A Foreward to “Beyond Belief”

by Dave Nimmer, reprinted on March 26, 2020

Ray H. Richardson, sportswriter and host for KMOJ-FM in Minneapolis-St. Paul, has spent the past three years researching and writing the story of Mary Johnson-Roy and Oshea Israel. We are thrilled to have his book Beyond Belief in our hands now. The story is heart-wrenching yet uplifting.

With his permission, we have reprinted Dave Nimmer’s foreward to his book.

We invite you to read and pray over Mary and Oshea’s story. You can purchase the book here.



Top: Sister Mary Margaret with Mary Johnson-Roy.
Bottom: Sister Mary Margaret with Oshea Israel.

Beyond Belief is the result of a spiritual partnership between a white nun who sought to explore the privilege from the color of her skin and a black mother who wanted relief from the resentment toward the man who killed her son.

At Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s request, her Visitation community of North Minneapolis commissioned this book about Mary Johnson-Roy and her journey toward forgiving Oshea Israel, who murdered her 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd, Feb. 12, 1993.

When the two first met, Johnson-Roy was grieving the loss of her son and working to form a group of mothers who also lost children to violence. The two “Marys” became fast friends. They share a belief in a loving God, who forgives the sins of His children and asks that they “forgive those who trespass against” them.

Over the past decade, the two women have prayed together, traveled together, and worked together to promote and define the grace of forgiveness. Mary Johnson-Roy has a message for those who read Beyond Belief:

“I want them to know what forgiveness is. I want them to know what freedom is. I need to be forgiven and I need to forgive. The grace of forgiveness leads to a more gentle and hopeful world. We can get unstuck and move on — and do what we should do for the rest of our lives.”

Mary Johnson-Roy and Mary Margaret McKenzie provide a gracious example for all of us. Shed resentments. Accept responsibility. Seek reconciliation. And in this way, be who you are and be that well.


Dave Nimmer is a retired reporter who worked at WCCO-TV and the Minneapolis-Star Tribune.

He is also a journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine and a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors.

Read Dave’s article on Beyond Belief for Minnesota Good Age here.


Jim Lee’s Christmas Trees

by Dave Nimmer*, Guest Blogger

It’s not likely that Jim Lee will be forgotten by the Visitation Sisters in the life of their Minneapolis monastery, not as long as they celebrate Christmas. Lee and his family have been part of their Christmas tradition for 20 years, and his men’s Cursillo prayer group have been part of the Sisters’ prayer life for even longer.

The group, which meets weekly, joins the Sisters for Tuesday morning prayer once a month. “These men became our brothers,” says Sister Karen Mohan. “We prayed with them through their job losses, their illnesses, and their job situations, and they readily looked for opportunities to serve us and our neighbors.”

It was serving a neighbor that got Lee and his prayer group involved with Visitation. They had contacted the Sisters and asked what they could do to help.

“Sister Karen knew of a family that needed a washer and dryer,” Lee says. “We bought a used unit and installed it for the family. With the few dollars left over, I went out and bought Christmas trees for the neighbors.”

The simple act of delivering the trees impressed upon Lee how great the needs were among the Northside neighbors, and he wanted his children to learn the same lesson. So Jim Lee started the family tradition of buying the Visitation Christmas tree. As the Lee family grew, the tree-picking expedition went from morning to afternoon to accommodate the different work and child-care schedules. Lee’s wife, Diana, would also bring “too many” Subway sandwiches that got distributed around the neighborhood.

Lee particularly remembers one Christmas when his two teenage boys were anxious to hang out with their friends. As they left the Sisters’ house, they met a woman coming up the steps carrying presents. They started talking. She told the boys she worked at the Masonic Children’s Hospital and that many of its patients were from South America, kids who had lost arms and legs. One of them, she explained, had no one to care for him back home, so she had adopted him.

“I believe this is the day my boys started to understand and ‘get it,’” Lee says. “The tradition continues today and is being handed down to my grandchildren.”

The relationship between Lee and the Sisters goes much deeper and beyond the Christmas season and Subway sandwiches. It’s all about spiritual sustenance from years of prayerful mornings in North Minneapolis. When the Cursillo men – as many as seven or eight – met, the meetings tended to focus on “areas”: prayer life, formation or evangelization, putting faith into practice. The feeling was different when they met with the Sisters.

“Prayer with the nuns,” Lee says, “was more spiritual and personal. We would discuss what was happening on the Northside and in each of our lives. This was a great opportunity to grow outside our normal boundaries and develop a greater closeness to Christ.”

For Jim Lee, perhaps the greatest gift from his association with the Visitation Sisters came from the mouth of his then-6-year-old grandson. The boy told his mother that if the family didn’t buy a Christmas tree for the nuns, then a lot of children on the Northside, who could not afford it, would not get to see a real tree.

