Roswell, New Mexico is best known — or vaguely known, at least — for a 1947 UFO incident, some 75 miles from town, that flooded the area with conspiracy theories rather than green aliens.
Some hotels and restaurants along North Main Street still play to visitors’ curiosity — including an aging McDonald’s built in the shape of a flying saucer.
However, my recent drive through miles of wide-open plains with just a scattering of cattle, sheep and pronghorn was to visit a remarkable man whose support and encouragement I’ve long received, but someone I’d never met.
Morgan Nelson lives on the outskirts of Roswell in the home he first occupied in 1928. “We’ve been farming the same land here since 1895,” he said of the family-owned acres that now produce corn used to feed dairy cattle.
This savvy user of communication technology has computer set-ups in both his den and his home office in an adjacent adobe building. My April visit lived up to its high expectations as Mr. Nelson and I discussed his remarkable life and various topics of interests we share in common.
In his hands were copies of recent articles from Nurturing Faith Journal — particularly those Bruce Gourley and I had written about the emerging Jesus Worldview Initiative. Mr. Morgan’s mind was clicking as we discussed the remarkable absence of the life and teachings of Jesus within much of American evangelicalism.
“Jesus is what it’s all about,” he said, expressing surprise that so many Christians seem driven by an opposing political agenda.
At my urging, he shared copies of his own reflections — including those based on our writings about the need for advancing a Jesus worldview that “rejects authoritarian concepts of God; values people above doctrines; expresses love of others and rejects fear of others; does not legislate religious morality; advocates widespread human rights and equality; heals the sick and provides for the poor; strives for economic justice; seeks peace; embraces truth and is not selfish.”
Mr. Morgan’s thoughtful, theological writings included one about gaining a better understanding of grace. People are “hungry for a viable alternative to religious-right fundamentalism,” he noted.
To that end, Mr. Nelson sends Nurturing Faith Journal gift subscriptions to several friends with whom he has ongoing conversations. A retired judge, he said, called him recently after reading the journal for the first time to exclaim, “I can’t believe this comes from Baptists.”
He and another friend, a non-believer, continually discuss the validity of the Christian faith. Mr. Nelson said he emphasizes Jesus who emphasized love — expressed so clearly and concisely in the greatest commandments calling for unbridled love of God and inclusive love of neighbor.
“Jesus didn’t equivocate on those,” he said emphatically. “If you read his parables, most of them are basically about love. That’s what Jesus taught. He changed the world from hate and revenge to love.”
An overarching question has emerged for Mr. Nelson, to which he is giving much thought and urged our exploration as well: “What if Jesus never existed? What would the world be like today?”
That is a question worth serious reflection — and one that has stayed with me long after my departing drive through more of New Mexico’s wide-open spaces.
What a remarkable life he continues to live.
A mechanical engineer, he has long applied his critical thinking and insights to other areas of interest — often to the benefit of his community. He has played a major role in preserving and harnessing the much-need water of the artesian basin used to irrigate the area’s productive farmland.
“We’re in a permanent drought,” he said of the arid land that with a well-managed water source adequately provides for productive fields. He was written or published books about a variety of subjects including water struggles and innovations, as well as a local history of nearby Lincoln County where gunfighter Billy the Kid was laid to rest at age 21.
Mr. Morgan served in the Air Force from 1941-46, including stops in Egypt and Palestine. “I was at Armageddon, seven miles out of Nazareth, servicing bombers for five months,” he said. During his service time he took advantage of exploring the lands of the Bible as much as possible.
Returning to Roswell after World War II, he was elected to the state legislature. During his 12-year tenure Mr. Morgan led efforts to create the community college system across New Mexico. From 1951-1967 he served in the Air Force Reserves, retiring with the rank of colonel.
So he does more than peruse books and journals — and never settles for easy, pat answers free of serious analysis. He engages with the topics and others who share his inquisitive approach. And, as he told me, he “writes a lot of things just for myself.”
Leaving Roswell with some of those insightful writings added to the gratification of my first visit to grand plains of New Mexico and having the privilege of getting to know Morgan Nelson beyond the many years of exchanging affirming letters.
“The Bible has sufficient answers,” he noted, adding that, however, too often the wonderful allegories and other vessels of truth get hammered into absolutes. “But they are not!”
He spoke of the abuses of religion that come from literalism and legalism, seeking to control people rather than relieving control. “[Control] is just a human characteristic that gets confused with Christ,” he added.
Eventually, our long and enjoyable conversation came full circle: He affirmed that after 98 years and five months, he has found nothing more deserving of his attention and allegiance than the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ — who beyond everything else called his followers to love God and others.