BERLIN, Ohio (Mennonite Mission Network) – Paul Nelson, former mission innovator in Ireland, died Sept. 13, 2018, at Souderton (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Home. He was 67 years old.
Nelson was born Apr. 23, 1951, in Wayland, Iowa, to Boyd H. and Welma B. (Graber) Nelson. The family moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where he graduated from Bethany Christian Schools and Goshen College, both located in Goshen, Indiana. He and Dawn Ruth were married in 1976.
Dawn and Paul had a fervent love of living out the gospel. As members of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, they were challenged to serve as missionaries. But their response was different from that of mission workers in years past. Instead of going as missionaries, they heeded the advice of John Howard Yoder to go and "as you go, preach." The emphasis wasn't on doing, but on simply being. As they were present in the community, they learned what they were to do.
The Nelsons moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1979 at the height of the political-religious violence nearby in Northern Ireland.
In Ireland, the ministry became an expression of the joint activity of MCC and of Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. The ministry was known locally as the Irish Mennonite Movement.
"Mennonites like Paul Nelson walked alongside people who were trying to follow Jesus, to move beyond sectarianism, and to live the gospel of peace," said Tim Foley, Mennonite Mission Network's director for Europe.
"Paul was quiet and didn't say much," said Mike Garde, an Irish Mennonite colleague. "But when he spoke, it counted." Even more important than his words were his actions, said Garde. "He was a servant," and was the kind of person who would throw a towel over his shoulder and get to work washing dishes.
After several years of living in a low-income neighborhood in Dublin, Paul saw the need for transportation. He started a bicycle business called Phoenix Cycles, where he manufactured, sold, and repaired bikes. In a flat economy, the business was a means for employment for himself and others in the community. While the bike shop eventually closed, it wasn't before garnering attention from The Late Show, said Garreth Byrne, who worked with Dawn.
At the time, it was a creative way to think about mission work. It wasn't solely business as mission. It wasn't only peace work, or church planting, or evangelism. It was an integrated ministry of presence.
The result? A church.
They met in the basement of an old house: Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Anabaptist. The building was both their home and the place they gathered for worship.
"We were tasked with the initial vision of addressing the conflict in Northern Ireland," said Garde. "But we realized that the problem was the sectarian nature of the birthright religion. People didn't choose their faith; it was chosen for them at birth." It was in that context that the nature of Anabaptism—an adult believers' choice to follow Christ—really attracted people.
Dawn and Paul lived and served the community in Ireland, and modeled a peaceful presence for 12 years, until they returned to the United States in 1991.
They settled in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, where Dawn pastored Methacton Mennonite Church (Eagleville, Pennsylvania) and Paul worked in IT at Laminators Incorporated (Hatfield, Pennsylvania). Each day, for 20 years, he made the 12-mile bicycle ride.
Although Paul was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 2014, he continued to volunteer several mornings a week.
Paul Nelson is survived by his children, Sarah Ruth, Peter Levi (Emily Bender), and Benjamin Henry Paul Nelson, and by an older brother, Benjamin H. (Susan Gardner) Nelson, and a younger sister, Barbara (James) Nelson Gingerich. His wife, Dawn Ruth Nelson, died in 2017.
Visitation will be at Plains Mennonite Church (Hatfield) on Sunday, Sept. 23, at 2 p.m., with memorial service to follow at 3 p.m.