Wednesday, December 11, 2019


December 10 was International Human Rights Day, and we brought Mary and Joseph to seek shelter at the immigration detention center.  It is an immigration court as well, but since so very few immigrants win their cases, it amounts to be the last stop, the last holding pen before they are separated from their families and deported.

It was below zero when we started walking, with windchills 10-15 below.  By the time Mary and Joseph got there, the sun rose—gloriously, I might add. Beauty and the call for justice were together, almost dancing.

And then the temperature reached up to zero.

Zero.  A good place to start.  Zero hour.  Zero degrees is due north, and we were walking in the cold north, pleading for posada for others like Maria and Jose to not be sent south—some to certain violence and death, all to pain and separation.

The detention center is located near Fort Snelling.  Fort Snelling was built near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, where the Dakota believe creation started. It was at Ft. Snelling that hundreds of Dakota women, children and elderly were interned after the 1862 uprising, before they died of hunger and exposure, or were deported from Minnesota.  There was no longer any room for them in this state, and no time to advocate for their freedom and dignity.

The “zero hour” of the  Christmas story is recorded in St. Luke 2:7:

“Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Why was there no place in the inn? Because Mary and Joseph were foreigners Galileans who were seen as 2nd class people,? Or because they were poor? Or was it because of the hardness of the Innkeeper's hearts?

Why do today's migrants ask for shelter in this country and can't find it? Because they are foreigners, considered “less than”? Or poor? Or is it because of the hardness of our hearts?

We’re going to walk with these giant puppets of Mary and Joseph through our immigrant neighborhood on Sunday, asking for posada, for shelter.  As our program says, “we will keep walking.  We will keep opening doors.”

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be welcoming.


Postscript: when I insert a picture into a Word document, it often gives an unasked for caption suggestion.  This is what came up with the photo above:

A picture containing sky, outdoor, person, ground

I’m just going to leave that hanging there.

Monday, September 23, 2019


Last Saturday, September 21, was International Peace Day.  Our church and art center celebrated in many ways: a street fest with bouncy castle, barbecue, live music and games and an outdoor projection on our 114 year old church building.  The projection included photographs our youth took this summer, along with incredible light art and haunting, beautiful music played by a neighbor.

The most meaningful part of the night for me was a lantern procession.  During the summer, we worked with Bart Buch, a neighbor and artist, to make lanterns.  We made lanterns with children and adults and at an Open Streets Festival.  They were illuminated with little electric candles that flicker, and we walked to different places in the neighborhood that have asked for peace.  This summer has been particularly hard on our community, with opioid use and human trafficking spiking.  At the same time, it has been hard especially for our immigrant families—menacing raids threatened, and the chorus of “Send Them Back.”

From the church, we stopped at Bart’s house, and then at the other side of his alley, where the neighbors organized this summer to help create a safe space.  Needles and other drug items were found in an empty lot, garbage was left all over.  The community put up a fence and reclaimed the space with their presence.

Then, we stopped across the street from the corner store which many people frequent day and night. Their sidewalk is a place where other folks congregate, mostly at night.  We decided to stop at the opposite corner, where there was more space to gather.  I realized that the owner of that corner is a friend from Iran, and there we stood in solidarity with our two peoples.

Then we went to a corner where a couple dozen children catch the school buses early in the morning.  6:30 to 7:00 am is a busy time at the corner, as people from outside the neighborhood buy drugs or sex on their way to work.  It’s actually busy all night long, as those who sell have made it their home away from home.  As we stood and sang our peace prayers, they were watching.  I did not feel afraid Saturday night, mostly because there were quite a few people processing for peace.  And because we had committed ourselves to practice peace whatever we encountered.

There is nothing like walking in the night in silence.  Or as much silence as you can get.  We had children with us on the walk (but to be honest, the adults talked more!).  A police car with its sirens blaring went by, as did a car proud of not having much of a muffler.  And there were the sounds of daily—or nightly—life in the community:  a TV set, people sitting around a table in the backyard, music playing softly.

This morning, I went to the bus stop again, to stand with the parents and children. We are trying to work with neighbors to create a safe space there, and there is a meeting tonight about that.  I have to admit that I was afraid when I got out of my car.  The people who sell were there, but there were no parents or children yet.  I reminded myself that I was still surrounded by the cloud of witnesses who walked Saturday night and many others, which helped.  It was cold this morning, and if I stand in place very long, my knees and back hurt.  So I did a little procession in place, walking back and forth on those sidewalk spaces.