“Now,” says Lee, “the nuns are part of our children’s lives. I know they hold a special place for them in their hearts. Who would’ve thought a Christmas tree would lead to such a great experience?”


* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Sammy McDowell at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery

by Dave Nimmer*, Guest Blogger

Sammy McDowell:
Owner of Sammy’s Avenue Eatery

Sammy McDowell has been in the food business for most of his adult life, and he’s owned and operated Sammy’s Avenue Eatery at West Broadway Avenue and Emerson Avenue North since 2012. The Eatery is newly remodeled and reopened, and McDowell is hoping for a brisk business and profitable future.

But he also wants more from the restaurant. He wants a place where North Side neighbors can gather – to meet and eat, sit and talk, rest and enjoy life. He wants to make a contribution to the fabric of the neighborhood, and that’s what endears him to the Sisters of the Visitation.

“Sammy has a big heart and a gracious spirit,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis. “He’s got a vision of what this neighborhood could be. He knows people need a place to hang out and feel comfortable. And that’s what his restaurant has been all about.”

McDowell grew up in South Minneapolis but went to North High and graduated from Henry. He attended MCTC and then found his first job in the food business: eight years at Kentucky Fried Chicken, five more at Subway.

He learned how to run a business, and he knows how to put out good food. Just ask Will Wallace, who runs the North Four program for young men at Emerge; Wallace is in the business of turning kids from the street life to the good life, complete with training and a steady job. On a lot of days, he starts his morning at the Eatery with a breakfast sandwich.

Wallace and McDowell share a philosophy about what needs to happen to turn young men from gangs, guns, and drugs. “It’s all about education,” says McDowell, “about helping kids get out of a box. If you get educated, get a job, you can travel. You can make it out of the neighborhood. Some of these kids have never been out of North Minneapolis.”

McDowell hopes to add to the number of jobs (seven or eight) by opening a second eatery at Plymouth and Penn Avenues North. It will have the same format as Sammy’s on Broadway, with sit-down tables and a catering service, offering sandwiches, desserts, grilled meats, tuna and turkey melts, and garden salads. “I can do everything,” he says, “from sandwiches to brisket to catering big, fancy weddings.”

Sammy recalls meeting some of the Sisters shortly after the Broadway eatery opened. He says they held a few meetings at the restaurant and later gave gift certificates to some neighbors who came to their door with an empty stomach, in need of a good meal.

“Sammy offered this deal to us,” Sister Katherine Mullin recalls. “We would buy Sammy’s cards for five dollars to hand out to some of our better-known doorbell ringers. If the fellows went over five dollars, Sammy made up the difference. This is the kind of man he is.”

Of serving his guests at the Eatery, McDowell says, “I really want to infuse the neighborhood with great customer service.”

“I love the fact these women came over to introduce themselves,” he says. “The Sisters bring stability to the neighborhood. They are consistent in what they do. They are honest, and they are genuine. They’re a bridge between black and white.

“I guess what I’m saying is… they are doing their part.”

And Sammy McDowell is doing his part. “What I’m trying to do at the Eatery is to smile, to welcome, to help people if I can,” he says. “I want to stay in my lane, do what I do best.” That approach hasn’t changed over the years. Here’s what he told a reporter when he first opened the restaurant:

“I really want to infuse the neighborhood with great customer service. Even if you’re busy, it’s important to say hi and, ‘I’ll be right with you.’ People need to smile more, be happy to get up in the morning and get some coffee.”

When Sammy McDowell talks about “staying in his lane,” it’s hard to imagine that his lane doesn’t run down the middle of Broadway, and he admits he has a dream for the avenue. “I’d like my Broadway community to have more locally-run businesses. Some specialty shops, maybe even a tailor shop. You know, a place where people can look around, take their time, feel comfortable.”

McDowell says he’s thinking of keeping the Eatery open a little later at night to accommodate a few local musical groups, so folks could sit back and listen to some blues. The blues, breakfast, and brotherhood: they’re a good combination anywhere, and Sammy is trying to dial it up in North Minneapolis. The Sisters are not surprised: it’s in his nature.


* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Kiara Jones: Dancing in the Light of God

by Dave Nimmer*, Guest Blogger

As a girl growing up on Minneapolis’ north side, Kiara Jones had two realities in her young life: she and her mother moving too much and having too little, and her dream of singing for others and dancing on stage.

Fortunately for her, she ran into the Sisters of the Visitation Monastery who helped lead her to Ascension Grade School, the Lundstrum School of Performing Arts, and Visitation High School. Now she’s a student St. Olaf College in Northfield, a sophomore majoring in Dance with a minor in Management Studies (just in case).

