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Omdahl: Let’s Redefine Success

By Staff | May 8, 2015

While serving as a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota, I was privileged to see many students who later joined the ranks of the successful.

I have had a U. S. Senator, a U. S. Congressman, a couple of elected state officials, the Republican Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, a number of district judges, attorneys, educators, entrepreneurs and scores of others who met society’s common definition of success.

All too often, however, our definition of success consists of a short list measured by money, business and politics. In the process, we overlook outstanding folks who dedicate their lives to filling the gaps left by our economic, social and public policies. They are successes in their own way.

Among them are workers for the charitable organizations that raise funds to feed the poor, run food pantries, counsel addicts, and salvage the unsalvageable. Their success is found in helping others left stranded on the Jericho Road.

One such success is Nancy Jo Albers who was raised on a ranch in the Mandan area and first appeared in my classes in 1970.

Nancy Jo is now working in the slums of Lost Angeles where she spends her days as a Catholic Worker serving addicts, the homeless and the hungry.

When she referred to herself as a “Catholic Worker,” I thought it was a generic term describing her role. But then I discovered that the Catholic Worker movement was launched in 1933 by a couple in New York City who felt called to implement the Gospels and Catholic social teaching.

In a recent communication, Nancy Jo described her work.

“There is every manner of human suffering and social breakdown on full display in this teeming colony of the destitute and desperately ill,” she reported.

“I have seen people in the grips of full blown psychotic breakdowns. Sirens wail and drug dealers rule.

“The heroin addicts tend to gather on one side of the street and crack addicts on the other side of the street, many of them medicating against the horrors of mental illness.

“The hungry and the sick huddle by the hundreds at the door of the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, and then file in for a bit of sustenance before returning to their tents and cardboard encampments.

“It’s as though there’s been some war or natural disaster and the wounded, shell-shocked and penniless have been herded into the holding pen with nothing left of their self-respect.”

Nancy Jo’s narrative should pull us up short, forcing us to acknowledge that there are huge gaps in the American dream being filled by courageous volunteers, caring churches and charitable organizations.

If Baltimore is anything like Nancy Jo’s Los Angeles, we should get an idea of why people with nothing to lose break out against the system. It doesn’t include them.

This observation doesn’t mean there is any justification for stoning the police, burning neighborhoods, or stealing property but it should give us some insight into the rage that is ripping through slums where hopeless people live out lives of nothing.

If the current economic trends continue, the gaps in government safety nets will become larger and more inadequate. Both political parties are spending all of their efforts romancing the voting middle class so neither is offering much hope to the slums of Los Angeles or Baltimore.

In the future, society is going to need a definition of “success” that goes beyond politics, economics and government.

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