Tag Archive | Indian Reservation

Jean: One of My Heroes

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Jean Gunnulson (8/16/35 – 11/25/16)

I met Jean Gunnulson 17 years ago. I had just agreed to be a substitute organist at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, and we were having our first music planning meeting. Four of us gathered together at 9:00 one morning in the church office – Pastor Dave, Cathy, Jean and myself.

The first thing I learned is that I wasn’t really a substitute. I was considered one of the regular organists. The first item on the agenda was to determine which Sundays Cathy, Jean, and I would each play over the next couple months. That was the easy part. Jean always played the first Sunday of the month which was the only Sunday communion was served. Cathy liked to play about once every 6 weeks. Jean and I divvied up the rest of the Sundays based on our personal schedules.

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThe next item on the agenda was to select the hymns for the congregation to sing, week by week, for the next couple of months or the upcoming liturgical season, such as Advent and Christmas. For the first Sunday in our planning window, Pastor Dave summarized the scripture readings from the revised common lectionary, and guessed at the theme he was likely to preach on. Jean came prepared with the current year’s edition of Prepare, a multi-denominational book that listed hymns that would be appropriate for each scripture reading. Jean then identified the hymns that the congregation knew and liked (or disliked) from the Prepare lists, and also which ones she had “recorded” on the organ’s midi system. Pastor Dave might suggest a new hymn the congregation could learn, and I watched Cathy and Jean debate the merits of that choice. Eventually, we all agreed upon the four or five hymns needed for a Sunday, and then we moved on to the next Sunday to plan.

In my first meeting, I was amazed at how heated this discussion became, and how long the meeting lasted. By noon, after three hours, we were all ready to go home for lunch, even though we were only half finished planning the hymns. We scheduled a follow-up meeting a couple weeks out to plan the rest of the hymns for that season. Jean may have come across as a bit crotchety in that first meeting, but she certainly was prepared, and it was obvious that she was committed to ensuring that good, appropriate music would be played at each service.

fullsizeoutput_1fc3Over the eight years that Jean, Cathy, and I shared the organist role for the church, I grew in my appreciation and love for Jean. She was a person with arthritis that was so severe that playing the organ was becoming almost impossible for her. But she was amazing at learning to adapt. Several years before I became involved, the church had invested in a new Allen digital organ. This organ was equipped with a midi device that enabled Jean to create a data file for each hymn that included an introduction and the correct number of verses. She could “record” and “re-record” the hymn as many times as necessary until it was “perfect” to her standards. If necessary, she could play and record the hymn very slowly, at the pace her arthritic fingers would tolerate. Then she could speed up the tempo when she played it back for the congregation to sing. Over the years, Jean created a library of dozens of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks that included hundreds of hymns.

One of the big challenges that Jean faced during the years that we worked together was the addition of a new hymnal supplement called Sing the Faith. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a huge burst of new style church music charging across the country – contemporary hymns, praise music, and even Christian Rock. Many denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, came out with hymnal supplements to incorporate some of the best of this new music. Pastor Dave really wanted to begin to use some of this music in Cambridge. The church raised money to purchase the hymnal supplement. I had assumed that we would only use songs from the supplement on Sundays that either Cathy or I played. But Jean wasn’t willing to impose that restriction on our hymn selection for any Sunday. She spent many, many hours learning and then creating midi files for many of these new hymns. Some of them even became her new favorites – like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

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Jean really impressed me by her determination to provide organ music for congregational singing as well as preludes, offertories, postludes, and background service music, despite her physical limitations. But she impressed me even more by her commitment to providing quality children’s books for the church children’s library – both in Cambridge where she played a couple Sundays a month, and a Lutheran Church in Madison where she held membership. She was constantly on the lookout for good Christian books at all reading levels. She would scour resale stores in Madison and all the surrounding towns to find good books inexpensively to buy and donate to these church libraries. (Jean had been a teacher earlier in her life.)

But what impressed me most of all about Jean was her commitment to sending boxes and boxes of children’s clothing to Indian reservations in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. She kept track of when each resale shop in the area had special sales for children’s clothing – especially the days when shoppers could fill a whole bag for a dollar or two. She would pick out warm and beautiful clothes to fill bags and bags for the children in these reservations. Then she and her husband David would box them up and ship them to the Indian reservations. Typically, they would spend more money on shipping costs than on the clothes.

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Jean’s health had been failing over the past couple years, and she passed away just before Thanksgiving. David asked me to play the piano at the funeral home for her visitation and funeral. He especially wanted me to play “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

David also told me that there’s a bag of children’s clothing sitting on the floor in the corner in their house. He plans to box that up and ship it to the Indian reservation as soon as he can. Jean had shopped for these children as long as she could.

fullsizeoutput_1fc4Praise the Lord!
How joyful are those who fear the Lord
and delight in obeying his commands…
They share freely and give generously to those in need.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.
[Psalm 112:1, 9]

Thanks, Jean, for all you have done, and for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being one of my heroes.