“I remember we had Kiara and her family at our annual Soul Food dinner,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis, “and she performed for us. She was the star of the night, and I knew we had to get her over to Lundstrum. It so happens we had established a scholarship there, and she was one of our first recipients.”

Lundstrum got its start in the 1920’s when 15-year-old Dorothy Lundstrum took over the Ascension School of Dance. Its purpose was to provide a welcoming place for kids where “virtues and values are taught through words and example.”

Kiara found out about the values right off the bat. She was an 8-year-old when she first went to Lundstrum. She says she was kind of a hyperactive kid, and one of the first lessons she learned had nothing to do with acting, dancing, or singing. She badly wanted to perform at Lundstrum’s annual gala but was denied because of her behavior.

“I got my act together,” she says, “and was featured at the next gala. It doesn’t matter how well you do something. Behavior and (the right) attitude play a huge role in your success.”

Amy Ellis, the executive director of Lundstrum, will not forget Kiara: the struggles she had, the progress she made, and the young woman she became. “She’s truly a triple threat,” says Ellis. “She can sing, dance, and act. She’s humble. She’s respectful. She’s prompt. Quite simply, she’s a winner. I’m convinced she can have a professional career onstage.”

Kiara says she does want to end up in the music business and, when pressed, admits she’d like to be on stage. “It’s a feeling I get,” she explains. “I feel like, this moment, I am where I am supposed to be. I feel alive. I love it. I am completely and totally enjoying myself.”

And she can pass the feeling on to others, like the 14 St. Olaf students who are in the hip-hop dance group she organized and runs. They perform at functions around the campus, and Jones gets to do her thing.

The Sisters watched Kiara doing her thing on the National Night Out this past summer. About 50 people, younger and older, were dancing in the street in front of Girard House – kind of an informal competition. Kiara says she “hyped” the crowd, calling on kids for solos and then showing everyone a few moves of her own. The effect was electric.

That’s the performer. She’s also writing music – lyric and melody. One song, “Perseverance,” is about hope and what happens if you keep trying, believing in yourself and in God. She’d like to do that number with the St. Olaf choir and music ensemble.

Kiara Jones has come a lightyear from where she was when she first met the Sisters. She understands them better now than when she was a little girl: “They give me motivation to keep on going. They give me hope. They help me believe in myself. And I’ve learned that they give back because they want to.”

As for the Sisters, they’ve learned that Kiara works well with others and can bring out the best in just about everybody. They are also impressed by her humility. That’s important because they believe the girl who grew up near West Broadway could someday wind up on THE Broadway.

One thing is for certain: in the life ahead of her, Kiara Jones will not sit out the dance. Being on the sidelines is simply not in her makeup.

Kiara with her dance group


* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Judge John McShane, Honorary Member of the Visitation Order

by Dave Nimmer*, Guest Blogger

Judge John McShane, from http://www.mncourts.gov

When John McShane was in his Hennepin District courtroom, he was known as Your Honor. When he’s at the Visitation Monastery in North Minneapolis, it’s more like Our Honor, a man whose wise counsel and manual labor have been solicited and treasured by the Sisters for three decades.

In fact, they have so appreciated his presence that they gave him their Cross of Affiliation, making Judge John McShane an honorary member of their Visitation Order.

His work with the Sisters stems from an expansive and eclectic life experience as a college grad, Army Lieutenant, Vietnam veteran, husband, father of three daughters, trial lawyer, district court judge, and law clerk to the legendary U.S. Judge Miles Lord. McShane credits Lord with demonstrating how NOT to be intimidated by the courtroom or the judges and lawyers who inhabit it. “The judge wanted me to know that I can do this job,” says McShane. “Miles believed both sides ought to be represented, but he had a special feeling for the underdog.”

John McShane’s special relationship with the Visitation goes back long before the Sisters arrived in North Minneapolis. McShane knew the Order from his school days in St. Louis, MO. His father was a physician who treated the St. Louis nuns. His sisters went to Visitation High School, and one was in the Visitation Monastery for 10 years. He once dated Sister Karen Mohan and recalls taking her to a May Day dance.

“We did dance the night away,” he says with a smile. Long after the dance and after McShane graduated from Notre Dame and St. Louis University School of Law, Sister Karen got in touch with him – this time in Minneapolis. She called to wish him Happy Birthday and to tell him that she and Sisters Mary Virginia Schmidt, Mary Margaret McKenzie, and Mary Frances Reis were about to start a new monastery on the North Side.

Handyman John McShane

He’d been working and living in the Twin Cities, a partner in a prestigious law firm that specialized in product liability. As a trial lawyer, he was busy, but he found himself telling Sister Karen, “If there’s ever anything I can do….”

