Sunday, February 1, 2015

second-chance sundays: he's a mission-minded mentor to many

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 24, 2015. (Photos special to the Forum)]

Faith Conversations: Bob Noel a mission-minded mentor to many

By Roxane B. Salonen 

FARGO – Throughout his years at Oak Grove Lutheran School, Bob Noel has organized around 20 mission trips to destinations both in the U.S. and abroad.

Gazing at the young people around him, Noel can’t help but see himself.

 Noel was in his late teens when a profound encounter put a hundred questions in his mind, ones he’s spent his life trying to answer.

His father had brought him to the Care and Share Center in Crookston, Minn., where Noel met a young Salvadoran refugee about his age waiting for Canadian citizenship.

“He told us about having his name on a list and literally fleeing El Salvador and getting shot in the back,” Noel recalls. “He had a scar that looked like hamburger. The bullet didn’t come out until he arrived in Crookston.”

Thinking about what he’d endured led Noel to wonder about the conditions that had prompted the harrowing exile.

“I feel like I’m still answering the questions that arose that day. Why did that happen? Why is there such a great injustice in the world, and what’s my role in that?” he says.

In college at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Noel took a Spanish course and soon declared it his major. But learning about the language wasn’t enough.

“After two years in the classroom and never really traveling anywhere in my life, I got the itch to go somewhere,” Noel says.

After hearing about the Rev. “Father Jack” Davis’ work in Peru, in the summer of 1991 at age 20, he joined a group of missionaries there.

A threat of death

The experience made Noel question if he’d have the guts to return.

“That was the week the Shining Path (guerilla group) had killed two friends of Father Jack’s, fellow priests, and made threats on his life,” Noel says. “I spent most of that first mission running around trying to figure out how to get out of Peru.”

But the experience had a positive effect, too.

“Seeing Father Jack trying to deal with the realities of that threat made an impression on me,” says

Noel, recalling how Davis had requested, if he were killed, to be buried there so “his people” could pray for him.

Noel made it home, caught his breath, and the following year went on a retreat through the MSUM Newman Center to the southwestern United States.

The itch was back, and during his first teaching stint, at Norman County West High in his hometown of Halstad, Minn., Noel received permission to plan his first school-led mission trip.

After accepting a teaching position at Oak Grove in 2002, Noel organized a mission to an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico. The trip so inspired sophomore participant Sara Lybeck (Carlson) that she later spearheaded a drive for clothes and toiletries for the people she’d met. The effort produced about 300 boxes of items.

“That was my first experience with a concept I call ‘reverse mission,’ ” Noel says. It’s not so much about what we give to others, “but how God works on our hearts while we’re there in order to empower or change us to benefit his kingdom.”

Soon, the school was embarking on several mission trips a year.

Residual effects

Mike Slette, Oak Grove president, says shortly after he started at Oak Grove, he stepped into the office of a new co-worker and immediately noticed her wall-hangings of developing countries and the people from them.

“This obviously wasn’t a Disneyland vacation,” he says.

“It just struck me that these are powerful experiences,” he adds. “Her mission had obviously changed her life in some pretty important ways, and it’s one of the things I consistently hear about when I talk with people about their Oak Grove experience.”

Slette says Noel’s energy and vision are impressive. “He does it all amazingly well, and with the biggest heart.”

Becca Aaker, a freshman at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, experienced a mission to the Rio Grande Valley her junior year at Oak Grove.

“It was a total culture shock to know that people could live like that in a country that promotes prosperity for its people,” she says.

The experience helped her realize “there was so much I didn’t know about the world, and I needed to go out and find those things.”

“Mission trips can often spark a passion for service,” she adds, “but it’s what you do with that spark when you come home that is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire experience.”

Colleen Vought, a senior at Oak Grove, says visiting New Mexico recently brought her out of her comfort zone but made her want to go back.

“It was hard seeing the kids living in extreme poverty at the reservation school – many don’t get three full meals a day. But it feels good to know you’re helping someone,” she says.

Bringing it home

Sara Carlson, 28, the former student who organized the clothing drive, now works as a school counselor in Fargo, where she visits with elementary children from other cultures every day.

