Goodberry The Vine #002

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HIV/AIDS Activist / Humanitarian

Ruth Olsson

Former President of Grand Rapids Red Project, Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids, MI

It is a particularly difficult task as a Christian to navigate our relationship to the world; knowing what requires compromise and what requires the opposite. Ruth’s approach to life, the way she holds relationship above opinion and application over knowledge, is an adequate and beautiful answer to such a challenge. Her love is not soft--it’s not a compromise. It’s an uncompromising commitment to love those deemed least loveable. The tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners; those lowly people that Jesus sat with, Ruth sits with them too. Perhaps all of us have something to glean from her story that is unafraid of dirt and loud to speak for the heart of Christ. Read on to experience Ruth’s life that is committed to loving God and loving people.

Tell us about what you do; you are an activist and a voice for HIV/AIDS.

The Grand Rapids Red Project, when I joined the board many moons ago, was called HIV/AIDS Resources. In the 80s, early 90s, people were dying of HIV. My friends in their pockets and communities were going to funerals every week. Then, with the advancement of Antiretroviral drugs and amazing medical accomplishments, people are now living with HIV. HIV/AIDS Resources came out of this season--it was an organization trying to bridge gaps. Saint Mary's McAuley Clinic, historically, has been the only clinic for people with HIV/AIDS. It had a clinic side and some social services, but people were falling through gaps so this organization was founded.

Back then the city council was specifically looking at needle exchange because HIV can travel quickly in populations where people choose to inject drugs. One of the programs of HIV/AIDS Resources was the Clean Works program (a program that allows intravenous drug users to exchange used needles for clean ones). Because of this program, we have seen HIV, STD, Hep C rates in Grand Rapids become virtually non-existent in that population, which is pretty incredible.

When I joined the organization I didn't know anything about needle exchange. I came in with my Christian zeal of ‘let's save people’ excitement and a lot of naivete, to be honest. But I've always thought that I have a lot to learn from people who walk a different road than I do.

“I came in with my Christian zeal of ‘let's save people’ excitement and a lot of naivete, to be honest. But I've always thought that I have a lot to learn from people who walk a different road than I do.”

When I joined the organization I'd been fundraising and raising awareness through my church Mars Hill and different community groups. I became the president of HIV/AIDS Resources a couple years into my stint on the board. Then we went through a complete rebranding and changed the name to the Grand Rapids Red Project. I am no longer the president or a board member, just emeritus. I was the president for a long time (laughs).

Who do you identify yourself as, now that you don't wear those hats?

Well, I still do in some ways. I get to speak for the organization, do different events, and still raise money for the cause. I am still very passionate about HIV prevention and very interested in what's happening with the virus. For me, the virus is a red flashing light for surrounding issues that Christians should be at the forefront of--working toward global change and local change, whether on issues of gender equality, poverty, or access to health care.

Lately, it feels like the LGBT issue has risen to the surface and became a hot button issue for Christians and it bothers me (laughs). We let this be something we are consumed with and we're missing the bigger issues.

You mean when there are people suffering and dying?

Right. That laundry list of issues is huge. What did Jesus talk about? He talked about inequality, poverty, pride and judgmentalism; things that are much more insidious in some ways. We have an opportunity to be salt and light and instead we are bashing a particular group of people that we don't agree with or aren't comfortable with.

You're saying let's look beyond the disagreement and really take on the heart of Jesus and love on those that are different.

“I think we've become people of a position, instead of people of a posture.”

I think we've become people of a position, instead of people of a posture. The last ten or twelve years that I have been in the HIV activism world, I've continued to take the posture of a learner and I think that's the posture all of us should take. Not that I don't have convictions, not that I don't have things that I'm sure of. Yet, I always have something to learn, especially from people who have walked a road different from mine. I grew up in a Christian home, I went to Wheaton college, I attend Fuller Seminary right now. I've always been part of a church. This is my subculture and there's tremendous depth and richness to that, but there are things that I don't understand because I haven't walked that road.

Through this project we want to highlight leaders and people who are 'doing Christianity in real life' as opposed to...

In theory.

Yeah, and it gets really messy. I realize that we from the evangelical milieu can promote spiritual growth as being with people similar to you, studying the words on a page, and not necessarily getting your hands dirty. I have taken criticism from that particular stripe because I love gay people, hang out with LGBT, and go to some controversial places.

Was there a point where your life changed from inaction to action? For example, you diving into this HIV/AIDS culture--where did that come from?

(Laughs) I probably have a little stripe of recklessness in me anyway. For me, I channel that kind of activist spirit, that 'change the world’ rebelliousness into serving. I have to be tapped into something bigger than myself, something that I can be captivated by. Part of that's my personality, part of that's how I was raised.

I was part of a church plant in 1999 called Mars Hill. One of the early tenets of that church was to be outward focused, to give away our resources. People started coming and they started giving. So we had resources to bless the world, but we didn't have any plan on how to do that. A group of us met to pray over what that would be and we felt that God was saying, “I want you to take the hardest cases, the most neglected people, places, and issues around the world.”