The judge made good on the offer for over 30 years, advising the Sisters on mortgages and contracts and helping their neighbors navigate the legal and government bureaucracies: finding the right person at the right time who had the right answer. He’s also swept floors, painted walls, and washed windows.

“That’s the wonderful thing about John,” says Sister Karen. “He didn’t just come over here as a lawyer and judge. He came over to roll up his sleeves and go to work. He’s been here to do what needed to be done at that moment.”

Working with the Sisters has not been a one-way street. District court judges quickly develop a realistic sense of the parameters of human behavior, especially if they’ve presided in civil, criminal, and juvenile cases, as McShane has. But, from the Sisters’ influence, he has developed an even deeper understanding of his community and of the breadth and scope of its human condition.

“I’ve been at Fremont and Girard when bishops have been there. I’ve also been there when those who are down-and-out come over,” McShane says. “The Sisters treat them all the same – with love, respect, and welcome. That’s a lesson for all of us.”

The judge is close to all the Sisters and says they’ve all helped him with “matters of faith. We can disagree, and sometimes we do. But I always come away feeling better.” That’s particularly true of his relationship with Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie.

“I have known John as a brother almost as long as I have known myself as a Visitation Sister,” says Mary Margaret, noting his family’s connections to the St. Louis monastery. “John and I enjoy doing things together, but in the doing things together what holds us is the being together. Music is a comfort and entertainment for both of us.”

Lifelong friends: McShane and Sr. Mary Margaret

So is a good laugh. McShane recalls the end of one of his weekly visits when, saying goodbye to Margaret, he took her hand gently – or so he thought. She hollered, “Ow. Ow!” McShane quickly dropped her hand. What have I done to this poor woman? he wondered. Then she laughed. Gotcha.

“John grew into having a sense of humor that was defined by his family’s ability to laugh at self,” she says. “John mastered the appreciation of a good joke which he took care to keep clean and kind.”

Through the decades, the two have mastered a friendship that allows Sister Mary Margaret to confidently characterize his life with brevity, clarity, and honesty: “John,” she says, “cradles good with courage, but without knowing he is good.” She knows it, though, for she’s seen the life he’s lived.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


The Pearson Partners

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Jeff & Maryann Pearson reading at the Fremont House (1995)

Since the Sisters first opened the door of the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis, no one has had a more persistent and consistent presence in their lives than Maryann and Jeff Pearson. In three decades, they’ve given freely of their time, talent, and treasure.

They’ve been at one time or another volunteers, donors, mentors, and organizers. For years, Maryann was a guiding force behind the monthly Salesian Monday nights, where the Sisters shared their mission and ministry with friends, neighbors, and benefactors. Maryann did everything from preparing a salad to running a meeting. For instance, she led a discussion of leadership traits with a Vietnamese Buddhist, and the two of them managed to include love, prayer, caring, and courage – right out of the Visitation playbook.

For his part, Jeff was a mentor to a teenager whom the Sisters felt could use a man in his life. For several years, Pearson was that figure in Wazeer Brown’s life. The lessons he imparted were about responsibility, accountability, and even durability – the fine art of hanging in there. Pearson was well-acquainted with these lessons as a husband, a U.S. Army veteran, a law school graduate, a father, and a 25-year CEO of a manufacturer’s rep business for electronic components.

“Jeff and Maryann have been with us so long and served us so faithfully,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis, “that now when they come over for an event or a celebration, it feels as though they are part of the heart and soul of the community.”

The pair earned their place in the life of the monastery. Jeff and Maryann read to children weekly during Windsock Time at the Fremont house, as many as 15 or 20 at a time. Wazeer was one of the kids. “I was glad to do it,” says Maryann, “because those kids had no one reading to them at home. It was a real privilege.”

Jeff Pearson and his dad working on the Fremont house

Before the Sisters moved into the Fremont house, Jeff’s father had been over helping make the place ready for them and for the hundreds of neighbors who would enter their door over the years. The hospitality and humility of the Visitation and of Saint Francis de Sales, Jeff recalls, has always comforted him, especially the admonition to “be who you are and be that well.”

Maryann followed that advice, and, after she earned her Master’s degree in Theology and Lay Spirituality from United Theological Seminary, she and Sister Mary Frances developed the practices, principles, procedures, and program for the Visitation Companions. The Vis Companions are men and women who choose to deepen their commitment to the Visitation ministry and the monastery through prayer, studying Salesian spirituality, and regular service – on the Northside AND in their own walks of life. “One of Maryann’s real insights was the notion that you didn’t have to live in the neighborhood to be a companion,” Sister Mary Frances recalls. “She believed you can be anywhere in the metro area and LIVE JESUS.”

Jeff and Maryann Pearson qualify as Companions. They’ve been immersed in the life since their two daughters enrolled at Visitation High School in Mendota Heights, where they first met Sister Mary Frances and Sister Katherine Mullin.

