Saturday, December 12, 2015

Honoring a Life That Changed Mine

Honoring a Life That Changed Mine by Lonnie Ellis

Last summer, at the Rock Bend Folk Festival, I met a man named Dana Melius. Dana works for the St. Peter Herald and we ran into each other a time or two after that and then because Facebook friends. Once, each of us had bought the same book twice accidentally, so we traded. I had two copies of Humans of New York: Stories and he had two copies of Dreams Of My Mothers: A Story Of Love Transcendent. So, we swapped but he tucked two dollars into his book because he thought he was getting a better deal. 

A couple months later, Dana's young wife died unexpectedly from complications of cancer surgery. It was tragic and her death touched me as I read the poignant posts written by Dana and his children mourning the loss of their wife and mother. 

Then one day, another post crossed my Facebook path. A post written by a man who had an experience with the Melius family years before. It was a stunning story of violence, mercy, reconciliation, and redemption. I thought it was so important to share it in light of the debates we are having in our country on gun violence and refugees. I finally contacted Lonnie Ellis, the author, to as if we could share it here. He was happy to have us do that. I'll preface his powerful piece of writing with a comment he wrote beneath the piece on Facebook. He believes in the transformative power of stories, and so do we.

Many of you have not heard this story, or heard it so fully. I only began talking about it in my late 20s. I think its because its taken a long time to start to understand who I was then. In my 20s I didn't really think of myself as the same person who participated in some really serious violence as a teenager, sometimes even as the aggressor. I think I had to understand it myself in order to share it. Another factor - I had the notion that it was ideas that were important now, that I should just talk about ideas and philosophy as the motivators. I've learned that its our stories that transform and that people need to hear these stories.

Honoring a Life That Changed Mine
A revised version of this was published as an op-ed in Winthrop News.
Rural Minnesota lost a vibrant and generous leader when Kim Melius of Winthrop passed away on November 23rd. Many knew her as a dedicated mother, social worker, and hospice caretaker. Kim and the Melius family impacted me under very different circumstances. I grieve her death knowing my life would be immensely different if not for the compassionate decision Kim and her family made eighteen years ago.
The story begins with senseless violence. In 1997, I was among twenty-two young men who drove from Glencoe to Winthrop looking to retaliate for an assault on one of our friends. In a dark yard, I stood by and watched as my friends viciously beat two young men. Some distance away, a third young man was ambushed, knocked unconscious, and savagely beaten with as many as fifty blows to the head and body. This young man was Kim’s son, Ben. He suffered a cracked skull and massive swelling in the brain. He could have died.
Sometime during the scary, painful days that followed for Ben, his mother Kim, and father Dana, they had to make a decision about pursuing justice. The other perpetators and I faced three felony assault and rioting charges. Many of us had been involved with violent acts and legal problems before. You would think the family would want to lock us up and throw away the key, but the Melius family chose a path of restorative justice instead. They sought healing for the victims, the perpetrators, and the wider communities of Glencoe and Winthrop. Where did they find the mercy? Where did they find the hope?
The restorative justice process put the perpetrators, victims, and our families in a room together for several hours, face-to-face. I had to bear witness to the real human suffering I’d caused. With every story, the consequences of our violence broke into my consciousness. I remember the strong and gracious Melius family standing in the center of it all and was inspired by them. With my mother crying by my side, I stood up and said, “I didn’t throw any punches, but I am not innocent. I contributed to a group mentality where we could do terrible things. I stood by.” I, along with the other perpetrators, did many days of community service and paid for damages. We spent hours with Dana writing an op-ed for the papers trying to bring healing to the communities shaken by our violence.
I know that felony convictions would have permanently altered the course of our young lives. We would have faced a lifetime of challenges beginning with college admission, housing, and gainful employment. But at greater risk were our souls, and this event and the Melius’ choice began a permanent transformation in mine.
I began wanting to be a different kind of person. I wanted to be the kind of person who would have stopped my friends that night—who would have even been willing to put my own body between victim and violence.
Four years later, with my transformation well underway, I set off for a college semester abroad in India. I learned that among the fifteen students from Gustavus Adolphus College was a student from Winthrop I felt must be the sister of Ben Melius. On our first day, I pulled Ambryn Melius aside.
“I think you might be the sister of Ben Melius.”
“Yes,” she said as she nodded.
“I was there that night. I was there the night your brother was beaten.”
She waited for what seemed like a long time. Then she responded, “You didn’t have to tell me that.”
Like her parents, she didn’t turn away from me. We became real friends and have continued to deepen our friendship over the years and are still close to this very day.
Over the next decade and a half, I became a faith-based community organizer, got a master’s degree in theology, and now serve as associate director of a national Catholic social justice organization in Washington, DC. All the while, Ambryn and the Melius family invited me into their home. There, I saw more of the incredible wisdom, grace, and love that enabled them to make that extraordinary decision eighteen years ago.
Kim, Ben, and Dana dared to hope for strangers who caused great pain in their family, even when we didn’t hold a lot of hope for ourselves. That changed my life. I could never thank Kim Melius enough for her part in it, but I try the best way I know how—by striving to live up to her example.
Lonnie Ellis, Washington, DC (formerly of rural Glencoe)

grateful 2015

I have much for which to be grateful. Way too much to be condensed into a list but I will try. Don't think I'm going all Pollyanna because I'm working on a list of complaints, too.

1. I am grateful for a feeling of safety. There are so many horrible things happening around the world, and so much evil talk about the horrible things, that a person could be terrified every day. I limit my exposure to it by not watching the news and by reading very little about it, but I am aware of it. I am so thankful that I live in a small town where I don't have to worry about being shot at or accosted.