I don’t know what will come out of the meeting tonight, or actions further down the line.  I talked with a parent at the bus stop this morning, and we both shared how we were thinking about winter, as harsh as it can be in Minnesota.  The sellers of the street aren’t that hardy, and there is respite for the community.

But I also think that as a community, we need to be our respite.  We need to walk, even process with each other in more profound ways, in order to build our community into a place where the kind of violence we face cannot easily take route.  That will take a lot of walking, a lot of processing, but we are not walking alone.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be a procession of hope.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019



I’m on Face Book too often, for sure.  But today it felt right.  It was the first day back at school, and so many of my friends are posting photographs of their children going off to school.  Often with photos of said children from years back.  Even my most political friends are doing that.  It’s a pleasant break from posts on the idiocies of our President and the tragedies of the world.

I must admit that I miss the first day back at school ritual.  Last year was the first fall in at least 25 years in which we didn’t have to arrange our morning schedules around getting one or both of our daughters off to day care or school.  But last fall, we were in the south of France on sabbatical when school started, so it didn’t hit me as much.  This year it has.

To be clear, I don’t miss the grind of getting an obstreperous, recalcitrant child off to school when they don’t want to!  But I do miss the communities that form at school, and I do miss checking my calendar to make sure I can get to Natasha’s volleyball game or Talia’s soccer game.  I miss running into parents that I saw weekly at games, at school meetings or just dropping off or picking up our daughters.

There are no grandchildren on the horizon, so I will have to be content with smiling at the parents with their children on my morning walks.  And with my memories of those mornings.

This is an old poem that was written about one of those morning a decade and a half ago:


The person who had insomnia bad
Shuffles to the room of the person
Who got up four times to ask for water,
While the person who snores
Stumbles past the door of the person
Who can’t stop talking on the phone
All night long.

                   The person with dust mite
Allergies and the sore back lifts up
The person with pajama fuzzies
And fuzzy hair, and holds her upright,
A kind of morning prayer of the unresponsive flesh,
While the person with the surgery
Still holding her flesh with her tired hand
Wanders to the basement to pick out
Fresh clothes for the person
Who puts sand in each shoe each day, and to
Drop the same pair of jeans
Into the drying machine for the person
Who is terminally bored, and perpetually
Can’t stop talking to her friends
All day long,

                    while the person with eczema
Demands her TV show with aardvarks
From the person who is packing her lunch
And making her toast, and trying to listen
To the news from Iraq, while the person
Arising from the basement makes coffee
And gathers the book bag and the gloves and the boots
And rubs this morning’s skin cream
Into the person whose chief delight
In life is candy (and then gum and then candy
And then gum and then can I have some
Candy please), while the person
Who hides her candy and wants
A boyfriend is sleeping peacefully
In her bed with her cell phone, CD
Player, hoop earrings, two teddy bears
And a note from a friend who might
Have got pregnant,

                          while the person
Who immigrated 17 years ago,
Picks up the paper with the still strange
Language and reads, and the person
With the temper can’t find the car keys
And asks the person with her cup of coffee
To please put them in the place we always
Keep them, and yells at the person
With her pajamas still on to eat her breakfast,
And goes back to the kitchen to look
At the weather, and decides to eat
A banana with peanut butter, while
The person who has a test in algebra
Is dreaming of a day at the beach with friends.

The person with the sore back and
The person with the surgery take
The person with no clothes on still
And forcibly put on socks and shirt
And sweater and pants, and jacket
And boots and mittens, and “Yes, you
Can put your horsey in your book bag”
And “No you cannot take your tapping 
Shoes to school,” and “Please drink your juice” and
“Come on, let’s get to the car”, and the person
With tears but no remorse finds one more toy to touch,
One crayon or picture, or one thing
And the three persons in one
Are out the door, to the garage,
To the car, to school, to work
To worries and to whomever it may concern,
While the person with the ponytail
And the braces and the bright eyes finally
Gets up and wonders why
It is always so quiet around here in the morning.

Apparently, this poem is so old, I can’t even format it correctly after copying it here!