Kindness or Foolish Generosity?

5dollarThere, I did it again. Two and a half years ago I gave $5 to a stranger who asked for a dollar or two to buy gas to get home for Christmas. I was at a McDonald’s parking lot just off the interstate between Cambridge and Wisconsin Dells.

This time was just a couple weeks ago. Mim and I were walking down West Mifflin Street in Madison, just off the Capitol Square.  We were headed back to the parking garage to get our car after attending a wonderful Saturday morning piano and organ concert at the Overture Center. A woman, probably in her 30s, approached us and asked, “Can you give me $2 so I can get a bowl of soup?”

Purse - WalletMim said to her, “I don’t have my purse with me,” and looked at me. So did the woman.  With all eyes on me I lifted my tiny wallet out of my little purse dangling from my wrist, and pulled out my wad of folded bills. I always keep my money in order, so my smallest bill was on the outside of the wad. It was a five. I peeled it off and handed it to her. “I don’t have any ones. I hope this is OK,” I said with a grin on my face as I handed her the $5. She looked at me a little strangely and took the bill. She said, “Thank you,”  and we walked our separate ways.

Wallet with $5 in wadAfter a few steps Mim asked me, “Do you think we’ve been conned?”

“I don’t think so,” was my reply, “but even if we were, I’m sure she needs that $5 bill more than we do.”

I didn’t think any more about the incident for a couple weeks. Then last week, it popped into my mind again. I have no regrets for giving $5 to the woman, whether she used it for soup, or not. But I started thinking about what would have been the best way to handle the situation. I guess my most obvious options were to A) ignore her and keep walking toward the parking garage, or B) give her some money. But I wonder if there are any better options.

When I lived in Chicago and worked in the Loop, I walked by people asking for money every day. I never gave a dime to anyone. I rationalized that my money would go farther by giving it to church or other social service organizations, which I did. In retrospect, I think I was being very unkind. By simply ignoring everyone who asked me for a quarter or a dollar, I made it perfectly clear to them that I didn’t care about them or their problems. Which I guess was true. My actions proved it. As I look back, I’m surprised at how hard-hearted I was.

homeless womanI suppose that some people who  walk up and down the street asking for a dollar or two are desperately trying to get money for drugs or alcohol, and that giving them money is simply delaying them getting into some kind of treatment program. And I’m certainly not skilled at identifying which people on the street are really hungry and need a bowl of soup, and which ones are focused solely on getting enough money to support their addiction.

Living where I do now, I don’t meet people on the street asking for money every day – maybe just a few times a year is more likely. But it happened a couple weeks ago, and I know it will happen again sometime. When that time comes, I want to do what our pastor is constantly encouraging us to do – to be Christ’s hands in this world – I want to be kind like Christ was. But what does that really mean today?

Floey smiling profileAs I was thinking about this, I turned to my usual source for wise insights. I asked Floey what she thought. “Hey, Floey. What do you do when someone you don’t know asks you for some help?”

“What do you mean, Mom? What kind of help?”

“Well, what I’m really asking, Floey, is what should I do when a stranger comes up to me on the street and asks me for a couple bucks. I know you don’t carry money around, so it’s not quite the same thing for you, but what do you think I should do? The person apparently needs help, but that’s the only thing I know about her.”

“Does the person make you feel scared? When a scary stranger comes up to me I growl at them and start to back away. I don’t want to hurt them, but I don’t want them to hurt me either.”

“No, Floey. The kind of stranger I’m talking about is someone who really needs some kind of help, like maybe just a couple dollars to buy a meal. She might be a homeless person.”

“Oh, then the answer is easy. Give her what she needs, if you can. Remember when you first adopted me last year, and we talked about my Native American roots – how I came from an Indian reservation in Minnesota?”

“Yes, I remember talking about where you came from, Floey.”

“I told you that in my Native American culture, the greatest sin of all is stinginess. The reverse is also true. The greatest virtues are love, kindness, and generosity – the opposites of stinginess.”

“I guess if I believe that, too, then the answer should be obvious – I should give the stranger what she asks for, if I can. I should be loving, kind, and generous.”

“Yup. That’s what I’d do. I’d give her what she asked for, if I could.”

“But what if I’m being conned – and she just wants me to give her money because she’d rather ask for it than work for it?”

“You can’t know that. You don’t have that piece of information about a stranger you’ve never met before. You only know what you can see and hear at that moment – and that’s what you’re supposed to act on.”

“Thanks, Floey. That’s good advice. I think I’ll try to keep a few dollars handy in my pocket whenever I can, just to be sure I can be loving, kind, and generous the next time a stranger approaches me on the street and asks for a couple dollars.”

“I think that’s a good idea, Mom. Now do you know what I’m going to ask you for, even though I’m not a stranger?”

“I’m sure I can guess. Yes, Floey. We can go on a walk! Thanks for helping me finish this blog post first. Now let’s go sniff out an adventure.”

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Floey – ready to go for a walk.