“I remember saying when our oldest daughter graduated in 1993,” recalls Maryann, “‘I don’t know what those women have, but I do know I’d like to get it.’” Almost 30 years later, the Pearsons got it — one month, one year, one task at a time.

The Sisters are grateful. Sister Karen Mohan marvels at the number of different tasks the couple has undertaken. “While Maryann guided the Vis companions, Jeff, ever the entrepreneur, heard our community’s desire to rent another space in order to accommodate a growing number of people who wanted to make retreats, pray, or meet together to study Salesian spirituality,” Sister Karen says. “He and I were commissioned to do this. When Brian [Mogren] got wind of it, the Holy Spirit inspired him to offer his home for these gatherings, and the St. Jane House was born. Its 10th anniversary celebration in June found Maryann and Jeff rolling up their sleeves to help with this party.”

Since the Pearsons have been with the Vis Minneapolis monastery from the start, it’s not surprising that they plan on getting older with the Sisters, who they feel will age with grace and peace. “They are my faith community,” says Jeff, “and I’d like to stay in step with them.”

Maryann agrees and takes it a little further. “They taught me to live in the present moment,” she says, “and to be not afraid. And they have changed my relationship with God.”

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Meet Alfreda Riddley, the Friend with a Heart of Gold

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Alfreda Riddley with her new Honda Accord

The Visitation Sisters have put me in the middle of a rewarding, unlikely relationship between an old friend of theirs and an older friend of mine. It all revolved around a 20-year-old Honda automobile that used to belong to Jim Shoop, a reporter colleague of mine dating back to our days at The Minneapolis Star in 1963.

During the past two decades, Shoop and I have used that car to go fishing dozens and dozens of times. It’s carried our rods, reels, tackle bags, and rain jackets. Reluctantly, he had to part with the car this year when he and his wife moved into a retirement village in Apple Valley. Their apartment was big enough for most of their “stuff,” but the garage had room for only one car. The Honda Accord had to go.

The Sisters knew of someone who needed a car: Alfreda Riddley. The former family liaison aide at Bethune Community School had been hoping for wheels for months. Shoop, who’s known the Sisters for years, was a willing donor.

“I got my car totaled out,” Riddley said, “and I was wondering what I’d do. Then I got a call from Sister Mary Frances (Reis). This Honda I have now is a sweet-running car.”

Riddley needed all the help she could get at the time. She’d just lost her job because of budget cuts in the Minneapolis School District. Since 2011, she had worked at Bethune and loved her job. She had started a resource room at the school that had a food pantry and access to computers.

Her duties included helping parents write resumes, get training, find jobs, seek housing, arrange daycare, and generally cope with the demanding task of raising a family and keeping kids interested in learning. One of the parents she’d “bugged” to stay involved with the school showed up at Bethune a few years later, telling Riddley he was grateful for the push he got from her.

Riddley, who has four children of her own, lives with a son in south Minneapolis. She’d like to get back to working with children, especially kids who are at risk. “To do this kind of work,” she said, “you have to have love, compassion – and passion. The reason I can help people is that I’ve been there, I know first-hand what they’re dealing with.”

Riddley came to Minnesota with her parents from west central Texas. They came looking for a better life. It was not without a few bumps in the road for Riddley, who experienced some racist taunts in school. But she graduated from Edison High School and got trained as a nurse’s assistant at MCTC (Minneapolis Community & Technical College).

She was working at Turning Point (a rehab center for men) in 1993 when she met Sister Mary Frances, who was on the board of directors. Riddley said she “loved” Sister from the very first. And she feels the same about the others, whom she describes as “never phony.”

“These ladies,” she said, “are kind and compassionate. They do care and that is for real.” Riddley also admits she likes the fact that the Sisters are feisty, a trait she shares with them. She gives off a no-nonsense demeanor, one that does not suffer fools or phonies.

“The truth is she’d do anything to help the children,” said Sister Mary Frances. “She has a heart of gold. When we are in need of help in this community, she answers the call. And she does it without fail.”

The best compliment of all comes from Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie, who suffered a stroke in 2016. She has let the other Sisters know that when Alfreda Riddley is sitting with her, she’s at ease and at peace.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Sr. Mary Margaret’s 12 Step Program for White Privilege

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Sister Mary Margaret, VHM

When I first heard about Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s idea to start a 12-Step Group to deal with the corrosive effects of white privilege on her life and on others, I was skeptical. I’ve been going to 12-Step meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for more than 15 years, and I couldn’t quite see how this would work.

