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Ione Hanson: Woman of the Prairies, Woman of the World

An Interview with Wife of LWF President-elect Mark Hanson

WINNIPEG, Canada, 30 July 2003 - Ione Agrimson Hanson, wife of LWF president-elect Mark Hanson, describes herself as "a woman of the prairies." Her roots and soul are there, she says, in the wide open spaces of North Dakota and Minnesota, where she grew up. The Norwegian Lutheran pastor’s daughter, named Ione Evangeline after her grandmothers’ (Inga and Ella) initials, was blessed with a liberal father who was a leader in the Lutheran church of the upper Middle West. Pastor J. Elmo Agrimson encouraged ecumenical relations among the Lutheran bodies still separated by ethnic divisions and encouraged his daughter to read widely and think deeply.

Thus this "woman of the prairies" also grew up with "eyes open to the world." Her worldview expanded further when she and her new husband, Mark Hanson, both 1968 graduates of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, moved to New York City in 1970. There they continued their education. He pursued a Master of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary. She earned a Master’s Degree in social work from New York’s Hunter College. "It was the height of the feminist movement," she stated -- a fascinating time to live in New York.

She remembers as especially "powerful cultural and clinical" experiences her two internships in New York, one at a public school in the Bronx, the other, in the psychiatric outpatient department of Montefiore Hospital. The experiences also reinforced her growing interest in and concern for children’s problems.

Ironically, however, it was back in Minneapolis, where they returned so her husband could finish his studies at Luther Seminary and move towards ordination, that she "learnt more than I ever learnt in graduate school." They lived in an apartment owned by Prince of Glory Lutheran Church, where Mark Hanson was on the staff. "We truly lived amongst the people," who were mostly single mothers and poor. During that period, she began what would become a career in social work with troubled children.

By then the Hansons were ready to start their own family. For many reasons – Ione Hanson’s parents had adopted children; she was in daily contact with children in desperate need; and there was the problem of infertility – the Hansons decided to adopt.

In 1976, they adopted Aaron, a three-week-old baby of African-American/Caucasian descent. Aaron became the first of four children of mixed race adopted by Ione and Mark Hanson over the next six years. The others are Alyssa, Rachel and Ezra.

Then, at the age of 40, Ione and Mark Hanson learnt to their great surprise and joy that she was pregnant. Isaac was born in 1986, followed by Elizabeth, in 1988. Of raising an interracial family, she tells a simple but eloquent story. "One day when Isaac was three, he rubbed the back of his hand and asked, ‘When am I going to turn brown?’"

With a houseful of young children and a husband who shared equally in the domestic chores, Ione realized, "I’d had jobs but not a profession." In 1990 she went to work as a clinical social worker at Children’s Hospitals in Minneapolis and St Paul. There she remained until 2002 and eventually rose to the position of director of social work.

She negotiated every step up the career ladder with one condition: she would work Monday through Thursday so that she could spend more time with her family. Her husband took every Monday off to be "house husband," and her mother helped out. The invariable component of family life was that the entire family always, every night, sat down together for dinner.

Of her marriage to Mark Hanson, she says, "We are incredible partners together. Whoever came home first cooked dinner. Mark ironed his own clothes, and we shared all the housework." That partnership also extended to "going through everything one can go through with children, short of death." She credits the trials of parenting for "preparing us for public leadership on many issues. It informed who we are."

She also credits the experience of raising four interracial children as the "horrible privilege" that has opened her eyes in the most intimate way possible to the hard reality of racism in society. When she saw her own son strip-searched outside the family home just because the police thought he was in the wrong neighborhood, she felt the pain of racism at the most personal level.

In 2002, Ione and Mark Hanson’s balancing acts of career and domestic life came to an end when he was elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). An enormous career leap for him spelled great loss for her -- the loss of both professional and family life, because it required a move to Chicago, where the ELCA is located.

Today, five of the six Hanson children live in a variety of independent living settings back in Minneapolis, and only the youngest, Elizabeth, lives with Mom and Dad. "It gets lonely for both of us," admits Ione. "Elizabeth misses her Dad, who is often on the road. The other kids miss him, too."

She says she has experienced a certain loss of identity, particularly professionally, but wants to give herself two years to adjust to her new environment before making any decisions about resuming her career. And "I don’t want to spend time away from Mark in this decade of our lives."

Of her husband’s position as presiding bishop and now his added responsibility as president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Ione says, "I’ve been with clergy my whole life, and I believe in the Call." She knows her husband’s gifts and affirms his summons to leadership in the church. But she also admits that, as the wife of the LWF president, it would be easy to become "just a comma."

Although she readily acknowledges that this has been a difficult transition, she says, "I won’t get stuck." She looks forward to traveling with her husband as much as possible. "This is a marvelous opportunity to become a global citizen, to meet people where they are." She is eager to explore her own interests in their travels: issues concerning children and violence in families, which are present in every country.

Like her husband, Ione promises to be a listener first. That is perhaps easier for her, the self-described introvert who has had to learn some extroverted behaviors, than it is for her husband, who is much more outgoing. She says that he has taught her to be more expressive and she has taught him to be a better listener.

The eyes of this gracious, articulate and hugely honest woman light up when she talks about life immediately post-Assembly. "The whole family’s going to be together. We’re going to the Great Wall (a favorite Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis), where they know us so well, they know when to bring out the birthday cakes." She smiles as she anticipates the central event in the Hanson family life: gathering around the table for a meal.

(Martha Lindberg Mann, Boston, USA, conducted the interview with Ione Agrimson Hanson.)

The Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is taking place 21-31 July 2003 in Winnipeg, Canada, under the theme "For the Healing of the World." It is being hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

There are around 820 men, women and youth participants in the Tenth Assembly including 380 delegates from the 133 churches with full membership and three associate members. The Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the LWF, and meets normally every six years. Between Assemblies, the LWF is governed by its Council that meets annually, and by its Executive Committee.

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