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Retired professor writes, teaches, volunteers, travels and observes

Gordon Jackson has published two books.

Between writing, teaching, volunteering and traveling, Gordon Jackson has kept busy since his retirement in 2015, after 32 years of teaching journalism at Whitworth University.

During 2017, he focused on completing and publishing two books, Be Thou My Vision: Light, Sight and the Christian Faith in February and a novel, The Church That Used to Be St. Elmos in June.

In 2016, Gordon taught a January Term class, taking students to his homeland, South Africa, and he teaches a professional writing class for the adult education programs through Whitworth.

He and his wife, Sue, frequently travel to South Africa to visit their friends and family. Of four trips in the last five years, two have been to take students for study programs there. 

Gordon finds that it’s valuable to take students to South Africa, because among other things they learn the politics there lend insights into the U.S. political scene.

Much of Gordon’s time recently was spent writing the two books that were published last year. 

The first was a book on light and sight, inspired because he has had glaucoma for about 20 years.

“Thanks to good medical care my vision remains stable, but it has heightened my sensitivity to sight,” said Gordon.

That led him to write, Be Thou My Vision.  An essay by a biology professor 10 years ago started him thinking about vision and how people can see because of physical and chemical processes in their brains.

“I began thinking about what the image of God means, looking through both a theological and a biological lens,” he said.  “How are we seen by God and how do we see God?”

Gordon explores 32 topics related to light and sight, darkness and light, good and bad implications of blindness, the complexity and miracle of vision, and the physical and spiritual implications of mirrors, rainbows and shadows.

“Often when we are driving, we miss seeing many things.  We need to look purposely, or we miss seeing things. Like the need to stop and smell the roses, we need to stop and see what is around us,” he said.

In contrast with the nonfiction essays and reflections, Gordon has now also written a novel, The Church That Used to Be St. Elmos.

With “considerable humor,” he said he explores the concept of grace in a story about a fictitious church given $87 million on the condition that the church change its “geeky” name, be united in accepting the gift and keep the donor’s identity anonymous.

Gordon depicts many typical fictitious church members and common types of responses and interactions in churches.

“The people become hyper in excitement about what they might do with the money. Many vendors approach them to promote their products, like church buses.  The denominational executive wants a cut. The mayor wants to know how the church will support the community.  Media try to dig out information on the donor. The pastor finds life increasingly complicated,” Gordon summed up.

“Ultimately, the book looks at how people respond to unprecedented grace,” he said.

Gordon had written a draft of the book in 2005, but had put it aside. He later realized he had not followed two principles he taught his students: “remember the reader” and “don’t fall in love with what you write.”

In the fall of 2016, he was volunteering as interim principal at a K-12 English language school serving 54 U.S., Canadian and some Mexican students in Puebla, Mexico.  He had time on his hands after school and pulled out the draft.

Gordon cut large sections, added new sections and immediately found a publisher.  He spent a month polishing it on the publisher’s recommendation.

The cover is a drawing of the church as the face on a dollar bill.

The church setting is generic, Gordon said, and of an unspecified denomination.

“It’s meant to be generic so people of a wide range of traditions relate with it,” Gordon said.  “It’s a study on people and dynamics in churches.  Every church has ordinary, saintly but flawed people.”

The fiction flows from his own experiences, but the people are compilations of traits of people, not specific people, he said.

Gordon taught journalism, not fiction, but said principles of good writing are true for all writing.  They also include respect and consideration for the reader, and writing with conciseness, clarity and correctness, including spelling and grammar.

“By being considerate, I mean helping readers understand what a chemist, civil engineer or other specialist may be saying by interpreting their big words,” he said.

Gordon left South Africa in 1979 to complete a doctoral degree in 1983 at Indiana University. In 1980, he married Sue, who had worked with the South Africa Council of Churches and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She completed a master’s in ethnomusicology also at Indiana University and came to Whitworth, where she later worked with programs sending students abroad and receiving international students. Sue retired in 2017.

Gordon was born in 1949, a year after apartheid started as the official government system of separating South Africa’s racial groups, although it had been the unofficial system before then.

After completing his studies in Indiana and unable to find work in South Africa, he accepted teaching at Whitworth, thinking they would be there five years.

Now, while he and Sue are U.S. citizens, they consider themselves bi-cultural. Their children are American, but also feel ties to South Africa.

For many years, Gordon gave informational talks, mainly through the Humanities Washington Organization to help people in the state understand South Africa.

While he had been hopeful about the potential for South Africa when the African National Congress brought black rule, he has been disappointed that the President Jacob Zuma administration “systematically and ruthlessly curbed that potential because of the rampant corruption that afflicted the country.”

Zuma resigned the day in February that the Jacksons arrived for their most recent visit. 

They hope the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, will bring in new policies.

“We can learn lessons from South Africa’s leadership spiraling down when a popular, but corrupt leader ruled.  I blame the government for tolerating him so long and for so many selling their souls for power and greed,” he said.

On the current political situation in the United States, Gordon believes that “the independent media, independent courts and freedom of expression of the United States are its best hope for surviving the Trump era.”

To that end, he compiled an anthology of quotations he published as an e-book just before the President’s inauguration last year.  It’s titled, “Assuring Alexis: 306 Quotes of Encouragement and Hope for Withstanding the Trump Era.”  The number 306 refers to how many electoral votes he won, Gordon said.

Stressing the importance of a free press in a democracy, he cites French philosopher Albert Camus who said: “A free press can be either good or bad, but without freedom it can’t be anything but bad.”

Gordon added that “the U.S. can have good government or bad, but without free expression it can be nothing but bad.”

“Many people today grumble, gripe and express disdain for mainstream media, but what do they propose as an alternative?  Do they want the government to step in and control the media?  Which government?  The government of their own party, or that of the opposite political party?” Gordon asked.

In South Africa, he said there was much opposition to Zuma, but it was stifled because ownership of the press was concentrated in the ruling party.

“There is much work to do everywhere,” Gordon said.

One way he and Sue address concerns for people and the society, as well as connect internationally, is by volunteering.

They are now active in ministries at Covenant United Methodist Church, which they have attended for three years. 

Twelve years ago, they began volunteering Monday evenings at the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery—playing with children or just holding babies.  They can share in providing safety and unconditional love for children, while supporting families’ efforts to strengthen their homes to build a healthier community.

Now he also volunteers with Partnering for Progress, a Spokane nonprofit that helps ensure access to health care, education, nutrition, sanitation, clean water and economic development for people living in a developing region in Kenya.

For information, email gjackson@whitworth.edu.



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