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But when he went away to St. Olaf College in 1969, his naïve worldview was soon dismantled. There were teach-ins about Vietnam and political science coursework that brought him face to face with the poverty in urban areas. But the final catalyst was a five-month program that took him and 28 other students to Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Japan. As the students tried to get to Sri Lanka, some of them were forced to make an overnight stop in Bombay. There were tensions between the United States and India at the time, and India wasn't anxious to host the students; they were whisked from the airport directly to a hotel and were to be taken straight back to the airport the next morning.
As the students' bus made its way through the streets of Bombay, people were huddled by open fires next to the roads. At one point, the bus stopped to let a religious procession go by. Nelson-Pallmeyer looked out his window. On the sidewalk a two-year-old girl was screaming, sitting next to her mother, who had just died. "I remember watching the terror on that child's face," he recalls. The bus started moving again, eventually pulling up to what turned out to be a luxury hotel. Armed guards ushered the students to a dining room where a string quartet played as they were served a five-course meal.
"I couldn't do that," Nelson-Pallmeyer whispers. "I left the hotel. I spent my night walking through the streets of Bombay.
"That experience I had just had was a microcosm of the world," he continues. "I didn't want to live in a world where armed guards protect the privileged few from the squalor of the many. People should neither live in luxury hotels, nor should anyone live among the rats and roaches on the streets of Bombay."
From that point on, Nelson-Pallmeyer dedicated himself to changing the world for the better. He taught poor students in the ghettos of Chicago. He attended the progressive Union Theological Seminary in New York City, focusing on the world food crisis and the political and economic causes of hunger. He went on to author numerous books on issues of peace, justice, and religion (he is Lutheran and active in the ecumenical group St. Martin's Community). In 1984, as civil wars raged throughout Central America, he and his wife, Sara, moved to Managua, Nicaragua, where they set up a school. "I saw firsthand the United States making a terrorist army, waging a terrorist war," he says. They returned home in 1986, and Nelson-Pallmeyer divided his life between teaching, writing, public speaking, organizing, and raising his three daughters.
Then, in the mid-1990s, he was approached about teaching a course at St. Thomas, where a new program of justice and peace studies was taking off. When he started teaching, he offered the program's introductory course only once a year; now it's taught three times a semester. "I could have never written a better job description than what I do at St. Thomas," he says. "This program allows me to teach students around the subjects that are my life."
It's a curious thing about St. Thomas that those subjects are officially endorsed even though they aren't always welcome--especially since September 11. Ten days after the terrorist attacks, for instance, Nelson-Pallmeyer was one of several panelists at an open forum where students, faculty, and staff were invited to participate in a discussion to try to make some small bit of sense out of the chaos. The panel was made up of professors of varying disciplines, none of whom echoed the patriotic and militaristic rhetoric that had blanketed the rest of the country. They talked about political science, philosophy, economics, religion, and their own personal experiences. And they denounced the American foreign policy that led to the attacks on the United States.
Nelson-Pallmeyer was particularly exercised. He took off his glasses and began to speak to the packed auditorium, his voice surprisingly forceful as he decried the great disparities between the world's economies and the injustices of U.S. foreign policy. "I see the signs that say, 'God Bless America,'" he noted. "Why not 'God Bless This World?'" The audience burst into applause. "When terror comes to us we weep," he continued. "But we should always weep for the rest of the world."
A few weeks later, the student newspaper, the Aquin, carried an entire op-ed column lambasting Nelson-Pallmeyer. "The forum seemed to be dominated by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and his soundbite-worthy emotional denunciations of the United States," wrote opinions writer Dan Kaffine, a student. "Unfortunately, his comments were so far afield from the world known as 'reality' that I am forced to say something. This is not a personal attack on Nelson-Pallmeyer. I just disagreed with nearly every point he made, as they were so inaccurate and so fiery in their conviction as to make them laughable."
Nelson-Pallmeyer shakes off the criticism, but he does note that the newspaper's attacks on him and the student coalition he advises have escalated in recent months. "We're going to talk about the aftermath of September 11th and raise uncomfortable issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy," he explains. "To facilitate discussion is good, but these attacks polarize rather than open discussion."
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