“Having that cross-cultural experience at Oak Grove absolutely equipped me to be a better counselor here,” she says.

Carlson eventually returned to Oak Grove as a chaperone, and says she gains with each trip in different ways, thanks in large part to Noel.

“He makes the experience so valuable,” she says, adding, “He also has a very humble heart and is just a great man.”

Though each trip exacts large amounts of energy, Noel has never been more certain of the quest.

“I’ve told the kids there’s three things I’m sure about: that I was called to be a husband to my wife, a father to my kids, and I just know I’m called to take young people on these mission experiences.”

Currently, the school is hoping to raise $9,000 by March to build a solar panel at an orphanage in Rehoboth, N.M., that will cut its electricity costs by $250 a month, and hopefully build two or more homes in the area. A second mission will take place in June, when a larger group of 44 will travel to Guatemala.

“For anyone who might question whether this is a practical use of money for these students,” Noel says, “the thought came to me recently that you really can’t put a price tag on a changed heart.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

writing wednesdays: glue with a side of smile

Yep, she's our glue alright.

The woman who helped make the journey of a book possible.

So who is this sparkling creature who, though glue, is anything but sticky?

You'll have to go here to see!

Monday, January 26, 2015

meaningful mondays: march for life 2015 surprise

I'm still recovering from the March for Life 2015 trip, and what a trip it was!

This post is going to be visual heavy, but I have to share at least some of it verbally. There was so much more than the March but I'll focus on that only today.

First off, the Plan A didn't happen. I was slated to be interviewed on EWTN about the book I helped write that is coming out next month. Mass before the March meant I had to hustle to the EWTN tent and wait my turn.

It was fascinating watching the pro-life bigwigs come in and, one by one, step into the spotlight with EWTN host Teresa Tomeo. I was pumped up and ready to go.

But as time wore on, doubts took hold. I was conflicted between standing there much longer and joining our North Dakota crew, whom I could see just across the way stationed in front of the main stage, where our spokesperson, Shanley senior Julia Johnson, was set to give a talk to the throngs of people gathered.

Finally, things began gearing up and I saw the organizer say to Teresa, "We're done." She wanted to to know if they could do a few more interviews to record for later, but the answer came: no. It wasn't going to work.

So off I went, grabbing everything I'd need for the main event. My disappointment was there, but fleeting as I worked through the crowd, nervous now that I wouldn't make it to the front of the line in time to march with our large brood. Thousands were gathering and I kept losing my fellow North Dakotans also heading that way as we wove in and out of the bustling bunch.

But at least I knew my chances of finding them this year would be better than any other. Just head to the front! Finally, I found them, and we were just minutes from starting off. I raised my camera to take a photo and...what? "Full Card." I was out of room! But God's grace flowed in through a fellow parent-photographer friend, Gretchen, who just happened to have extras. "Thank you Jesus," I'm pretty sure I said out loud.

And then, at the cue, we were off!


I was planning on being somewhere near the front, I'd hoped, but within a short amount of time, a few of us parents had somehow been pulled into the media circle ahead of the front line.

Could this really be happening? Would I be allowed to stay here? Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd be not only up front but in front of the front. I snapped away, one photo after the other, knowing that this was indeed a moment in my life that would stand out as a highlight.



The other parents who'd gotten lucky with me and I couldn't stop smiling. We were elated at being able to see the up close glimpse of our kids, and the smiles on their faces as they marched and chanted. Their joy was something to behold.

As we approached the big hill leading to the capitol and the Supreme Court steps, we ran ahead further so we could get a bird's eye view shot. We were giddy, ecstatic, so incredibly excited. This would be the pivotal moment and our best chance to see the whole march.

The police and their motorcycle brigade were like body guards to our line of hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers. And the scene from on high? Just as spectacular as we'd imagined.

At the top, the air shifted... 

Soon, we realized something was going on up ahead. A small group of protesters -- 50 to 100 in all -- had gathered to block us.

They had signs, too, declaring their opposition to what we were doing. But so did Kristan Hawkins, Students for Life of America executive director, who stepped in to lead the students in positive chants to distract the protestors. Since the protestors didn't have permits like we did to march in the streets, at least eight of their most defiant were arrested.