Be a loving parent.  Be beauty.  Be justice.


Friday, June 28, 2019


Today started off with prayer with friends.  Then breakfast with my wife, at a new place.  Pulling weeds in the garden, transplanting a poblano pepper, and the last starts of parsley, cilantro and two plants unknown. It felt good to sweat in the hot sun.  It felt better to take a shower and then a nap, with ice on my back.  Stretching, reading. Wishing friends “Feliz Cumpleaños” on Face Book.

Then we went to the Riverview Theater—the best in Minneapolis.  Best popcorn and cheapest.  Art Deco style.  We didn’t go to see a movie, but the World Cup match between the US and France.  I was one of the few Viva la France fans there, amidst legions of Los Americanos.  It was a good game, too loud at times.  But the US fans did smile when I stood up and cheered the French goal.

On the way out, I stopped in a long line for the bathroom.  Two boys struck up a conversation with me. The first asked me “Were you for France?”!  Did it show somehow?  He said that he was for France too.  His friend liked both sides (can’t lose then).  We talked about the U11 league they played in, what kind of strategy worked best in the game, how far they had to travel.

Then home.  Cleaned my room. Read a couple things in The New Yorker.  Took my afternoon nap.  I wanted to sit on a folding chair under our little gingko tree to work on some poems, but the neighbor’s mowing his lawn, and my allergies are screaming.  So here I am, on the porch, smelling the grass and trying not to sneeze.

I often write—when I write!—about challenging and poignant themes.  But today, I just want to thank God for this day—maybe not the greatest day (Quel dommage les Bleus ont perdu!) but a good day. A blessed day.

Here’s a poem from my book that I read at the No Mic Open Mic last night, about a good day a ways back:


On a split rock lies a split fish,
coaxed out of the deep by the dancing
of Stephen’s finger.  He scrapes her scales
with his teeth as he prays to her spirit.
The sun splits a whisper of birch,
speaks the season to their hearts.
They bleed a wordless yes.  The wind
pulls a thin dance of breath along the silent lake.

Thomas folds the tent like he’s making
a paper airplane, floats it into the canoe.
I stir the coffee in its aluminum prison,
wait with the hot butter for the fish.
The fog of our breath is all we speak.
It is morning, September,
and there is nothing left unopened.

We have slept deep, deep in the earth,
and now we rise to eat and to journey on.
As the fish grows into our flesh,
we glide onto water in our sea-going soul,
and head for home, for parts unknown.

Be beauty.  Be justice.  Have a good day (seriously!)


Sunday, May 12, 2019


Today, during prayers in worship, a member prayed for all mothers, especially those suffering.  He mentioned that Friday was Mother’s Day in Mexico (it’s always on May 10), and that Sunday was Mother’s Day in the United States.  I thought about that during the rest of worship, especially during communion.  I couldn’t remember when Mother’s Day was on Friday and Sunday.  During the announcements, I commented on that, and asked where Mother’s Day was on Saturday? I shared that I thought it was at the border between the two countries.  Where mothers are desperately trying to cross to a place of safety, in order to protect their children.  I don’t know if Mother’s Day was celebrated at the border on Saturday, or not.  But I’m pretty sure our Mothering God was there.

Let us be at the border.


Monday, April 15, 2019


Today was a strange day.  A day of last days, of endings that I witnessed.

After a latte and end of semester conversation with our seminary student, I walked down Como Avenue in St. Paul.  I went by the group of shops where Micawber’s Bookstore has been for decades.  When I lived off Como Avenue in 1984-85, I would stop in now and then. I hoped that one day I would hold a reading at Micawber’s for a book of mine.

My first book came out last month.  Soon after that, I read the Micawber’s was closing for good.  Today, I walked in the little courtyard where I remember the bookstore being, thinking maybe they were having a sale to dispose of their last inventory.  I didn’t see any sign for Micawber’s, and I couldn’t remember which of the little shops it occupied.  Then I saw a door with a bumper sticker about supporting your independent bookstore.  I peered through the glass of the door—the place looked empty, but there was a light on.

