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Sister Cities

Thirty-five years ago or thereabouts, I was the fourth for an intimate dinner party. The guests were the mayor of Fargo’s sister city, Hamar, Norway, and his wife; the campaign manager for Fargo’s then mayor was our host. Do you suppose I supplied local color?

Conversation remained fairly stiff for the first hour—pleasantries, weather, that sort of thing—so it was time to break the ice. I shared with Mrs Moe an observation about the arts in Fargo-Moorhead: why the arts (music, fine art, etc) were habitually at the short and smelly end of the funding stick; why they were the last activities to be funded when times were flush, the first to be cut when money was tight. I asked specifically about Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian cleric whose theology had served his nation’s situation when it was alternately a protectorate of Sweden or Denmark.

Hauge preached a theology of deprivation: excess, in Hauge’s view, was of the Devil, while simplicity of design and economy of means situated one nearer to God. Hauge’s beliefs would have resonated with Shakers, Quakers and Mennonites here in America. His theology worked well when Nowary was simply a province of another power; it helped her people in periods of deprivation. But when conditions improved and former luxuries became more widely available, Hauge’s preaching struck a sour chord with the mainstream church and his followers were encouraged to emigrate elsewhere. Why does it not surprise me that the vast majority of them came to the Red River Valley of the North—the valley that stradles the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. They came here and brought with them a distaste for luxury and showy display.

The conversational ice had broken and the Moes shared an observation that confirmed my suspicion: “You know,” she said, “when our American cousins come ‘home’ to Norway, they actually ask for lutefisk! No native Norwegian would admit to having eaten it, because it would confirm they had been desperately poor at some time. Our American cousins have raised lutefisk to cult status.” That night I learned something important about the place that I had lived for five years and would live another thirty-five.

Agincourt’s sister city also helps explain its character.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Geel

Sister City programs are out of fashion these days, I suspect. Suggestions that we may be more alike than different—despite language, culture and politics—don’t sit well with those intent on closing borders, marginalizing the poor or disenfranchising those on the edges of society. Agincourt has had a sister-city relationship since the mid 1980s: Geel, located in the Vlaams-speaking area of northern Belgium, not far from the Dutch border.

Our connection with Geel seems to have grown from an agricultural exchange program between our own Fennimore Farms and a comparable agribusiness there. But that chance encounter opened other doors for cultural comparison and reflection on the shrinking planet we all call home.

Geel, for example, is the site of an innovative mental health program, where the afflicted aren’t institutionalized. Instead, they live with families throughout the city, mainstreamed into the rhythm of its daily life. In a similar way, our own Dr Reinhold Kolb encouraged the residents of his Walden Retreat to venture outside its gemütlich safety and interact with Agincourt’s “normal” citizens. Their puppet theater in The Commons is still the stuff of legend.

Dymphna

Geel’s remarkable program grew from the city’s equally legendary saint—Dymphna, virgin and martyr—an Irish princess who sought sanctuary there to escape her father’s unwanted sexual advances. Murdered and then buried in Belgium, Dymphna’s tomb became linked with miraculous cures of the mentally ill. Do you suppose there’s another place in Christendom with a church bearing her name? I’ll bet Saint Ahab registers about as high on that scale, another unexpected link with Geel.

As we approach the twenty-fifth anniverary of sister-city status, I wonder what other parallels exist between us and those highly suspect Europeans. And just what is normal, anyway? Damned if I know.


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