The Worst Sin of All according to Floey

Floey sittingMy new dog Floey and I are still getting to know each other. Christmas Day will mark the one month anniversary of Floey’s adoption date. Mim and I and all of our 93-year-olds are so happy that she joined our family. Floey loves all of us, but it’s clear that I am her favorite. She follows me everywhere. Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, and she’s sitting close beside me.

One day last week as I was reading my daily devotional book, A Book of Wonders, by Edward Hays, I decided to ask Floey what she thought about what he said. The title of the reading was “The Absolutely Worst of All Sins.” He said that in our culture, we tend to think of sexual sins as the worst sins of all. Then he added, “Yet among preliterate hunting and gathering cultures, like the Native Americans, children were taught that the worst of vices was stinginess. Not sex, but greed in all forms, was abhorred.”

I knew that Floey had been born on an Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. I wondered if any of their early Native American moral code had rubbed off on her. I asked Floey what she thought was the worst sin of all.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Stinginess.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “You didn’t hesitate at all with your answer. Why is stinginess worse than murder, or rape, or anything else?”

“Just think about it, Mom. You know that love is the greatest gift anyone can give, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, and she continued, “What is the opposite of being loving? It’s being stingy, right?”

“Floey, you’re really smart for a pup who’s not even a year old yet.”

Floey sitting - profile“Tomorrow, December 24, I’ll be 11 months old, but I’ve lived and learned an awful lot in those 11 months, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s good and what’s bad in life. When people, and all other creatures, as well, are kind and loving and generous, the world is a better place for everyone.  But whenever someone is stingy, they’re looking out only for themselves, and the world is a little less good for everyone – including the stingy one. They start worrying about getting and protecting their fair share rather than contributing to the good of everyone.”

“Wow, Floey. You’ve really done a lot of serious thinking for a pup so young! Since we’re having such a good conversation, let’s change subjects and talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately – the commercialization of Christmas. What do you think about that?”

“You’re not really changing subjects with that, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas is the best thing to happen to temper the sin of stinginess.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“What do you think about when you go Christmas shopping?”

“I guess I think about what each person on my list would like to get, and where I might find that gift for them.”

“That’s all about being generous, not being stingy, right?”

“I guess so…”

“Think back to your earliest memories of Christmas shopping. Tell me about them.”

“Those are good memories. Let me start with some background. It seems that every year in December we get some foggy days. Farmers call it ‘case weather.’ We just had some foggy days last week. Remember?”

“Yeah. I remember. But what does that have to do with Christmas shopping?” Floey asked.

“I’m getting to it. I grew up on a small farm. We had about 20 cows and between 300 and 400 chickens. My dad supplemented the milk and egg income with a cash crop – tobacco. Raising tobacco was somewhat controversial because my parents were opposed to smoking, but tobacco was the most lucrative crop we could raise. Essentially, tobacco is what paid for all the “extras” in our lives, like new clothes, piano and organ lessons, and when we were older, college tuition.”

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This picture shows my great uncle Fletcher (2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This photo from 1898 shows my great uncle Fletcher (the handsome one – 2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

“Raising tobacco was a lot of work, from planting it in the spring to harvesting it in the fall to stripping it in the winter. That’s where ‘case weather’ came into the picture. When tobacco was harvested in September, six to eight stalks were strung onto a lath. A lath is like a thick yard stick that’s about five feet long instead of three feet. The laths were then hung in a tobacco shed, the tobacco plants hanging upside down, to dry out. In December when we got several days of foggy weather (case weather), the dried tobacco was moistened from the fog. My dad took the laths of tobacco down from the shed and brought them into the barn. The barn was warm and humid from all the cows living in it. My brother and I had the job of stripping the tobacco leaves off the stalk, leaf by leaf, and laying the tobacco leaves into a press that bundled the leaves into bales of about 40 pounds. Every evening and every Saturday during case weather Danny and I spent many hours in the barn stripping tobacco for two cents a lath. That’s how I earned money for Christmas shopping.”

“Okay, Mom, now I see you’re getting to the point.”

“I worked really hard stripping tobacco the couple weeks before Christmas every year, and I usually earned between five and ten dollars. I felt rich! When I knew how much money I’d earned, I made out my shopping list. Usually, it included Old Spice After Shave for my dad, pretty candles for  my mom, stationery for my sister, and a model car for my brother. If I’d earned enough money, I might get everyone some candy or nuts, too. I always spent all my money on presents for them. It never occurred to me to be stingy and keep anything for myself.”

My family - everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

My family – everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

“That’s exactly what I mean, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t all bad. It reminds us to be generous to the people we love.”

“I guess you’re right, Floey. I’ll try to think of that when I see all those commercials on TV telling us to shop, just like I think of stripping tobacco for Christmas shopping money whenever I see fog in December. In both cases, I can remember that God wants us be loving and generous – and not be stingy.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. See why I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I see I have a lot to teach you. But that’s enough for today. I think it’s time for another walk. Can we run around the pond again? That’s so much fun!”

Floey standing