The faith and hard work of immigrants from Norway, Africa
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Mud clung to the cuffs of my suit pants. I feared that I might slip and drop the casket, so I sent up a silent prayer for stability.
A glaze of melting snow coated the ground that Tuesday afternoon as my cousin, Stephen, and I — aided by a cadre of white-haired Lutherans — carried our 97-year-old grandmother to her final resting place. She’s next to grandpa now. He’s been waiting for her for 21 years.
Outside the serene confines of Woodlawn Cemetery, a storm of fiery, foul language was about to overtake the media. Once again, the topic was immigrants — from Haiti, Africa and, of all places, Norway.
I don’t want to make a fuss. (That is, after all, the unofficial state motto of South Dakota.) But I do feel compelled to share my family’s experiences as the descendants of immigrants and my own experiences from time spent with immigrants in countries around the world.
My grandma, Margaret Loen, was the granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants. They quietly, dutifully, worked the soil of South Dakota’s Miner County. She met Irvin O. Tryggestad, whose parents came from Norway in 1910.
One day he asked her, “Do you want to marry me or would you rather be a-Loen?”
(Grandpa’s jokes would improve only slightly in the years to come.)
Grandma worked for the phone company during World War II and later taught special-needs children. Grandpa was an elementary school principal.
They taught their three sons the value of education and hard work. After college, my dad joined the Air Force, which sent him to grad school at Texas A&M. There, he first encountered Churches of Christ and began a journey that led to his baptism in Alexandria, Va.
He married a girl from East Tennessee. In a few short years, they had two kids of their own. We moved to Macon, Ga., when I was 5. Dad worked for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, taught Bible class and wrote funny stories about a possum named Bubba. Mom was my high school’s secretary.
My sister, Amy Bowman, and I try to honor the legacy of work and faith given by our parents, grandparents and our Norwegian ancestors. Amy works in children’s education for the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn. She and her husband, Lamar, helped Dad take care of our mom as she died from cancer five years ago. Amy’s my hero.
For the past 16 years I’ve been blessed to travel to more than 60 countries for The Christian Chronicle, many times on my own dime, covering Churches of Christ. I’ve been to Haiti four times and have visited 17 African countries.
I’ve encountered amazing souls — packed into buses in massive cities and walking the dusty roads of rural villages. The people there work long, hard days for little reward or renown.
What’s more, they’ve taught me about true goodness, about what it means to really give your life over to Christ, about real joy.
I’ve also worshiped with Churches of Christ composed of Haitian immigrants in Florida as they bathed their homeland in prayer after the 2010 earthquake. My colleague Bobby Ross has covered a Liberian congregation in Rhode Island. Just outside our nation’s capital, I spent a Sunday with a congregation of Ghanaians in Hyattsville, Md. We sang songs in their language, Twi, and for a moment I felt like I was back in Africa. Then we went to lunch at Golden Corral. It was surreal.
“We have one mind, one focus,” said Kingsley Boateng, one of the church’s leaders and a research fellow for the National Institutes of Health. Another member told me that, regardless of where we meet, “we are all the Church of Christ.”
Even in Scandinavia, where belief in God is almost shunned, African immigrants are working hard to make a difference. In Stockholm, Sweden, Ghanaian native George Opoku and his Swedish wife, Gabrielle, planted a Church of Christ in their home and struggle daily for the Gospel.
It’s an honor to tell the stories of what God’s doing among Christians in the far-flung reaches of the globe and right here in our midst. I pray that the work I do has meaning, that it helps point people to Christ.
And I pray that Grandma’s legacy of faith and hard work will live on in another Margaret Tryggestad, the one who lives in my house, the one who just turned 10.
I pray that Maggie and her little sister, Lucy, will practice the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that defined the life of their great-grandmother.
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