My 14-year-old witnessed much of this, while I stayed near our group, which waited calmly for the police to give us the green light to continue.


At the conclusion, we all met at the capitol steps for the customary group photo. And a short time after that, Senator John Hoeven stopped by to say hello, and bring a few giggles to our tired crew.

One of my favorite moments was this one, when at the conclusion of this incredible event, I had a moment to catch up with my daughter and give her a little squeeze. I'm so glad we experienced this together, even if for some of the time we were separated. We will always have this memory to share with one another.

I'm still pinching myself over how Plan A eluded me, but Plan B? Oh, it was even better. Having a chance to be part of the most vibrant energy of the March by being at the lead -- even before the lead -- was beyond exciting. I didn't forget to thank God for the beautiful chance He put before me when my own plan floated away.

He has it all in hand, and it's good. Very good. And just like the motto of this year's March: "Every life is a gift!" A good and precious treasure. 

Q4U: Did you catch any of the March for Life coverage or read any of the reports afterwards? What did you notice? What did you think?

Monday, January 19, 2015

meaningful mondays: DC bound...again!

I wasn't sure I had it in me to do this trip again. Fifty hours on a bus, squished for a large amount of that time in the fetal position, with hundreds of zeal-filled teenagers.

Last time around, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. And then my father died just weeks before, and I wondered, can I do this? Do I even want to?

I took a chance and went on the trip, my heart still heavy with the loss of my daddy, wearing his flannel shirt for both physical and spiritual warmth.

The experience turned out to be an incredible one, beyond my expectations. Even more, I was blessed to experience it with my oldest daughter.

And though I returned swollen from the walking and cramped quarters, my heart was lighter, healed by a journey that stood for what my father was about: the full-out embrace of new life.

Last year I stayed home, but as this year's trip came closer to reality, I found myself yearning to be there once again, and so I've tossed aside my hesitations, knowing full well what I'm getting myself into, and am diving in whole; this time, with my youngest daughter as a fellow comrade.

I've got my battery "juice pack" ready to go in the event my camera will lose steam -- which it no doubt will.

And this Rosary a friend made with my favorite Advent colors just delivered last week? Perfect for this journey. We will be saying plenty of prayers along the way.

I also went shopping for some new headgear to wear on live, national television. It's not FOX News or CNN, but it's looking likely I'll be interviewed on the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) the day of the March. So if you're watching television on Jan. 22 or live stream (here) via computer, sometime between 10 to noon Eastern time, you just might see me chatting with Teresa Tomeo about the forthcoming book I helped write!

My one regret is that I've been wanting for several years now to get my boys signed up and trained to be altar servers. This year was finally the year it came together, but wouldn't you know, the first time they are "on deck" together will be the Sunday I am gone. My mama heart is a little sad I'll miss it, but I know they're going to do great. I'm so happy they'll have the chance to serve God and be so close to Him through this ministry.

Finally, my heart swelled with happiness at opening the Forum yesterday and seeing that my friend Roberta's daughter, Julia, and our school had been highlighted.

As a good journalist will do, Robin sought out the contrary thought to this trip as well as the positive. It came mainly from one of our students' mothers, who feels this journey will be a big waste of time and energy. It saddened me to read that, after all I have seen the kids do to make this trip possible. But when I read Father Charles' and Julia's response to the negativity, I knew once again that goodness and light prevail.

I keep a photo of Julia's mama, Roberta, on a bulletin board in my room displaying images of those we've lost, and lately, I've been looking up at Roberta's face with such joy, one mother to another.

What we're witnessing in this incredible young woman, her daughter, is in large part a direct result of the love and life Roberta poured into her. I know she is beaming brightly from the other side of the veil, and that she will be right there with us as we march and as Julia speaks before hundreds of thousands before the Supreme Court.

We march because we love, and that's as simple and profound as it gets.

Please pray for our journey. I look forward to sharing the blessings of this trip upon our return! I'm likely to be silent for a good week but I will be back post-march!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

second-chance sundays: 'feed my starving children' returns to fargo

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 10, 2015.]

