civil War was still going on, and on the day we arrived her Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. In response, the Salvadoran military forces were in the streets with their automatic rifles at the ready, stopping everyone to provide identification. People in the “popular organizations” were being arrested. It was a very dangerous and tense 10 days in the country.

These days turned out to be the most intense religious and spiritual experience of my life. It was and still is a major reason why I now say that El Salvador liberated this American lawyer in many ways and helped him integrate his religious faith with his professional life.

We went to a service of solidarity for a Catholic priest who that week had received death threats. The service was in a screened recreational building next to a very dusty soccer field. As we entered, we were handed mimeographed sheets with words for hymns of the people about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been murdered nine years earlier. Thus began my learning about Romero.[2]

Our group visited the office of COMADRES in a small house in the city. (It is the committee of the mothers of the disappeared and assassinated). A young woman talked about her jailing and torture earlier that week. Right behind her I saw a bust of Robert Kennedy representing the very first Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. It was granted to COMADRES for its struggle for amnesty for political prisoners, information regarding the “disappeared” and punishment for those responsible for human rights violations.[3] (During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. would not grant a U.S. visa to a COMADRES representative to come to the U.S. to receive the award.)

At the COMADRES’ office I also saw a framed copy en espanol of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[4] which I had never regarded as important and about which I knew nothing. Even though I could not read the Spanish text, I could see that it was an inspirational document for these people. This experience came rushing back to me when later I learned about the Universal Declaration.

Our group met with Phil Anderson, a Lutheran pastor from Minnesota who was working in El Salvador for Lutheran World Federation. Earlier that week he had sent faxes to the Federation’s headquarters in Switzerland with information about the arrests of many people from the popular organizations so that the next day the headquarters could send faxes of complaints to the Government of El Salvador. I gained a new appreciation for the work of international organizations around the world and about the sinister messages that are sent when they are kicked out of a country.

My fellow travelers on this trip were from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the successor of the Lutheran Church in America, my client in the Sanctuary Movement case). Through their connections I was introduced to the significant work in El Salvador of its small Lutheran Church and its Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is frequently regarded as the spiritual heir to Archbishop Romero.[5]

We also met Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the human rights office of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He told us that in late 1980 a judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women.[6] Someone from the U.S. Embassy then asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country. His wife told him that he was stupid to put her and their children’s lives at risk, and she took the children and divorced him. Yet Ibarra subsequently returned to his country to be a human rights lawyer and thereby continued to put his life on the line. He spoke about the joy he had in his work as a lawyer for people whose human rights were at greater risk.

In my subsequent work as a pro bono asylum lawyer and human rights advocate, I continued to be inspired by Salvador Ibarra. How easy it was for me as a large law-firm lawyer in Minneapolis to do this work. I did not have to risk my life as he did.

Our group visited the “22nd of April” community in San Salvador. This community was a three-block area of land on a steep hill between railroad tracks above and a road below. It had been used as a garbage dump, but on April 22nd in the early 1980’s displaced Salvadorans (“desplazados”) started to occupy it. In April of 1989 there were at least 10,000 people living there. They were mainly women and small children because teenage and adult males were fighting in the civil war or had been killed or disappeared. The people lived in “houses”– some of concrete blocks and tin roof; others of cheap tin or aluminum sheets or scrap lumber; yet others made with cardboard.

We walked around “22nd of April” with its pastor–Father Jim Barnett, a Dominican priest from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He talked about his ministry of accompaniment and solidarity. He was inspired by the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had entered the total experience of the poor–physical, spiritual, social, economic and political–and who had spoken about the church’s need to be incarnated in the life of the people and the institutional injustice and violence in El Salvador.

Another stop on our trip was UCA, the Universidad de Centro America, a Jesuit institution with a beautiful, serene campus on a hill in the capital city.[7] We spent an hour with Father Jon Sobrino, a noted liberation theologian.[8]  Only seven months later six of his fellow Jesuit priests were brutally murdered at that very place by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. (Sobrino escaped this fate because he was in Thailand giving lectures.)[9]

We went to the small, modern, beautiful, serene Chapel of Divine Providence on the quiet grounds of a cancer hospital. This is where Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (Across the street was the three-room apartment where Romero lived. No luxurious Archbishop’s palace for him.) Along the way to the chapel I saw graffiti messages: “Romero vive!” (“Romero lives!”)

The Cathedral of San Salvador, on the other hand, is in el centro with all the noise and hurly-burly of buses and other traffic. In April 1989 the building was not finished. (Romero had halted all construction because he did not think it was right for the church to be spending money on its building when the people were suffering from poverty and human rights abuses.) On the steps were women from COMADRES with their bullhorns protesting against the latest wave of repression. Inside, scraps of linoleum were on the floor along with scattered plain wooden benches. In the right transept was Romero’s tomb–plain concrete and covered with flowers and prayers of the people. As I stood there, the words “My body broken for you” from the Christian sacrament of communion echoed in my mind.


[1]  Center for Global Education, http://www.augsburg.edu/global/.

[2]  Later posts will discuss the life and witness of Archbishop Romero and why he is my personal saint.

[3]  Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, http://www.rfkcenter.org/ourwork/humanrightsaward.

[4]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/b1udhr.htm.

[5]  Medardo Gomez, Fire Against Fire (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1990); Medardo Gomez, And the Word Became History (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1992).

[6]  E.g., Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2000, at A3.

[7]  Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” http://www.uca.edu.sv/.

[8]  Wikipedia, Jon Sobrino, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Sobrino.

[9]  Sobrino, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1990); Center for Justice & Accountability, Jesuits Massacre Case, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=84.