I thought AA’s goal was simple: to help people abstain from drugs and alcohol. In contrast, such a group for white privilege could turn into a debating society – edgy, angry, and defensive. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that those 12 steps are a blueprint to living a spiritual life of honesty, humility, integrity, and charity. And that’s what Sr. Mary Margaret’s life and the lives of her Visitation Sisters have been about for almost 30 years in north Minneapolis.

Besides, this was Sr. Mary Margaret asking, and she’s been an elder, a mentor, an adviser, and a spiritual mother to me since we first met in 1989. When I’m down on one knee sucking for air, I run to Sr. Mary Margaret for comfort and counsel.

I also think that Sr. Mary Margaret, still dealing with the effects of a stroke she suffered in 2016, has a desire to put her spiritual house in good order, dealing with circumstances that shaped her life: growing up white in Decatur, IL; going to nursing school in Springfield, IL; and earning a degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

I haven’t thought much about white privilege, but I grew up in Fond du Lac, 60 miles north of Milwaukee. As I reflect on it, I had all the advantages: a stable home, a steady income, a good school, a welcoming community, and a grandmother with some money to take us traveling to California. So maybe I did belong to what Sr. Mary Margaret sought.

She chose the first participants in this group of 10 that meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon. We are black and white, men and women, younger and older. We are bound by a desire to heal old wounds, make amends, and improve our awareness of the plights and problems of our brothers and sisters.

Like our AA predecessors, we listen as much as we talk. What is said in the meeting stays in the meeting. Our desire is not to “fix” our colleagues but to heal ourselves – by talking honestly, listening carefully, and thinking soulfully.

The steps we follow are lifted out of the AA Big Book, something we do with respect and reverence. We have tailored them carefully to suit our mission. The first step is to “admit we are powerless over the pervasive and persistent presence of white privilege and the resulting racism and bigotry, and [admit] that our lives have become less than they could be.” Then, the second step is to “come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to the loving, caring human beings we are intended to be.”

The last step, 12, comes directly from AA’s Big Book, with no change at all: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, try to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Our first meeting was in January 2018, and we’ve shared stories that are personal, poignant, painful, and powerful. Sr. Mary Margaret set the tone in that initial meeting when she read from a poem by Maya Angelo, “Touched by an Angel”:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

To one degree or another, our souls are laid bare in these meetings, sometimes with resentments from the discrimination of police officers, Christian clergy, or public officials, and sometimes with the residual guilt from our own good fortune.

I recall an incident when I was a high school senior, riding around on a Friday night with a couple of guys I didn’t know very well. We pulled into a gas station, bought a couple of bucks’ worth, and before we left one of the guys lifted a tin of car wax and slipped it into his back pocket. I didn’t know about it until we were a mile away, but then I did not insist that we go back and return it.

The next day a police officer appeared at my door. The station owner had matched one of the guys from a photo in a high school yearbook, and he fingered me as a ride-along. I quickly “fessed up,” and the cop gave me a five-minute lecture on the doorstep about honor and honesty. He also told my father. What he did NOT do was arrest me.

I’ve heard enough stories from the black men at our meeting to know they were not afforded the same privilege I got from a cop who knew my father. I have no doubt that a black kid in my situation would have been taken downtown, written up, and saddled with a record. I got away clean, and that’s the way I entered the U.S. Army and the University of Wisconsin. That seems to me to describe white privilege.

When we started our little group, I wondered how steps promulgated to deal with an addiction would deal with an attitude. Months later, I’m satisfied with an answer: they work. We belong in this milieu. Consider the last paragraph of the first half of AA’s Big Book:

Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to God and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the fellowship of the spirit and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Margaret, we have begun the journey.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.


Brian Mogren: Being Who He is and Being That Well

Brian Mogren: Vis Companion, Director of St. Jane House

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

“Be who you are and be that well.” St. Francis de Sales

It’s been a decade since Brian Mogren quit a long-held job at Target Stores to heed the call of St. Francis de Sales to “Be Who You are and Be That Well.” In that time, what Mogren has been is the provider of shelter to the temporarily homeless, the purveyor of a quiet space for spiritual seekers and a persistent, insistent, consistent friend of the Visitation Sisters, his neighbors in North Minneapolis. His work won him the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service from the esteemed McKnight Foundation, given to those who “give their time to improve the lives of people in their communities.” He’s done that all right and along the way served as an unofficial counselor, coordinator, gardener, director and caretaker for those who use his home on Emerson Avenue North. “This opened up a world of possibility for me and my life,” Mogren writes on his website, “that I could not have imagined: bringing my unique gifts, creativity and connections to contribute to the transformation of North Minneapolis.”

A Call to the Northside

With Two Marys: Brian and FDTL Founder Mary Johnson Roy and Sr. Mary Margaret McKenzie

Mogren’s transformation began, in part, when he met the Sisters. Since 2008, the Sisters have leased his home (The St. Jane House) for retreats to women seeking empowerment, students wanting enlightenment and mothers shedding resentment. A grass-roots group, From Death to Life, counts the St. Jane House as its home. Its founder is Mary Johnson, a mother who sought out, and forgave, the man who killed her only son. Mogren serves on the board.