I tried the door and it opened.  I walked down the few stairs, calling out “hello”.  No answer.  In the main space there was a long table with a sign saying “70% off”.  I called out again. Still no answer.  So I started perusing the books.  At one point the phone rang. I hoped the ringing of the phone would bring someone out from the back, but no one came.  Who was on the other end of the line?  Did they know that no one was there, except for me?  How could they know?

I saw the cash register on the counter by the phone.  It was open and empty.  The computer it was attached to was buzzing along.  There was a little sign about writing a note to the owner. I called out again, but no answer.  I had picked out three books; the list price totaled $45, with 70% it would be $13.50.  I had only a $20 bill in my pocket, and it had become clear that I wasn’t going to be able to pay with a credit card.  I found another book for $10, which brought the total to $50; $16.50 with the discount.  I went around the table again, found another $10 book I liked, which brought the total to $65, or $19.50 discounted.  I left a note with the twenty. As far as I know, it’s the only time I’ve ever tipped a bookstore.

I went back to the car, and that’s when I paid attention to the titles of the five books I had bought.  I had picked them because of their authors or subjects, but in the car, I read the titles again:

The War Within

Is Religion Killing Us?


Feeding on Dreams

Brokeback Mountain

Seems appropriate for the last days of a beloved bookstore, doesn’t it?

Earlier that morning, I had listened to a voice mail at the church. A man called to say his grandmother Dorothy, who had been a member of St. Paul’s for over 40 years, was dying. He asked if I could go pray with her, and if we could do the funeral.  I talked with the grandson in the morning.  He texted me the address of the nursing home. It turned out to be fairly close to the café and the bookstore, so I called him and told him I would visit her that afternoon.

When I got to the nursing home and entered Dorothy’s room, there were three generations of her family there, and the chaplain of the nursing home.  I introduced myself as the pastor of St. Paul’s, and the chaplain said, “Oh, I know Pr. Wells well.”  Oh I see, Dorothy had been a member of the other St. Paul’s, the one on Portland Avenue.  That St. Paul’s was founded in the 1870’s by Norwegian immigrants.  Our St. Paul’s was founded in the 1880’s by Swedish immigrants. 

The family invited me to sit and pray with them and the chaplain.  So I did.  They asked me to read the 23rd Psalm.  They talked about her life.  I sat across from Dorothy, whose labored breathing I had seen in many hospital rooms over the last 34 years as a pastor.  I prayed for her and her family, thinking that had it been our St. Paul’s instead of theirs, I would have been called on to speak of her life, and the love God had for her.  A woman I had only met in her last days. 

On the ride back to church, I heard on the radio that Notre Dame was ablaze.  I ran a couple of errands, and each time I got back in the car, it sounded worse.  On the way to my final meeting, the reporters said that firefighters were not sure if they could save any of the 850 year old church.   When I got near our home, they were saying that the firefighters thought they would be able to save the two towers and much of the structure.

I don’t know what to say about that beautiful place.  I hope that it is not in its last days; I hope they will be able to restore her.  But I think that time may be out for me to visit her again.  Luisa and I went there several times in 2013, on our 25th anniversary trip.  It was there that I had my confession heard most recently by a priest—perhaps ironic for a Lutheran pastor, but not for the Roman Catholic boy I was, dreaming of the great cathedrals in Europe.

I pray that Notre Dame will be restored. But I have no idea how long that will take; nor do I know how long I will live.  I just turned 66, and even if I live to be 100, I am therefore in the last third of my days.

It is Holy Week, when the suffering and love of humanity and of the whole world become ever more poignant.  It is a time when we are more attuned to loss, and also more attuned to hope, I pray.

The “other” St. Paul’s is much more conservative than “our” St. Paul’s.  Given its location in the current theology of the United States, I imagine that at least some of the members have a vision of the “last days” as a great big battle, where Jesus comes back to slay all the people who don’t believe in him.   You can find those images in the Bible, of course, especially in Revelation. For some reason, many of the Christians who live in the richest nation on earth have latched on to the apocalyptic language—a language not of those in power and plenty, but those persecuted and hopeless—as some portend of a magical future.  (Overlooking, in our last days of empire, that Revelation was written against the terribly cruel political, economic and spiritual oppression of the Roman Empire.)

I don’t find my hope in a war to end all wars, but in the promises above all promises. It is in Revelation that we see the images of a new earth, a new city, a new garden; where there is no more death and no more weeping.  A city where the River of Life flows straight down the city from the home of God; the trees give fruit in all seasons, and the leaves of the trees are healing for all peoples of all time.

