Augsburg: agent and architect of democracy and steward of place

By Gary Hesser

The following stories represent the foundation for this sixty plus year history in which Augsburg has served its local and wider communities as an “agent and architect of democracy and steward of place.”

[Other examples can be found in “On the Shoulders of Giants”, chapter 1 in Service-Learning in Higher Education, Zlokowski, ed]

In 1954 after the Supreme Court decision declared school segregation to be illegal, Augsburg sociology professor, Joel Torstenson, was appointed as an Augsburg delegate to the joint committee for equal opportunity.  In 1958 he assumed the chair role of this metro-wide committee of 60+ leading civic organizations.

Joel turned its attention to housing discrimination and led the churches in forming a fair housing committee. Led by professor Torstenson and President Christensen, who earlier had chaired mayor Humphrey’s human rights commission, Augsburg hosted an organizational meeting and convinced the president of the American Lutheran church to chair a new fair housing committee of the council of churches in 1960. They spent the next two years educating church members, mobilizing the press, and lobbying the Minnesota state legislature.

The culmination of their efforts was a large meeting with legislators at Christ Lutheran church near the capital in 1962. Shortly after that, Minnesota passed fair housing legislation. This was a full 6 years before the U.S. Congress would enact such legislation.

With sociological, organizational and theological sophistication and strong support from Augsburg and Trinity Lutheran congregation where he was an active member, Joel literally changed the thinking of both the church and the wider culture concerning racism and injustice in areas where Jesus had only taught indirectly.

In the spring of 1964 before congress finally passed overall civil rights legislation, Joel delivered a series of 6 lectures on “religion and race in America” on KTCA public television.  They combined his scholarly analysis with his religious faith to teach about the “role that religion had played in America’s historic dilemma caused by the wide gap between its democratic creed and its racist practices.”

In the 1960’s Joel and president Oscar Anderson began to publically refer to Augsburg as a “college of the city.” This evolved into the faculty’s approval of Joel’s sabbatical position paper, “the liberal arts college and the city”, a comprehensive revision of the curriculum to include community-based experiential education in all majors and general education, along with a new metro-urban studies major. Augsburg was a national pioneer in experiential education and service-learning in this regard well before it was “in vogue” or acceptable.

In 1968, solidly undergirded by this consensus, two responses marked Augsburg’s response to the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr. May 1st [1968] was declared “a day in May” with all classes cancelled and members of the wider African-American community invited to lead discussions and share insights and feelings about this tragic event.  This “day in May” tradition continued for many year and has been revitalized by students in recent years.

Shortly after the assassination and uprising on the north side of Minneapolis, Joel, with strong support from Myles Stenshoel, chair of political science, and the administration, responded to an invitation by pastor Joe Bash to create a summer “crisis colony.” It was a residential-academic program on the north side of Minneapolis that made full use of community residents as community educators. The colony included students from a few other colleges and universities and evolved into the higher education consortium for urban affairs [HECUA], a consortium of 18 private colleges and the university of Minnesota.

HECUA was housed at Augsburg and led by professors Torstenson, Robert Clyde as it evolved under Joel’s leadership with strong support from the administration.

Addendum: In 1946, Minneapolis was declared to be the most “anti-Semitic” city in the U.S. The recently elected mayor of Minneapolis, who would gain national fame in 1948 by challenging the Democratic Party to “embrace human rights” over “states rights”, turned to President Bernard Christensen to serve on and chair Humphrey’s newly created Human Rights Commission. Professor Torstenson would later chair that commission as an appointee of Mayor Arthur Naftalan, Minneapolis’ first Jewish mayor and the former deputy mayor under Humphrey.

GARRY HESSER is a professor of metro/urban studies and sociology at Augsburg College.

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