“This is what it’s all about – connecting across difference and discovering our common humanity.” — Brian Mogren

His journey owes something to an epiphany moment years ago when he was leaving a parish council meeting at St. Philips Catholic Church on 26th and Bryant Ave. N.   He noticed a woman frantically trying to pick up papers strewn about the street; she’d left them on top of her car as she pulled away. Now she was scurrying to pick up the papers and sheet music and Mogren gave her a hand. They walked back to the church arm in arm. The moon was out. The evening was quiet. And Mogren felt at peace. Suddenly a car with dark-tinted windows pulled alongside, rap music pounding as the back window began to roll down. Mogren’s moment of bliss turned to terror, fearing they could get hustled, hassled or hurt. Just then, a teenage boy stuck his head out the window, smiled and said, “Hi, Miss Muggs.” This was a teenager talking to a 70-year-old Irish Catholic.

Role model and friends.

“They had love and affinity for one another,” Mogren recalls. “Later I wept. I thought, ‘Oh, my Gosh.’ This is what it’s all about – connecting across difference and discovering our common humanity. I felt called to move to the Northside.” He did, building what would become the St. Jane House in 2003. .He moved in and became an official North Minneapolis resident, still holding on to his creative job at Target. He decided to quit, after 24 1/2 years, following another epiphany experience – this time while listening to a tape of students’ spoken-word poetry.

“[Brian] has mentored a few young people who look on him as a role model and friend. He loves North Minneapolis and it shows.” Sr. Karen Mohan,VHM

I remember hearing the urgency in their voices,” he says, “and in that moment my heart was burning. I needed to do what I could to ease the pain and provide a path for those who needed it. I wanted to make a difference.” A big part of the difference began when the Sisters and Mogren got together with the St. Jane House. He had the space. They had the plans. They’d bring the people. He’d be the director.

St. Jane House Ministry

St. Jane House: A Place of Rest and Delight

In the years that followed, the St. Jane house has provided guest rooms for overnight visitors, hosted a weekly centering prayer group, offered retreats for healing and support groups and served as home base for students – high school and college – seeking an “immersion experience” in the flow of neighborhood life.

“I feel loved and celebrated by the Sisters….They embody the God of my understanding, and they define the notion of inclusion. I am able to give to others what I receive from them.”

It doesn’t surprise Sister Karen Mohan that Mogren can handle such varied groups with finesse, grace and hospitality. It was modeled by his parents, Jerry and Arlene, who were quick to welcome others to the Molgren family. He’s had a lot of practice. “When we became ‘family and friends’ with Brian,” she recalls, “we inherited all his brothers – 11 brothers and no sisters. When our community went to his mom’s home for one of the family get-together suppers, we were welcomed by a big sign outside on the lawn. “’WELCOME SISTERS. WE ALWAYS WANTED SISTERS. And now we have them. YOU.’ We love the Mogren boys and we loved Arlene, their mother. After her funeral a few years ago, the 10 living brothers all carried her casket singing, ‘She’s ain’t heavy. She’s our mother.’ There wasn’t a dry eye around.”

Loved and Celebrated by the Sisters

Family and Friends: The Mogren Brothers, Mother, and Visitation Sisters

“It’s wonderful to be in the presence of the [Sisters’] non-judgmental, joyful spirit. They have helped me to be gentle with myself and that helps me to be gentle with others.” 

Mogren remembers first meeting the Sisters at St. Philips where he started attending mass because of his respect for Father Greg Tolaas. He met them there, but he really got to know them after he moved to North Minneapolis. “I feel loved and celebrated by the Sisters,” Mogren says, “ever since I met them. It’s wonderful to be in the presence of their non-judgmental, joyful spirit. They have helped me to be gentle with myself and that helps me to be gentle with others. They embody the God of my understanding, and they define the notion of inclusion.

“I don’t see any other than the life I’m living,” he says. “I get to be who I am and to be that well.”

“I am able to give to others what I receive from them. They have entrusted me with their platform and space.” He’s been a fine defender and caretaker of that Salesian spirituality, in the opinion of Jeff Pearson, a long-time friend and benefactor of the Sisters. “Brian can weather the storms,” Pearson says. “If it doesn’t work one way, he’ll figure out a different way. He’s got the kind of compassion that keeps him coming back.”