We did some crazy stuff in those early days, working with groups that most churches didn't want to deal with. HIV was something that the churches didn't want to touch. I describe myself as waking up from my slumber [then]. I started learning about what was happening in Africa and I was struck by the magnitude of the virus. I was so insulated from it and so ignorant. I was deeply convicted of that. I had to grieve that, how could I not? How could I be so silent? I really sensed that we need to be a present, Christian voice.

When our church plant said, ‘let's get involved locally’, one person in our church who had done the Grand Rapids AIDS walk suggested this as an option. We asked how many other churches have participated. And she said, “well we've had churches protest.” [Pauses] protest. We've had churches protest our AIDS walk. With placards. That's not okay! That's completely not okay (laughs). There were a couple years where our church came in full-force and carried placards that said, 'AIDS does not discriminate, do you?' There was a movement of ‘we are not that.’

“There's another way. There's another way to be change-agents of the world that isn't angry and anti-people.”

There's another way. There's another way to be change-agents of the world that isn't angry and anti-people. You can feel strongly about a cause but to be anti-person is completely antithetical to the gospel. The gospel is inclusive. I think we sometimes lose that. There are personal agendas and our political differences that get enmeshed and we lose the fact that we are talking about people.

[Pauses] So, yes, I felt very empowered to go to some places that I wouldn't have normally ever have gone (laughs).

I mean, it's supposed to be uncomfortable, right?

There's this sense, certainly in the milieu that I grew up in, that it's really important to be right--right theology, right doctrine. Even my degree in Philosophy, you have to think through things and be convicted that you are right. But I think there are a lot of things we are not right about. For me, it's more important that I'm in relationship [than being right].

That's beautiful. There’s a lot of that these days--people arguing and trying to impose “rights and wrongs”, but real relationships and common ground are neglected a lot.

Right. It's interesting that there are a lot of Christians that feel very strongly on what is “right” and “wrong. That you can't be gay and Christian. But instead of saying, “I don't agree with your decisions or how you are living out your life”, why don’t we say, “you claim to be a Jesus follower, then let's celebrate that together.” What a beautiful place to start. And, “if you are not a Jesus follower, how can I encourage you?” There is so much scripture about unity and diversity and we don't have a real strong grasp on that.

For this project we've been asking this question a lot: what does it mean to be a Christian leader in the world that we live in? What do you think?

My master’s program in seminary is actually on leadership. I'm almost done, but I'd like to say when I graduate here shortly, (laughs) I'll actually have an answer to that.

“They say in Africa that 'slow is the new fast', that you can go faster alone but you can go further together.”

[Pauses] I think the genuine test of leadership is how well you empower others. It's not about setting your own agenda, but how can you serve well and empower those around you. I can be an on-fire activist going a hundred miles per hour in one direction, but I will very shortly be all alone if I'm traveling that fast and that far, right? They say in Africa that 'slow is the new fast', that you can go faster alone but you can go further together.

That word 'servant leadership' gets a bad rap being overused in the church context, but the way that you are describing it makes it come alive.

I was in Pasadena for a class two weeks ago and one of our guest lecturers talked about the leadership of Jesus that, for all of us who say are going to lead in any kind of spiritual capacity, you risk the betrayal of Judas, you have people like Peter, and you have people who are kind of a wreck (laughs). But you see the potential in them. This is what you walk into.

I have been betrayed. I do know what that feels like. I also know what it's like to see the Peters bumble along but end up building a church or doing phenomenal thing with their lives. There's risk and there's reward; there's stumbling, falling, and being misunderstood. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I think it's the most exciting way to live--to live a life of service for something bigger.

Do you have key people in your life that shape your view on leadership, besides your schooling?

I have an amazing husband. Absolutely incredible. He has character. I learn from him everyday. And I have an amazing family. So I'm very, very blessed. Also my friends and community--I have a spiritual community that is amazing. There are people who are on-fire, ready to give their lives to serving others and making the world a better place, and I get to know a lot of them.

How do they impact how you live everyday as a leader?

I can be very strong and very persuasive (laughs) and go a hundred miles per hour in one direction. So I've developed some deep relationships with people I trust. They are able to call me out and ask me the hard questions--if there is anything that I have done, anything I need to think differently about, anything I haven't considered, I have an open door and actually ask for constant feedback.

So, that, and I get therapy and have a spiritual director. I bring in all the big guns (laughs). I try to be as healthy as possible. That's been very important for me: community and transparency. I think the world is starving for leaders that are authentic and transparent. That's what I hope to be. I have a long way to go, I'm sure. But I hope to build that kind of capacity with the people in my life. That's important. It's important to me.

For you, what is the biggest struggle in ministry or in the work that you do?

