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 #111. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print Oct. 2, 2016

When reading the page in Scientific American magazine that looks back to that month’s issues 50, 100 and 150 years before, I remember the New Yorker cartoon in which a person of my vintage says to one much younger, “Yes, that was long ago, but at the time it seemed like the present.”

I’m imagining a Times columnist in 2116 doing a piece called “100 years ago” — that is, dealing with what is, for us, the present. For a source, that columnist might use the early 22nd century’s equivalent of our smartphone to call up the Times news and opinion pages from last month.

Here’s what makes this an intriguing exercise: the character of the St. Cloud area inhabited by that future columnist will be determined — probably in large part — by which pieces of the September 2016 Times prove to be prophetic.

When our descendants look back, which of the directions we could have gone in will they see we in fact did?

I believe three September 2016 story lines will rivet the 2116 columnist: the resolution of the Jacob Wetterling abduction; the aftermath of the Crossroads Center attacks; and the public discussion of the St. Cloud school district levy referendum.  September saw an intense concentration of moments that define who we are — and will be — as a community.

For me, as for many, 27 years ago was like yesterday when news broke that Jacob had been found.

What came most vividly to my mind was a memory of the stunning reaction of the Wetterling family right after the abduction.  They refused to let their pain isolate them, disconnect them from other people. They didn’t ever say “Why us?” Rather, from the beginning it was “Jacob is everybody’s child.”

Solidarity, mutual support, community and connectedness all took on palpable meaning in “Jacob’s Hope.” “Jacob’s Hope” did not so much create community as illuminate the community that was already here and that has persisted, as evidenced by the gathering of almost 3,000 at the Sept. 25 memorial service.

That service made clear despite the dreadful discovery of what happened on that day so long ago, “Jacob’s Hope” was not dependent on a particular resolution. Thanks to the Wetterlings’ example — both extraordinarily exceptional and characteristically Central Minnesotan — families across the country are more alert and children are safer. Everybody knows, as the concluding song at the service declares, “You’ll never walk alone.”

I hope the columnist in 2116 can look around and say, “’'Jacob’s Hope’ is still alive today!”

The Wetterling story was reported worldwide. So were the Crossroads attacks. I got, almost immediately, an email from a friend in St. Petersburg, Russia, who has spent some time here, and had seen the story on Euronews. “It is too unbelievable but believable,” she wrote.

If “Jacob is everybody’s child” came to mind earlier in the month, what I remembered as the Crossroads aftermath unfolded was the remark of the Rev. James Alberts II almost three years ago: The greater St. Cloud area is “big enough to make a difference, small enough to make it work.”

The patient, steady effort of spiritual and other leaders the past several years to establish relationships and friendships across racial, ethnic and religious lines has paid enormous dividends.

The example of professionalism, civility and just plain humanity set by St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson has been one of the newsworthy highlights of the 32 years I have lived here. His steady and calm refusal to be provoked by Fox News reporters sent a message to the entire nation about how to deal with potentially explosive civic issues.

I hope the columnist in 2116 can look around and say, “Chief Anderson would be proud of us today!”

Maybe in 2116 it will be time for a new 22nd-century high school. Whether it is or not, Times stories from September 2016 will tell the future columnist about the way school officials and hundreds of citizens came together after a previous year’s defeat of a levy referendum, not to wallow in “what ifs” and complaints, but to listen and refashion the plan in light of what was heard.

People who voted “no” in 2015 were part of every one of 16 listening sessions. The superintendent met with a broad-based community advisory group regularly the entire year. Concerns about the 2015 proposal were dealt with head-on.

I hope the columnist in 2116 can look around and say, “Today in 2116 we’re looking forward, together, the way they did back in 2016!”

These three moments — "Jacob’s Hope," the rallying after Crossroads, the levy listening — provide a heartening 3-D snapshot of our community. I hope our descendants a century from now can see in their past — our present — the seeds of their own flourishing.