Brian with Alafia Foundation Members

Sister Karen notes that Mogren, now 51 years old, is something of a Renaissance man, who’s an artist, a graphic designer, a photographer and a fun-loving guy with a sense of humor. Mogren, who lives in the basement of the St, Jane House, prefers to think of it as “the garden level.” “Brian was inspired to begin the Alafia Foundation to encourage leaders from the neighborhood,” Mohan says. “He has mentored a few young people who look on him as a role model and friend. He loves North Minneapolis and it shows.” Mogren would smile at that description. He’s a man who loves where he is: in his city, in his heart, in his life.   “I don’t see any other than the life I’m living,” he says. “I get to be who I am and to be that well.” That’s why the welcome mat is out at the St. Jane House.

* This is the thirteenth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 

Walking With Us: Servant Leader Anne Attea

A mother’s heart: Anne and Bela

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

At a time when Latino communities throughout America are uneasy and uncertain over government travel bans and immigration crackdowns, Latinos at Ascension Catholic Church in North Minneapolis could be grateful for Anne Attea: She’s had their backs – every day, for the past nine years.

Her title is pastoral associate and she brings to the job a minister’s education, a missionary’s experience and a mother’s heart. She’s got a master’s of divinity from Loyola University-Chicago. She’s served in Mexico, Guatemala and Chile. She’s the mother of 11-year-old Isabela.

Attea’s mission at Ascension is to help Latino members grow in their Catholic faith, to develop new leaders, to provide access for families to a myriad of public and private assistance programs and, perhaps most important, to offer her prayerful support.

“I feel the stress that is in the air for our Latino community,” she says. “I want to be of help day to day. I can write letters for them. I can help them fill out paperwork.  I can help them find legal assistance when they need it. And, of course, I can pray with them.” — Anne Attea, Pastoral Associate at Church of the Ascension

Gerardo Escamilla Vargas, his wife and four sons are Ascension members. He owns a roofing and siding company – As Professionals, We Have You Covered – with 12 employees and is one of the 400 to 500 parishioners who attend the mass every Sunday for Spanish speakers. The mention of Attea’s name brings a smile to his face.

“She’s been like my mentor,” Escamilla Vargas says. “She teaches me about our faith. I like the way she lives hers. She’s a good leader who sees the God in all of us. And she helps without question.”

Attea knows her help, and her prayers, are needed now more than ever. She says Latino church members tell her that some people have become emboldened to say hurtful things and harbor racist thoughts about immigrants and those whose color and culture are different from their own.

“It’s the children who suffer the most,” she says. “They fear that when they get home from school, one of their parents could be missing (arrested or deported). Attea feels that immigration authorities are no longer just targeting criminals for deportation.

 “I am comforted to know [Anne Attea] is at Ascension, helping the community I care so much about.”– Sr. Mary Virginia Schmidt

“I feel the stress that is in the air for our Latino community,” she says. “I want to be of help day to day. I can write letters for them. I can help them fill out paperwork.  I can help them find legal assistance when they need it. And, of course, I can pray with them.”

Attea has developed that helping hand since she was an undergraduate at Notre Dame. She decided medicine was not for her and majored in theology, recalling that a course in “liberation theology” was eye opening.

She got a chance to put it in practice in Chile, in a volunteer program with Holy Cross Associates. “I worked in the town parish,” she says, “and I learned the Holy Cross fathers had a great commitment to the poor. I was 24 years old and got to do a little of everything: teaching, administering, serving whoever and wherever I could.”

Serving was just a part of Attea’s personal faith formation, shared and shaped by the Holy Cross Associates. The rest of the foundation included notions and admonitions of simplicity, social justice, spirituality and community. These are right out of the daily playbook of the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis. Attea met them in 1998 and ever since has been attending their Wednesday morning mass.

The Sisters are people who walk the talk,” she says. “They have included my daughter in some of their youth programs. They share their benefactors with us at the church. And I support their causes. Most important, I feel I am walking with them.

The Sisters have no doubt about that. “I remember when Anne first walked into our Wednesday mass,” says Sister Mary Virginia Schmidt. “She’s very caring and concerned, but I also sense her independence, combined with determination.”

“Those (qualities) are needed to help the Latino members at her church. Anne needs to help them get answers and assistance. I am comforted to know she’s at Ascension, helping the community I care so much about.”

Schmidt says she’ll never forget the day when Attea, who had wanted so badly to adopt a child, came into the monastery carrying Isabela in her arms. Attea adopted her daughter when she was just an infant in Guatemala. Isabela has a strong connection to her roots and may one day want to return to her native country. Here in the Twin Cities, she is doing well in school, fluent in two languages.

As for her own future, Attea is open to “wherever the spirit calls” her, perhaps in Latin America or in the Twin Cities.  “One thing is very clear to me,” she says. “I do feel called to walk with those who are struggling.”

In the life she’s lived so far, Anne Attea has had plenty of practice.

* This is the twelfth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality.