The Desert Floor Photo Credit: Helene Swanson
As I walk through Nevada on my Pilgrimage for the ERA this past May of 2014, I recall the time in my childhood when my family left Jersey City, NJ. I thought we were headed to the west coast, but somehow we wound up in Vegas. My second day there I walked the south end of The Strip to Caesar’s Palace in the midst of a heat wave looking for my parents who had not made it back to the hotel the night before. The bellhops took care of me. I will never forget how kindly they tended to my needs.
Vegas was an eye opener for a New Yorker. It was the first time I was in a predominantly white neighborhood: culture shock! The police used the blacks of North Las Vegas as target practice. You did not win there and think you could really walk away with your winnings, and the dazzlingly lights of the Strip hid the underbelly that walked the streets. It was the wild, wild, west.
I thought I had street savvy, but I had a lot to adjust to, so many learning curves! I was cornered in the gym at Garside Junior High by “mean girls” for not having a real New York accent. I worked hard on changing my enunciation since it was a matter of survival. Even now, at times, my old accent emerges during Mass. I so desperately wanted to fit in that I joined every school club so that I could appear in every yearbook shot. I started to make friends, “geeks,” and it was a grand time. I became “besties” with friends who moved onto our block we were quite the gang. One turned me on to the Beatles, of whom I’d never heard. Another turned me on Led Zepplin. I discovered the desert. I loved exploring the ravines and trying to catch the lizards. I got adept at getting them but they had their ways too: “Just lose your tail and you’re free!” I learned Nevada history, and its heritage of working for the abolition of slavery, a heritage to take pride in. I regard that as a heritage to build upon by ratifying the ERA.
My mum had another horrible accident, and poverty struck again. A classmate’s mother took me in while my mother recuperated at the hospital for the next few months. I had to give up a lot of things. I was made to feel shame and disgrace for not being like this woman’s perfect daughter. I was forced to go to a Billy Graham event. It was so much fun! Everyone was celebrating Jesus, money poured into the baskets, people bought me things to take home. And again my mind was blown away, another culture shock event. Yet, it was here that I embraced, “If ye have the faith of a mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you.” I have held on to that scripture through thick and thin: applying the concept of faith to faith in one’s self, God in one’s life. I picked up the Bible convinced there were a lot of good things in this book. Now all I had to do was figure out what they were trying to say.
So here it is many years later, I don’t forget all the good times, all the bad times, the ‘tween times. So I have learned that money is simply a tool, not to be worshiped. It is this planet we are to care for, to love. It is God that we place first and foremost and all else will fall into place.
So as ya’ all know, my journey on this pilgrimage through Nevada started off with a longing. I hung out with Jocelyn Diaz and Janette Dean of Carson City and with the help of Jeff Munson I am forever grateful for his piece covering our event. They brought all their energy and their passion to the cause of Equality for all. I made my way to Dayton then on to Fallon to enjoy Easter with the Wilson – Dolan – Viney Family of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fallon, NV. They shared who the family was, a notable family who took in a young orphaned Wavonka, a Piute Indian, who kept the prophecy of the White Buffalo alive and revived Ghost Dancing. I owe so much to Deacon Nancy Janess, who insured that my replacement shoes made it safely to Tonapah. Nancy made arrangements for me to get rest at a local motel. Shoes courtesy of Rev. Esther Gardner were shipped to Mother Joan Laliberte who is holding down the fort figuratively at St. Marks in the gold mining of Tonapah, where the idea of a woman priest is challenging to the locals. In Beatty I thought of dropping by my friends at Spicer Mining/Boiling Pot Ranch, it has been so many years, since dear old Jim passed on and my speaking with Elsie his bereaved widow, but had too much fun at Bailey’s Hot Springs and fear of a bygone era got the best of me.
Swanson meets up with folks at the Nye County Democratic Party Headquarters Photo Credit: Cles Saunders
My soon to be new found friends Jannis and Cles Saunders, Margery and Robert Hanson, and Harvey Kulkin in Pahrump, beckoned me on, I had to “put a dime on it.” Folks in Pahrump were stirring the pot and had big dreams. They worked hard organizing The Rally 4 Rights Event at the Henderson Convention Center. And it was a blast, it felt like a private party, I met Chris Hyepock, a would-be contender for Govenor of Nevada and a number of other folks who were equally inspirational. Most importantly, I witnessed the beginnings of a core group dedicated to ratifying the ERA.
Swanson speaks at the Rally 4 Rights, Henderson Convention Center Photo Credit: Cles Saunders
In Vegas, I stayed with a woman whose pain, her suffering, her desire to break the bonds of generational dysfunction; I did not want to leave, but I spent more days than I should have. She did the best she could, all things considered, her partner drove me to Bishop Dan’ Edwards of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada office off of Eastern Blvd., where I received a blessing, which I sure could use. The weekend before she accompanied me the Rally 4 Rights sponsored by UnitedWomen.org and co-organized by the Progressive Democrats of Nevada. They worked so hard to pull it all together. I was impressed: not bad for introducing a delicate subject to a state going through growing pains.
Bishop Dan Edwards of the Diocese of Nevada blesses Helene Swanson Photo Credit: Debbie Rivera
I marveled at how Vegas had grown. I joined the folks at Grace of the Desert Episcopal Church on Memorial Day weekend recalling that this church was the last place my beloved William received Holy Communion. It was a time of contemplation. Each day I walked a few miles toward The Strip taking the bus back so as to cross Vegas without costing a destitute family more than what they could afford. But it was time to move on. On my last day I had her drop me off at Ceasar’s Palace where I had walked to the day before, we hugged goodbye and I assured her little one that I would be a part of his life for years to come.
It was the 10th Anniversary of our civil marriage, which took place on my 10 minute break at the Marin County Public Defender’s Office. I knew that night as I know now that my beloved waits patiently for me to attend to affairs here, that he whispers in God’s ear from time to time and that I am loved and to be strong. I left Las Vegas, carrying on with bringing the message of Christ to the world.
Coffee hour with the congregation of St. Christopher’s, Boulder City, NV Photo Credit: Jean Zaebst
I was warmly received by the folks at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, in Boulder City, NV. I felt renewed and inspired by Father Jim’s homily, I learned to count 100 blessings before calling it a day, like my Jewish friends.
On the side of the road I met a Native American/Indian sage who instructed me to listen to the night when he and I exchanged stories. Inspired by his words I wrote the following poem.
Listen To The Night
Reaching out I listen to the night
In the darkness I find the light
My soul soars to new heights
As I listen, listen to the night
Swanson rests at Eldorado Canyon, Nevada off of Route 95 Photo Credit: Indian Sage
I passed through Searchlight en route to my lovely new friend Leah and her husband Manuel who hosted me. I recuperated from a couple of days on the desert without adequate food and water. They introduced me to their congregation who embraced me as one of their own, and invited me to participate in their parish’s vestry meeting. The Church of the Holy Spirit is the last church on the Southern boundary of the Diocese of Nevada and it’s in Bullhead City.
Vestry Meeting of Church of the Holy Spirit, Bullhead City, AZ.Photo Credit:
Battleborn, Nevada, I have faith in you. You have given me so much. You shaped my very being. So much so, that I have faith that you will be the state that sets the nation on fire when it comes to passing the Equal Rights Amendment. You moved the United States in the abolition of slavery. You again will move this nation forward. I have faith in your people. I love your spirit, I love your people, the folks that come far and wide in search of their dreams. I love your desert, your mountains and lakes, your past and where you will take us. Stand strong, stand bold, lead this nation, and remember you will always have a place in my heart.
Hoover Dam, Boulder City, NV Photo Credit: Helene Swanson