Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #120. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 1, 2017; in print July 2

International and national news is discouraging. Four recent local events have lifted my spirits out of this gloom:

  • Opening of the new St. Cloud Area YMCA Community & Aquatic Center
  • United Way of Central Minnesota’s commemoration of its 50th anniversary
  • “Dancing with Our Stars” to support the Women’s Fund of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation
  • Initiation of the new Helgeson Learning Lab Theatre at GREAT (Great River Educational Arts Theatre).

These have in common outreach, collaboration, sustainability and hard work by many volunteers.

The aquatic center and YMCA was a long time coming, but the wait is over. The result is nothing short of spectacular. Relatives of ours from Chicago, with a metro area nearly 50 times the size of St. Cloud’s, are impressed.

The design — walls that are mostly windows, facilities and spaces for all ages — sends a message of openness and inclusiveness that is especially timely. As the Y says, “It is our vision to become the front porch of the community.” Many hours of the day the family pool is a portrait of a diverse public having fun together.

And the St. Cloud Area YMCA Community & Aquatic Center testifies to cooperation between cities that is gratifying but not common enough. In 2004 the city of St. Cloud voted $10 million of sales taxes. In 2014 five other cities joined in authorizing an additional $4 million. As St. Cloud mayor Dave Kleis said, “You know, St. Joe, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, St. Augusta, Waite Park — it was a collaborative effort in that respect.”

The 50th anniversary celebration of the United Way of Central Minnesota at Lake George also painted a portrait of a diverse community coming together around basic needs such as homeless housing and assistance programs, child literacy programs, and quality out of school time.

The United Way chose to highlight more than 40 organizations it supports, giving each a tent from which to engage visitors in conversation and, in many instances, games. Even a quick glance around the grounds told you: We are different, and we’re glad to be together.

I suspect that nearly everyone of the hundreds of us in the audience for “Dancing with Our Stars” was secretly thinking, “So glad I’m not up there!” Six local volunteers danced with six local professionals to raise funds for organizations that “enhance the lives of all women and children,” the purpose of the Women’s Fund of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation. The Women’s Fund has contributed more than $1 million since it was founded in 2002.

  • Joel Baumgartner/Meg Christine (Hustle/Salsa) for Place of Hope, which brings restoration to persons on whom drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, homelessness, and life-controlling problems have taken their toll.
  • Michael Contardo/Lisa Saari (West Coast Swing) for Terebinth Refuge, which provides trauma-informed healing and holistic services to women 18 years and older who are escaping sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.
  • Jodi Gertken/Gustavo Pena (Bachata) for Journey Home, a residential facility providing primary chemical dependency programming and housing for chemically dependent women and their children.
  • Les Green/Nancy Streng (Cha-Cha) for Domus Transitional Housing, a voluntary program of Catholic Charities that provides a temporary home and support services to motivated women with custody of children under the age of 12.
  • Kelly Sayre/Dan Triplett (Cha-Cha) for Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin Lakes and Prairies.
  • Melinda Vonderahe/Steve Streng (East Coast Swing) for Catholic Charities’ Services for Youth Homelessness.


The dancers spent dozens of hours practicing. Given the quality of their performances, you’d have thought they’d been doing it all their lives. I couldn’t have been prouder of a region that produces such courage and grace.

GREAT is celebrating its 20th anniversary and its phenomenal growth from serving 5,800 in its first year to 69,300 now, and from 42 theater campers to 1,875. “The Secret Garden,” an enchanting musical, inaugurated the new Helgeson Learning Lab Theatre, a flexible space for collaboration and creativity. The cast included two eighth-graders and Linda McGowan, a special education teacher in the St. Cloud Area school district who has been in GREAT shows since its beginning two decades ago.

Dennis Whipple, executive director of GREAT (if the Times’s “Best of Central Minnesota” contest included a category “Adds most value to the region,” Dennis would get my vote), says the goal is “to deliver transformative theater experiences to all.” A song from “The Secret Garden” makes the point: “A bit of earth / She wants a little bit of earth / She'll plant some seeds / The seeds will grow / The flowers bloom.”

At a time when there is so much pitting “us” against “them,” when what divides us is so overwhelming, when flowers seem to wither, these four events — inclusive, positive, visionary, uniting — remind me that Paul Wellstone was right: We all really do better when we all do better.