Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #124. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Nov. 4, 2017; in print Nov. 5

GREATER>! The St. Cloud motto is succinct. (You can’t get shorter than one word.) It’s aspirational. It is geographical. (It draws a bigger circle than the city limits.) And it begs a question: Greater than what?

Greater than its reputation, for one thing — and a very important thing.

We recently made statewide and national news. Word that St. Cloud City Council member Jeff Johnson was proposing a refugee moratorium added fuel to the immigration debate that is roiling our country. “White Cloud,” an epithet we hoped had been laid to rest, resurfaced. It looked as if we were moving backward, making St. Cloud “small again.”

Fortunately, we have leadership that stood up to this retrograde movement. A dozen years ago, I’d not have predicted this.

I first encountered Dave Kleis years ago when, along with several others, I went to visit him in his office at the Minnesota Senate to advocate for more adequate state education funding. We were up against a brick wall — the “no new taxes” dogma of the Tim Pawlenty era. Kleis was a true believer. We got nowhere.

I have the impression that in his years of executive responsibility as mayor of St. Cloud, Kleis has taken to heart the principle enunciated by the late Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Kleis has been frugal, to be sure, but he has learned that Wellstone’s generosity of spirit is a better guide for policy than Ronald Reagan’s Aug. 12, 1986 news conference quip, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.”

Johnson’s proposal was a direct assault on the character of this area that Mayor Kleis has worked to fashion and promote, steadily and effectively, since he was elected in 2005. Who we have become is not solely his accomplishment, of course. Create CommUNITY, the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders, and many other groups have done and continue to do their part. But leadership from the top matters.

I saw Kleis exercise this leadership at the Create CommUNITY “Building Relationships” gathering Oct. 17. In his welcoming remarks, Kleis urged attendees to show up six days later at the City Council meeting to make clear their opposition to Johnson’s proposal. No “hands off,” “wait and see” equivocation from this mayor!

I didn’t know what to expect at the Oct. 23 council meeting. I was aware of some talk of a counter-proposal, but hadn’t heard of any action.

Over 300 people gathered in St. Cloud City Hall on Oct. 23. Competing signs, some of which on both sides cited the Bible, made clear that sharply opposing views were represented. It was a political confrontation with religious overtones.

I was delighted when council member Jeff Goerger proposed a declaration "in support of a just and welcoming community." Goerger further said, as reported in the Oct. 24 Times, “The main thing is to dispel the impression that St. Cloud is not welcoming and that St. Cloud is being hurt by the change in demographics.”

The 5-1 vote in favor of Goerger’s motion (council member George Hontos was absent) resoundingly dispelled that impression — and this received widespread media attention. “White Cloud” we aren’t.

The Times story included this: “Kleis suggested the council replace the resolution [Johnson’s] with one that affirms its support for all St. Cloud residents.” The mayor wasn’t about to let his work be undone.

I believe opponents of Johnson were in a clear majority. I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have happened without the encouragement from Kleis and others to show up. All too often, those of us who welcome refugees and other immigrants assume all will be well, and those who disagree with us will not prevail.

I should know better. Like most columnists, I don’t get much response to what I write, but whenever I say something positive about the diversity in our community — particularly about my Muslim friends — I can predict a salvo of denunciation at the Times website comment page.

Those whom Johnson was representing are committed and organized and vocal. Those of us who applaud what Goerger did need to be equally committed and organized and vocal.

While I don’t now live in St. Cloud, “GREATER>!” includes me, and what happens at St. Cloud City Hall affects me directly.

There are many ways in which the region works together. I call on the mayor and City Council of my home, Waite Park, and of Sauk Rapids and Sartell and St. Joseph and whoever else belongs to “Greater St. Cloud,” to follow the leadership of St. Cloud’s mayor and council and go on record "in support of a just and welcoming community."