Westmont Magazine Compassion over the Airwaves
For Norm Nelson ’61, starting a radio ministry to seek social justice and to educate Christians about persecution worldwide was more than just a career choice. It culminated a passion first stirred at Westmont. A transfer student in 1959-60, he quickly got involved by playing basketball, serving as student body president, helping found Spring Sing, and being one of the first philosophy majors.
Spending time with Professors David Hubbard and Kenneth Monroe made the biggest impact on his life. “They showed me that teaching was more than an academic discipline, it was a ministry of the whole person. They were tremendous influences and served as true mentors.” He credits Dr. Monroe with helping to give him a “heart for the world and the ability to think like a global Christian.”
After earning degrees from San Francisco Seminary and Princeton Seminary, Norm worked with churches on the East Coast and taught theology. He never lost his heart for global issues.
As a minister in Vermont, he accompanied the Heifer Project to Honduras to aid the victims of Hurricane Fifi. This group supplies farm animals to the poor and teaches them to be self-sufficient. During the trip, Norm saw Christians repairing homes and doing the “nitty-gritty work of relief and development.” He began to see how crucial it was to share Jesus through this service.
His experience stimulated Norm to make changes in his own life and ministry. Instead of taking youth overseas for a sight-seeing trip as he had done in the past, he founded Y.E.S., Youth Experience in Service, which took college students to Central and South America to serve the poor.
When he returned to California in 1977, Norm worked with his father, who was a radio broadcaster. He and his wife, Cher, settled in Mission Viejo, Calif., and raised their six children. Eventually, they accumulated six grandchildren.
A former professional skier who has sought out new slopes around the world, Norm had a startling realization one day. “I told my wife that my recreational life was a whole lot more exciting and adventurous than my spiritual life. I wanted to reverse that.”
In 1995, Norm took a trip to China with other broadcasters on a fact-finding mission to visit persecuted people. He spoke with Christians who had been imprisoned for 20 years for their faith in Christ and still bore handcuff scars on their wrists. “These guys blew me away. I had never seen anything like that before. I had no idea persecution was so intense.” Subsequent trips to Vietnam, Burma and Indonesia opened his eyes to sights few American Christians have seen. To educate them, he started “Compassion Radio.”
This half-hour program airs on about 100 stations throughout the United States, Asia and the Middle East, and is accessible on the Internet worldwide. Norm is passionately committed to alerting Christians to the persecution their brothers and sisters endure. One concern is the lack of Bibles in some countries. “Many of us believe we are biblical Christians, but for biblical Christians, it isn’t ’nice’ to provide Bibles to those without, it’s an obligation.”
“Obligation” is an important word for Norm. His travels and faith in Christ have taught him that when he sees heart-breaking images, he can’t turn away and say, “Gosh, that’s too bad.” Those experiences impose an obligation to act. “Once your ignorance has been shattered by the sight of profound human suffering, you can’t turn away and passively say, ’What a shame.’ If we are Christ’s disciples we must act. Christian faith and social justice are one and the same.”
Telling stories of persecution, interviewing Christians in Iraq and stressing scriptural teaching about our responsibility to act has proved unpopular in the realm of traditional Christian radio. Norm responds to this the same way he deals with countries that restrict visitors. “I understand that we have taken on a bit of a challenge, but I love that. We can count that God is with us and walk by faith.”
Norm is excited to work with groups like World Vision. By taking microphones into the toughest places in the world and showing that God is alive and active there, he hopes to inspire American Christians to pray, offer help and meet physical needs.
Norm hopes his message is getting out to young people. “I hear college students use the words ’extreme’ and ’radical’ a lot today, but I wish they could see the endless opportunities available to live a truly extreme and radical life. Faith in the Lord can be adventurous and exciting; in fact, it is meant to be.
“I have heard from friends across the world that Christianity is in a life-and-death struggle, and I have seen how comfortable American Christians are,” he adds. “Everyone can do something. I hope to challenge them with the urgency of the hour and educate them that not only can we act, we must act.”
To learn more about Norm’s ministry, visit his Web site, www.compassionradio.com.