Faith Conversations: Feed My Starving Children returns to Fargo

By Roxane B. Salonen

FARGO – The biblical directive to feed the hungry became agonizingly personal to Bonnie Lund after a boy she’d sponsored in Africa died before any food aid had reached him.

Lund’s niece, Caitlin Gunderson, 19, was working as a missionary in Uganda last summer, and connected her with a child, Daniel, 13, who was in dire need.

“He looked like a much younger child due to malnutrition, maybe closer to 8, and he also suffered from AIDS,” Lund explains. “Sadly, Daniel passed away July 19, and although we had not even had time to set up the sponsorship, he already had a small piece of my heart.”

Lund says Daniel’s death turned what had been an ever-growing yearning to put her faith into action into bringing the Twin-Cities-based Feed My Starving Children initiative back to Fargo.

“I want to prevent this from happening to other children,” Lund says, “and I’m dedicating my efforts in Daniel’s memory.”

Though not the first time the program has come to the area, it’s always a daunting challenge. Each FMSC effort requires a minimum of 500 volunteers to pack 100,000 meals in the course of a day. In addition, funding is needed for the meals.

At 22 cents a meal, that equates to $22,000. The goal of the local initiative will be 200,000 meals and $44,000.

Lund, who attends Metropolitan Baptist Church, discovered that Atonement Lutheran Church of Fargo also wanted to work with the FMSC program, and ultimately connected with Ron Stensgard of that congregation, who is now leading the effort.

Both Lund and Stensgard have found the FMSC program to be exceptionally well run. “A high percentage of Feed My Starving Children’s funds go toward the food,” Lund says. “I’m very impressed with how sound they are and pleased to partner with such a great organization.”

Stensgard adds that he’s grateful the effort has grown beyond a one-church event to involve many local churches and individuals working in collaboration.

“I like to try to get churches together more. We don’t do a real good job of that at times,” he says. “I thought this would be another good way to help people abroad who really need help while bringing service opportunities to our churches and community.”

Truck full of love

Having worked with an FMSC project before, Lund has a clear sense of what will soon unfold.

The day before the event, a semitrailer will roll into Fargo containing bulk food including rice, dehydrated vegetables and nutrition supplements. From there, the food will be transported to the gym at Atonement Lutheran, where volunteers will sort and bundle up portions into what are called “MannaPacks.”

“Everyone will be wearing a hairnet and getting educated on what they’ll be doing prior to beginning their work at the stations,” Lund says.

The food will then be reloaded onto the truck and returned to the home site in the cities, then provided to partner organizations and distributed to those in need. The program’s food packets reach 70 different countries.

Stensgard says Mike and Tracey Burr of Action International Ministries, one of the organizations tied to FMSC, will be driving from Wisconsin to attend the Fargo-Moorhead drive. They’ll also be speaking at Atonement later that day about the program and their personal experience with helping fill the bellies of the hungry overseas.

AIM works in 25 countries, including the Philippines, where they operate 45 feeding sites in Manila and 25 in eastern Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Panay, along with another 10 in Bohol for quake victims and 17 in Albay, Nueva Ecijca and Cajayan De Oro – with nearly 12,000 people being fed at each feeding.

“The AIM group I’m working with works a lot with street kids,” says Stensgard, who recently traveled to Manila. “After six months, we try to get (the adults) to a position where they can return to society and hopefully find a job and lead a better life.”

Stensgard started his missionary work volunteering with Friends of Chimbote, a local organization begun by a former Fargo priest, the Rev. Jack Davis. In his decade or so of doing mission work, he’s seen a lot of hardship.

“There are 2 million people in Manila alone, and those who live in the streets really don’t have anything at all,” he says. “I’ve been at some of these feeding sites, and the people are really impoverished. Most are just looking for a helping hand.”

Natural disasters like typhoons haven’t helped. “There’s been a lot of destruction, with 80 to 90 percent of the coconut trees damaged recently, and that’s their livelihood,” he adds.

While feeding others is only the beginning, it’s an important start, Stensgard says. “Education is important, but you can’t teach a hungry mind. Father Jack used to say, if they’re hungry and they’re thinking about food, if you feed them, you can get their attention, and then they can learn.”

