Abagail Nelson is the Senior Vice President of Programs for Episcopal Relief & Development. In this interview, Episcopal Teacher Guest Editor Cindy Coe asks Abagail how she was formed for her ministry of healing a hurting world, and how that ministry now forms and transforms those she serves.
What do you do as Senior Vice President for Programs? What is your current ministry?
I primarily manage the strategy for Episcopal Relief & Development’s global program. This includes keeping an ear to the concerns of our church partners in almost 40 countries in the U.S. and around the world, as we seek collectively to alleviate hunger, promote good health, and economic opportunities, and respond to disasters and shocks that impact them as they work with their communities. I also manage a highly talented team of professional staff who interface directly with our partners to leverage their local skills, knowledge and other assets, and to support them in their efforts.
Where do you work?
My office is in the Episcopal Relief & Development headquarters on the 7th floor of 815 Second Avenue, New York, N.Y. Come and visit! I also travel about 30 to 40 percent of my time in the United States and around the world to visit our program sites, develop program ideas, and support partners.
How is your work formative – or even transformative – for those you and your colleagues serve?
I think transformation is always done in relationship; it is a two-way thing. Yes- our work helps to transform the communities we serve, empowering community leaders to unlock their inner energies, bringing new resources to match those energies with technologies, resources and know-how, just introducing a sense of hope and possibility into areas that are used to being forgotten, marginalized, or left behind by the strong and the powerful. All of this is a transformative thing for the people with whom we work.
In addition to this, I know that I too am on a lifelong journey of my own, and working with these communities and people deepens and strengthens my understanding of how healing God’s love can be and how extraordinary the call to serve Christ can be, for survivors of war to reach peace and reconciliation, for parents of children in poverty to see their little ones take that proud walk to a new shiny school they helped conceive and build. It is humbling and life affirming.
Is “teaching” involved in your ministry?
Yes. I do believe so. I teach and am taught. I think the biggest teaching is about how to maintain energy and resiliency in some of life’s dark places. Someone once told me, if you are faced with a desert, or a muddy flood plain, focus on the flower blossoming in the cactus and nurture that. There is always a resurrection energy moving in the midst of hardship. Let it teach you.
I recently met with one of our partners who works with the Holy Land Institute of the Deaf, in Jordan. He talked to us about how the deaf children as they grow and learn life skills at the Institute care for and mentor the children coming behind them, some of whom are deaf and also blind. The lesson here is that even those who are often marginalized have much to offer each other and the world. When we stand together linking our own gifts to those of others, we are immeasurably stronger.
How were you formed in the Christian faith as a young person?
My father is an Episcopal priest, and I grew up in the rectory next door to the church. This formed me in liturgy. I will say, though, that watching my family and my parents’ friends put their faith in action was the crux of the formation: working with people with substance abuse, supporting families in crisis, engaging with community leaders to transform a troubled crime-ridden neighborhood, sacrificing for the civil rights struggle in the U.S., or for the nuclear disarmament movement, engaging a “Kingdom Vision” in all the contexts that surrounded our little church; these were critical lessons in my childhood.
My parents and their friends did not protect their children from these struggles but exposed us to them and showed us that in faith, we had tremendous tools to sharpen and address the struggles the world throws at us, be it the neighborhood bully or some unjust points of the legal system. Seeing how they formed action and supported each other together with prayer and reflection was really critical to me and remains so.
Was there a particular incident or experience in your own formation as a Christian that helped you turn toward international relief and development as your ministry?
Maybe it was a book I read as a child. It was one of those books about children living around the world. I can’t remember the title. I do remember that each chapter had photos (rather than illustrations), and you could see the French Canadian children tapping for maple syrup, or the Brazilian girl farmer outside her home on a sugar plantation in Recife. I would stare at the faces of the children and want to visit them.
What now supports you in your journey of faith and ministry?
I think that everything we have been discussing is a support. My faith supports me, my upbringing, my sense that we have a calling to stand with the people all around us who are struggling to support themselves. I also have the great pleasure of working with a church and organization where the values are aligned with those I have in myself, and so we work together as co-workers, and partners, and that is energizing.
Do you have words of wisdom or advice for young people or for those teaching young people in our Episcopal parishes and schools?
My advice is to start small and see where it takes you. Don’t look for “causes” you “think you should engage,” but look for the people who God might be asking you to love, people to whom you should be kind in your classroom and in your community. Out of that love, you will start to learn more about their lives and their struggles, and practice more love, and walk a road that clarifies you to yourself, and makes you become who you already are.
So go ahead and reach out to that classmate or neighbor who you have wanted to understand because they are different and invite him/her to your home, and go to their home, and hear their and their parents’ stories. In the journey of reaching across boundaries with others and actually learning to love them as Christ loves you, you will start to find there is a passion in you to love and understand love more and more. And one step turns into another and not only do you transform, but you develop friends, teachers and mentors along that same road too. We do not do this work alone.
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