Friday, July 24, 2009


Today the people of Grand Forks, North Dakota, are mourning the death of Robert Jacobson, who worked as a chief hospital administrator in the city for 30 years (1963-93). Interestingly, Jacobson, who was a Lutheran from Minnesota, started his Grand Forks career as administrator of Deaconess Hospital (located downtown on 4th Street), where the hospital's Lutheran nurses still lived in a dorm near the hospital.

In 1971, Jacobson led a merger of Deaconess Hospital with St. Michael's Catholic Hospital to create "United Hospital." From that point he had the vision to grow the hospital in a way beneficial to the community, including moving it to a new site, where the name was eventually changed from "United" to "Altru."

Beyond the main thrust of this story, with my historian's hat on, I was particularly pleased by the following nugget couched in an article about Jacobson written by Stephen J. Lee of the Grand Forks Herald: "It was a fulfillment of bigger moves led by Robert Jacobson years before, from when nuns and Lutheran “deaconess” nurses provided much of the care at two religious — and sort of rival — Grand Forks hospitals for little pay to the advent of contemporary secular, if still nonprofit, medical centers."

This kind of "hospital history" is more common than most people realize!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dark History for Christians in Fiji

The recent history of Fiji - in terms of the freedom of Christian churches - has been a dark one due to the success of a Military Coup carried out there in December of 2006. Today's morning news includes a report of how Fiji's interim prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has championed "the arrest of several Methodist church leaders and Fiji’s most senior female High Chief over the church’s annual conference, which the interim government has banned."

Another report explains: "Fiji police have charged the paramount chief Ro Teimumu Kepa and two top Methodist Church ministers with defying the Public Emergency Regulation. The church president, the Reverend Ame Tugaue, and the secretary general, the Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, have been charged with contravening orders by organising a meeting last week with two church figures that the interim regime wants to have expelled from the Methodists’ leadership. Ro Teimumu has been charged with inciting the people of her home province Rewa by publishing a letter on the internet which invited the church for its annual conference after the interim regime had banned the gathering. The three have been released on bail and made to surrender their passports."

Thanks be to God that we live in a country where church leaders can plan meetings and gather together without fear of being arrested! Let's remember to pray often for the people of Fiji and anywhere else in the world where Christian churches are controlled or muzzled by evil governments.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


There seem to be an increasing number of conversations going on in theological and ecclesiastical circles at the moment related to the subject of secularism. The ideas involved are no longer based on a simple contrast between the church and the world, or the religious and the secular. New vocabulary includes terms such as "Christian Secularism," which turn the old debates upside down, and more recent and frequent references to "procedural secularism" and "programmatic secularism."

Should we as Christians be keeping abreast of these "isms" - how they came or come about; in what manner they grow or evolve; how and when they give way to yet another "ism?" The answer is a certain yes if we are able to do so, and if such knowledge will improve our communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our neighbor. But we can't be tricked into thinking that knowledge of an "ism" means that we can control it. This is a mistake that too many politicians, theologians, and political theologians have made before us.

There is another problem too. Not everyone agrees on the nature of secularism, how it originated, and the good or harm that it does to the Christian Church or the faith of its members. The following quotation from "No Future in the Ghetto" by Francis Campbell (The Tablet, 18 July, 2009) provides a good example of some of the interesting twists in opinions on this issue:

"Europeans take it for granted that modernisation and secularism go hand in hand. But the experience of the rest of the world tells a different story. The challenge is maintaining faith while living peacefully with those who do not share it. Retreat is not an option.

"In A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor asks how we moved "from a condition in 1500 in which it was hard not to believe in God, to our present situation just after 2000, where this has become quite easy for many". Taylor contrasts secularism with religion. For him secularism sees human good and human flourishing as being focused solely in this world, while the religious outlook is transcendent.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is rather more specific. He describes secularism as opening a space, but also potentially closing a space. Positively a secular society would hold up ideals of freedom and equality. It would oppose any kind of theocracy, any privilege given to an authority that was not accountable to ordinary processes of reasoning and evidence. More negatively, secularism could rule out arguments that would arise from specific commitments of a religious or ideological nature. This approach is underpinned by the Enlightenment conviction that authority which depends on revelation must always be contested in the public sphere.

"When getting at the meaning of secularism, Taylor rejects what he calls the "subtraction story" which sees science gradually chipping away at the credibility of faith. Instead he argues that secularism and faith come from the same well and that secularism emerges not through scientific discovery, but through history. In this way secularism is not pitted against religion but is part of a proper distinction between the temporal and religious realms.

"Secularisation theory on the other hand attempts to describe a process of change ushered in around the time of the Industrial Revolution, whereby states modernise as they secularise. The idea is very simple: the more modernity, the less religion."

To my mind all of this is made much easier if, no matter what else we hear or read, we remember that as Christians we are in the world but not of the world (John 15-17) - and that Jesus Christ has empowered us to serve Him as a light to the world. (Matthew 5:14).

Sunday, July 12, 2009


In recent years, Amazon and eBay have often listed a book called Deaconess of the Everglades, by Elizabeth Scott Ames (Cortland, NY, 1995), about the life of an Episcopalian deaconess named Harriet Bedell (1875-1969). Deaconess Harriet's story is an interesting one. Her diaconal ministry took her to Oklahoma to work with the Cheyenne; to a remote Alaskan village to help the local ice-bound peoples; and finally to the Floridian Everglades area (and Marco Island) where she served as missionary to the Seminole Indians.

Sometime during the current Episcopal Convention in California (July 8-17, 2009) Harriet Bedell's name will be added to that denomination's "List of Lesser Feasts and Fasts." Since she died on January 8, that date will be designated as her "feast day" in the Episcopal Church.

Another new book about Deaconess Harriet, titled Angel of the Swamp, features quotations from her acquaintances in Florida, along with many photographs. Copies of this new book are available at the Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City or at

Friday, July 3, 2009


While traveling from Pennsylvania to Oregon – to attend the national Lutheran Women’s Missionary League convention – some interesting “coincidences” occurred. During the layover at a Chicago airport I sat down right next to the mother-in-law of a fellow deaconess. At the same gate, sitting in the row of seats facing us, was a deaconess whose name I knew but not not recalled ever meeting.

In both instances, the awareness of “who” these people were became apparent after someone was brave enough to ask an opening question. I asked the lady sitting next to me if she was on her way to the LWML convention (sometimes it’s easy to spot such ladies)! And the deaconess across the aisle saw a copy of In the Footsteps of Phoebe sitting on my luggage and walked over to me and asked if I was Cheryl.

The first question isn’t always easy, but it is necessary if we want to have conversation, and especially if we desire to develop new relationships. Our lives are rendered more interesting by the acquaintance of other people and their stories, and often, how their lives and stories already somehow tie in with our own lives.

This too is one of the pleasures of reading about historical figures, especially within the church. I have received so much joy from readers telling me that they discovered one of their relatives in my book. A few weeks ago a man phoned me from Texas to tell me that he has never known much about his grandfather, but that he heard about the release of In the Footsteps of Phoebe from his mother, and now he was excited to be able to learn quite a bit about his grandfather (who was a director of deaconess training for many years).

My thought for today is this: Ask the Questions that will connect you with people. You may even be surprised that in some way or another you already have a connection with them!