Thursday, March 12, 2015

Juanita Nelson, May She Rest in the Peace that She Championed

Last time that I was home, I got to spend four wonderful nights at the New York Catholic Worker's Peter Maurin Farm with my dear friend Deacon Tom Cornell and his wife, Monica. They were introduced by Dorothy Day after Tom was the first one to burn his draft card during the misbegotten VietNam era. While I was at the Farm, news arrived that her grandchildren had given permission to exhume Day's remains in time for this summer's papal visit. This was welcome news, because DD has played such an important role in their lives.

I met Tom Cornell through my friend Chuck Matthei, who was an amazing champion of community-supported agriculture and community loan funds. Chuck and I met when he came to speak at a Phillips Exeter Academy Martin Luther King Day event in January of 1993. He accompanied an elderly man and his spry wife: Wally and Juanita Nelson. During the last years of Chuck's own life, when he was suffering from cancer, he was like a son to them and took great care of them. I was at Chuck's memorial service and attended Wally's at Deerfield Academy. I am sorry that I will not be there for Juanita's. She was one of the most remarkable women that I have ever met. Today, from Tom Cornell, I learned that Juanita Nelson has marched on from the land of the living into eternal glory.

In the autumn of 1996, as a Middlebury senior, I got lost in the Adirondacks looking for the home of a future Middlebury scholar-in-residence, Bill McKibben. Around and around, I drove, burning up fossil fuel in my quest to interview the author of the End of Nature. My senior thesis, The Complex Task of Living Simply, would feature McKibben, the Nelsons, and Scott & Helen Nearing. Helen had driven into a tree the year prior and Scott was long gone, but the getting to know the living subjects of my thesis was a joy. I came away with the conclusion that McKibben was the most effective, because he was the most willing to compromise the purity of his daily life in order to make sure his important message was heard. The Nearings were the least effective--Scott basically disowned his own children for their lack of moral purity, as he saw it--because they were extremists. There was a lot to imitate in their lives, but there was a lot to be wary of.  It was Wally and Juanita who represented the Middle Way. Who can dispute the effectiveness of Wally's witness? He was a pre-Rosa Parks bus rider in April 1947 (see You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow). He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was the son of Alabama sharecroppers who fell in love with a woman from the South Side of Chicago--"the baddest part of town".

Wally and Juanita lived on Wolman Hill, a Quaker community in Greenfield, Massachusetts, off-grid and drawing water from a well whilst growing their own food and not paying their federal taxes, because they did not want to support the war machine. Juanita would continue this existence for years after Wally passed away. I would periodically drop-in to say hello sometimes warning her by leaving messages on an answering machine that was in a different house. Sometimes I would bring a curious friend, as well.

One of my happiest memories was in the spring of my senior year at Exeter, piling into a couple of cars with the diminutive Mr. Belcher, Bud & Barbara James (my mentors), and the not so diminutive Rev to go to Coltrane for a War Tax Resisters event with Wally & Juanita.

I cannot think of Juanita without picturing her in a sweater at her kitchen table, serving dried apple slices and reading by kerosene light. She had a voracious mind and her little cottage was lined with radical books. We had so many deep conversations and she was such a sage. I am sure she is looking down now upon us as we go about the quotidian tasks of our lives. I can feel her radiance. May she rest in the peace to which her life was a sturdy testament.

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