Well there are a couple things. I can get bogged down by what Christians are doing wrong. I don't want to spend a lot of time there. But I can. That kind of easily ensnares, so I have to fight that. I don’t think saying, “well this verse says this and this chapter”--that's not helpful or life-giving. There are times maybe when that is appropriate but in general, I don't want to spend a lot of time there. I want to be pursuing things that are life-giving and beautiful and bringing the Kingdom to earth. [Pauses] Like anybody there isn't always enough hours in the day (laughs). I have so many ideas and things that percolate; I'm a mom, I'm a wife, I run a household, I'm a student...

A plateful.

I have a lot going on! But I don't want to shortchange any of it. Hence, rest and contemplation (laugh) and building in those seasons to regroup.

“The world needs leaders who are the real deal, who are authentic, who aren't about ego, aren't about promoting themselves, leaders who truly want to follow Jesus with everything.”

Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be leaders?

I would say to always work on developing your character. The world needs leaders who are the real deal, who are authentic, who aren't about ego, aren't about promoting themselves, leaders who truly want to follow Jesus with everything. More and more, especially now in our celebrity culture and social media culture, there is so much about self-promotion. I'm not making a sweeping generalization that that is all bad. But it's tricky to do the hard internal work and be emotionally, physically, spiritually healthy and serve from a place of wholeness not from a place of emptiness, where you need to lead in order to fill some void. I think more and more the world is craving ‘don't give me a big show, don't give me something fancy, give me someone who is real.’

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at the end of all this?

In the book Three Cups of Tea, which obviously is very controversial (laughs), Greg Mortenson and one of his board members take this last minute trip to a difficult area. This board member gets on a plane to go on this trip wearing a pendant that says, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.” There's also a Mary Oliver quote, “Tell me, what is it you intend to do with your one, wild, and precious life?”

When I die I don't want to be like, there were all these things that I could have done, should have done, left undone. I want to say I'm thoroughly used up (laughs). That with the gifts I've been given, with the tools, relationships, with the resources, and what I was given, I used it. And used it for the Kingdom.

“When I die I don't want to be like, there were all these things that I could have done, should have done, left undone. I want to say I'm thoroughly used up (laughs). That with the gifts I've been given, with the tools, relationships, with the resources, and what I was given, I used it. And used it for the Kingdom.”

That's what I hope my legacy is. For the most neglected and forsaken people, places, and issues, for those who feel marginalized and disenfranchised, that in whatever capacity I was able to, I was inclusive, and loving, and accepting. That's what I hope.

That's beautiful. Do you ever get tired?

(laughs) Do I ever get tired? Yes.

I mean, you are trying to have a balance by being healthy inwardly and outwardly. But don't you get tired sometimes from all the activism?

Yes, and no. I actually find it energizing. When you're in your 'sweet spot', doing something you are called to do, I think it is actually very life-giving. Sometimes it's hard to take on the pain of others. I would say I have not lived a painful life, but I've chosen to walk with people who have. That can feel crushing sometimes. Like my dear friends who live in shacks in S. Africa, and orphans I've advocated for whom live in dire poverty in hillsides of Rwanda; knowing that kids go to bed hungry and orphans don't have parents. The weight of that can feel crushing. But to actually do something about it, for me, is extremely empowering. So, yes and no.

Do you have any parts of scripture that you are meditating on recently?

Lately, I've been stewing on the greatest commandment: to love God and to love others. I've been studying what it means to deeply walk with God and serve others. What do I have to let go to make that the center of my life, my work, my leadership and passion? We make that really complicated and I don't think it is. Often we make it complicated so we don't have to actually do that thing. You know? We get ourselves sidetracked to avoid the real thing. (laughs)

What have you been reading recently? Any recommendations?

Oh my goodness! I am the librarian.

Recently I read "Just Peacemaking" which is about an effort toward all the ways in which we can promote peace around the world, which I'm captivated by. "Wave" [by Sonali Deraniyagala] is about a woman who lost her parents, her husband, and her two children in the Tsunami in Southeast Asia. It's absolutely unbelievable. It's difficult but she's an excellent writer. I also read lots of memoirs. I just read Greg Boyle's "Tattoos on the Heart" about a Jesuit priest who worked with gang members in L.A.

You know who I really love? Episcopal women writers. There's a whole group of them: Barbara Brown Taylor, and Sarah Miles, Laura Gallagher etc. I love some of the stuff that I'm reading from that genre.

“You know who I really love? Episcopal women writers. There's a whole group of them: Barbara Brown Taylor, and Sarah Miles, Laura Gallagher etc. I love some of the stuff that I'm reading from that genre. ”

Can you share a favorite moment with one of your children?

I have a 13 year old daughter, an 11 year old son, and a 4 year old son. My 11 year old son recently got an iPhone. He's starting middle school, so it's like the coolest thing ever, right? We're leaving the Apple store and I turn to him and say, “Is this the best day of your life?” (laughs) He was holding this phone he didn't know he was going to get, so he was all giddy. But when I asked that question, he immediately turned and pointed to his [adopted] brother and said, “No, the day we picked up that kid was the best day of my life.” Didn't miss a beat.