2. I am grateful for access to such good food. Not only do have more than enough to eat but we can buy fresh, organic food that's grown locally. How sweet is that?

3. I am grateful for my family: my mom who came to visit for Thanksgiving, my nephew who traveled to New York City for a spectacular honor, my grandchildren who live close and who are kind and funny people, my kids who come to sit around our table and tell stories, my sweet husband who thinks I am beautiful.

4. I am grateful for technology. I have apps! I can open my iPhone with my thumbprint! I can text the people I love! I can take pictures with my phone and they appear on my computer! Ain't life grand?

5. I am grateful for books. I read two marvelous books this week: The Miniaturist and Our Souls at Night.

6. I am grateful for what Kent Haruf calls the precious ordinary. I am grateful for the fat squirrels who feast at our feeders. I am grateful for my sweet friends across the country, some of whom I can't remember how I met. I am grateful for good coffee and for Papa Murphy's pizza. I am grateful for my Christmas ornaments and I am grateful that during the great purge of the last few years, I kept a few things.

7. I am grateful for naps. I love a good nap.

8. I am grateful for warm sox and a heated mattress pad.

9. I am grateful for music and laughter. I saw part of Hank and Rita Thursday night and I am going to a comedy show tonight. Bless all their creative hearts.

10. I am grateful for my health and for my young and cute as a button trainer. He kicks my ass and makes me do 30 second Superwoman exercises...four times!

christmas past

I went through some old files of Christmas pictures this morning and put a few of them in a Picassa album. It made me nostalgic. Our little ones are growing up so fast. Ella is so grown-up...she likes to sit at the table with the adults instead of playing with the kids. Sigh. It makes me feel old.

I lost my job this week when Lone Star closed suddenly due to a major meltdown in the kitchen staff. Not sure what that means but I can guess. I feel sad for Tom and Mary and for the people who depended on their wages to live. Not so with was fun money.

Regis got me one of the DNA tests from I did it yesterday and sent it in. It will be interesting to see what it reveals although cynical me says they could say anything and how would I know.

These are the darkest days of the year. I am not fond of all the darkness and I crave light.

I have lights on the tree, an electric candlabra, lights in jars, candles, lights everywhere. I sit in front of a sun lamp every morning. Sigh. Soon the days will start to lengthen.

We're going to a comedy show tonight. That should help lighten the mood!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

i got the holiday spirit

This is me a few years ago. I wore this outfit as I walked to the bank and people on Minnesota Avenue actually rolled down the car windows and waved. I think they thought I was part of the community holiday celebration. A little kid in a store tugged on the hem of my red shawl and asked if I was Mrs. Santa. Yup, I said, I am.

I wish I still had those white mittens. They were so soft and beautiful but eventually they got dirty and I washed them. That was the end of both the softness and the fluffiness. Sad.

Monday, December 07, 2015

several days of quiet puttering

After the blur that was fall, I have taken a sabbatical from the outside world. Since Friday, except for going out to eat to celebrate Vickie's new job, I have not left the house. I do manage to get dressed and make meals, but I have checked out of the euphoria that happens outside the front door.

I have decorated the Christmas tree, started some craft projects, and gone through the mess of papers that collected during the months of whirling dervishism. I started thinking about holiday cards. I have been knitting. I have been writing. I have been productive, just not outside of these four walls.

I have spent some time mentally organizing for Christmas. I have a tentative menu, a tentative grocery list, and plan to be more reasonable that I was at Thanksgiving.

Life can be so scary sometimes (I can't watch the news and I delete most things reality based on the social media.) so it's good to concentrate on the things over which have a modicum of control.

Off to the grocery store for provisions.

P.S. Be sure to check out 600 Words for a powerful and poignant post.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


We have now had more mass shootings in 2015 than the year has days. More than one per day where innocent people were killed by American terrorists.

Last year, after the massacre at Sandy Hook, we did nothing. Small children in an elementary school and their teachers were slaughtered by assault rifles and we did nothing but talk about arming teachers and maybe planting ex-military personnel in schools. Both are really bad ideas.

It makes me so sad that people are continuing to be killed by assault rifles and men in masks. We are told to be afraid of refugees, but these are not refugees, these are mostly white men with some sort of vengeance complex, or at least the ability to buy guns that will kill multiple people in seconds. And we think this is a 2nd amendment right? Where is my right to be whole at the end of the day?

What I don't get is that people I know, intelligent people, don't read the research or understand the statistics. More people are killed in the US because we have more guns per capita than any other nation in the world. If your country has fewer guns, fewer people are killed. It's simple and you can look it up.

The answer is not arming more people. What the hell. I was a teacher and I can tell you that, even trained in "permit to carry", I would not have been a good protector. I don't know many teachers who would be. It's just not our way. Good people do not carry guns to protect themselves in my world.

I told Regis tonight that pretty soon there will be enough victims of mass shootings that we will rise up and defeat Congress and the NRA. He said no, sadly not. He decided last year when small children and their teachers were murdered in an elementary school and we did nothing, that it was hopeless.

the holiday obsessive me

I told Regis I was going to write a letter to myself about my obsessive Thanksgiving planning and cooking. I'm sure he felt like rolling his eyes, but what he said was that it wouldn't help. It comes on me so gradually that I don't notice until all of a sudden, I am reaching for the brownie recipe at 8 o'clock the morning of Thanksgiving because someone mentioned chocolate.

Christmas is always much less stressful. I get it out of my system, I remember how tired I was, and Christmas is a much less traditional meal.

My goal is to prevent the obsessive, bug-eyed Teresa from coming out.