Stensgard says he’s fueled by helping others, but also, what he gets from it. “You won’t find out what true joy is until you serve along others and help others. We’ll never have enough material things, but when we serve, we can find more of an inner joy.”

He encourages groups like Confirmation classes and other church groups, including youth-oriented ones, to join in. “We don’t always do enough to teach our kids to serve, but what better way to do that than serving together?”

To Lund, the effort offers her a chance to walk the walk.

“Over and over we read in Scripture that the hungry, the poor, are so special to God,” she says. “He calls upon us as Christians to love, and I think this is one way I can show my love.”

Joe Rabideaux of Detroit Lakes, Minn., serves Feed My Starving Children food at a Manila feeding site during a recent missionary trip./Special to The Forum

If you go
What: Feed My Starving Children MobilePack event to package 200,000 meals in one day for malnourished children around the world
When: Jan. 24
Where: Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive, Fargo
Info: Contributions may also be sent to: Feed My Starving Children, Fargo Area MobilePack #1501-247, Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive, Fargo, ND 58104. For more information, call (701) 237-9651 or visit
Online: Visit or search “Feed My Starving Children – Fargo Area MobilePack” on Facebook.

Friday, January 16, 2015

faith & family fridays: an artist's quest to sketch for life

A couple months back, while serving as a fill-in host for Real Presence Radio, I had a chance to interview local artist Karen Bakke about an upcoming adventure.

Karen has been making a visual account of her world since her earliest years, when a teacher noticed her artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue art as a vocation.

As a lifelong, faithful Catholic, Karen has a heart for God's beautiful unfolding story of life through His people, and is masterful at depicting these life-giving scenes, whether through the murals she creates or the canvassed paintings that come to life at her hands.

Later last year, Karen began feeling inspired to do something special with her gifts, and a prayer led her to wonder what it would be like to sketch the experience of the 2015 March for Life. We almost always have the story in photographs and news print in some fashion, but what might she contribute, through her art, that could show another, completely visual, side of the story?

With this on her heart, Karen connected with a group of Catholic high school students here in Fargo -- Shanley Teens for Life -- and asked their advisers whether she could accompany them on their journey to the March in Washington, D.C., to create a sketched, visual account of the journey.

Karen's sketch pre-trip of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, DC
The powers that be said, "Yes," so in a couple of days, Karen will board one of eight buses in a North Dakota entourage heading East to carry out her artistic mission to sketch for life.

At the end of it all, Karen will find a way to pull some of the pieces from this quest into something life-giving that others will be able to absorb and enjoy.

As a local faith writer, I was assigned by the editor of our diocesan publication, New Earth, to trail Karen and write a story about her visual journey through the March. I'm really looking forward to keeping an eye on Karen and how she's using her art to document this story. This year, our school was selected out of hundreds to carry the lead banner of the march along Constitution Avenue -- an annual event that takes place on behalf of the women, babies and families whose lives are forever altered by abortion every day in our nation.

I look forward to sharing more with you soon. For now, would you join us in prayer for the success of this pilgrimage? I'll be going as both writer and floating chaperone, helping to play a small role in ensuring those who participate from our corner of the world will have a life-changing experience.

I've done this trip one other time, two years ago, and it was one of the most spiritually enriching experiences of my life. This year will be a different journey of course, and right now, I am looking at the blank pages that, in a week's time, will be filled to the brim.

There's also a chance I'll be interviewed on EWTN about the book I've helped write that will be coming out soon, so if you can, watch the coverage from home and maybe you'll see me in my winter gear before the March begins.

Thanks for any prayers you might offer for this pilgrimage. Most of all, I want to glorify God along the way and look for the signs of what He wants me to see so I can share what He wants you to see with you.

Q4U: How has art transformed you and your faith journey?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

writing wednesdays: words, glorious words!

Words have the potential to bring life or death. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but it's true.

These are three of the first words that have come in regarding an early reading of a project on which I've been working for nearly three years:

Exciting huh? Life-giving, right?

I share more of these great, life-giving words on Peace Garden Writer today, so I hope you will dash over there to see!