That’s the prayer I have for Dorothy tonight.  That is where both St. Paul’s hope together: that there is another life arriving—and is already here, Jesus reminds—another life promised for Dorothy, for lovers of old bookstores, for people who see their earthly joys go up in flame.

Be beauty.  Be justice.  Be unafraid of loss, for these last days are not the last.


Friday, February 22, 2019


Last fall, I travelled with my wife Luisa to Chile, her native country.  Although she has visited there every other year or so, I had not been there since January 2002, primarily because of my back and the difficulty of long plane rides.

Chile—like every other country—has changed over 17 years; some good, some bad.  There is more acceptance for LGBTQ people, there is more homelessness and a growing inequality.  One of the profound changes is simply due to the passage of time: today, most people in Chile have no first-hand memory of the military dictatorship, because they were born in the last couple years of Pinochet, or after democracy was restored in 1990.

But thank God, Chile has not allowed that memory to disappear.  Some, who still admire the dictatorship, continue to try to sweep it under the carpet or try to rewrite history, casting military rule as some kind of strict but benevolent parent that was needed to straighten out its misled child.  But memory is not that easy to bury.

We went to two places where that memory is guarded.  One was Villa Grimaldi, a secret detention center in Santiago, where at least 4,500 people were tortured, and at least 240 were killed or were disappeared.  This torture site has now been converted into “El Parque Por La Paz”—the Park for Peace.  It is a peaceful place, in one sense, because of the flowers and trees that have been re-established.  But it is also a place of peace in a more difficult way: where the memory of those who were victimized helps keep history alive, and (we hope) prevent a military coup from happening again.  As Chile Today puts it, it is “Peace In Memory”.

We also went to the Museo de la Memoria, built so that the memory of those who suffered will not disappear.  One part that impacted me fiercely was the wall with photos of all those who are known to have been killed or who were disappeared.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, “to disappear someone” became a verb in the lexicon of the military regimes of Latin America, implemented by military and secret paramilitary officials, many of whom were trained by the United States.  It happened in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala and other places.

“To be disappeared” means that your family and friends may never find out what happened to you.  Often, you were kidnapped at night, taken to a secret location.  Maybe you were tortured there for weeks or months.  Maybe you were thrown—alive—from a helicopter into the ocean, or buried in a mass, unmarked grave.  When your family went to look for you, there was no record of you ever having been taken.  No file on your arrest, no help from any agency.

One of the most cruel aspect of intentional disappearing was the taking of babies born to women who were being held as political prisoners.  After they had given birth, their children were given to officials in the military, or sold to wealthy families connected to the regime.  Usually, the mother was killed or disappeared afterwards.  There is a powerful movie, made in Argentina, called “La Historia Oficial” or “The Official Story”:

The title is in itself a macabre play on words of how truth is silenced, even disappeared under dictatorship.  The official story given to the families of the disappeared in Chile and elsewhere was that the government and the military knew nothing about their loved one.  The real story, uncovered by courageous family members and journalists, who fought for decades to bring the truth to light, can bring healing and a recommitment to fight for justice.

I write this because of my love for my adopted country, which is suffering through one of the hottest summers ever, while I gaze out at mountains of snow (clearly nothing like Chile’s mountains!).

I also write this because of my love for the country I was born in.  For we are, once again, intentionally disappearing people.  In this case, children of migrants coming here to seek asylum or a better life.  Our government has flatly stated that it doesn’t know where thousands of these children are, and that it may never be able to find them.  Some parents of these separated children have had their parental rights terminated, because they failed to show up at the court hearing.  Failed to show up, because they were deported (a “softer” kind of disappearing) without knowing what was happening to their children.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this.  We have a long history of disappearing children: children of slaves sold away from their parents; Native American children forcibly adopted and robbed of their language and culture; a disproportionate number of children of color today being labelled as deviant in schools and as criminals by the society.  We shouldn’t be surprised, but we should be angry.  And we should keep their memory alive. 

How can do that as a people?  How can we make our history—especially the parts we want to stay hidden—present before our daily lives in such a way that produces real peace?

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be skeptical of the official story.