Westmont Magazine Opening Doors in Closed Countries
Norm Nelson ’61 sees the world as an open door and says no terrorist, repressive regime or major war can hinder his work. The president of Compassion Radio, he hosts a daily broadcast and travels to the planet’s most chaotic areas to encourage believers living there. At the same time, he asks his U.S. audience to help alleviate the suffering he encounters.
“I want active listeners,” he says. “I want them to get involved, to help support our projects, to become radical activists.”
Wherever he goes, Norm sees evidence of God at work, even in places such as North Korea and Iraq. “We shouldn’t be surprised that God is there working in marvelously creative and powerful ways to change the world,” he says. “We put politics aside and put our trust in what God is doing and not the political machinations of foreign policy. That is not where my hope is. To the degree we get involved with political/military solutions and neglect the Gospel, we give up the most powerful tool at our disposal.”
Compassion Radio has founded four orphanages, each on a different continent. The ministry is helping establish a secular university in Sudan that will promote human rights, religious freedom, free-market economics and political reform. Through Bethlehem Bible College, Norm and his listeners provide economic aid, food and clothing to Palestinians who have no income due to widespread unemployment. In Afghanistan, Norm explained Christmas to 30,000 Afghan students. Name a dangerous place on Earth, and he has been there meeting needs and sharing the Gospel. The list of projects and more than 150 destinations is impressive.
As a transfer student to Westmont, Norm was pleased to find the diversity within evangelicalism well represented among the faculty. “College is a great place to try out various options,” he says. “Westmont helped me move out of my narrow theological box while remaining faithful to Scripture and evangelical theology.”
He vividly remembers a casual conversation with Kenneth Monroe, one of his favorite professors. His parents had driven up for Parents Day, and Monroe invited them to his house, riding with them in their car. “We stopped and looked out over the athletic field,” Norm recalls, “ and we got into conversation about Israel. He said, ‘There are two sides to the story.’ That has never left me. I didn’t understand the implications of his words in the broadest sense, but they tweaked my imagination, and I began realizing the plight of the Palestinian Christians, who are not supported or even acknowledged by many evangelicals. Today we spend a good amount of time ministering in the Palestinian community in places like Gaza.”
“I literally loved Westmont,” Norm says. “It was more than a college, it was a community in which I grew and matured and viewed the world through the eyes of Christ in an expansive rather than a narrow way.”
After graduating, Norm went to San Francisco Theological Seminary to study under the great Old Testament scholar James Muilenburg. “The teaching of the Old Testament prophets continues to influence me,” he says. “Prophecy isn’t just predictive, it’s about reading the signs of the times, about pursuing justice in economics and politics. I aspired to be a biblical Christian, and I was convinced that meant doing the truth and not just believing it.” He will receive his doctorate in biblical studies from Newburgh Theological Seminary in June 2007.
He served as a chaplain at Middlebury College in Vermont, taught briefly at a prep school and served as a youth minister in Burlington for five years, taking a group to Central America for a month in the summer. “All these suburban white kids started to see what the world was really like — and a lot of them got involved in missions and relief work.” he says. “It was a great experience.”
Then Norm returned to California to work in the radio ministry his father founded, the Morning Chapel Hour. He started as a co-speaker, eventually becoming president and the sole speaker. In 1998, he started Compassion Radio to reflect the growing emphasis on social action and encouraging embattled Christians.
Norm’s wife, Cher, joins him in the ministry — and the travel. He describes the mother of six and grandmother of 12 as the “gutsiest woman I know. We are totally a team.” They have been married 20 years.
Recent threats haven’t altered Norm’s ambitious travel schedule. “I reject the notion of Christians being terrorized,” he says. “My travels have expanded my sense of how big God is. He really is in control and in charge of this world. There is no reason for us to be scared of anyone.”