Nathan Dannison cannot be described in just a few words.
First, at just 34, he’s the senior pastor at Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church. He’s also a seventh-generation Michigander who hunts and fishes, plays fiddle in the local Americana band Who Hit John?, restores old houses, wants to solve homelessness and was just tapped to fill the single at-large seat on Kalamazoo’s Foundation for Excellence board of directors, which oversees the $70 million endowment fund established to stabilize the city’s budget, reduce property taxes and pay for community projects. Oh, yes, and he’s a husband and father who runs around after a toddler.
How did you get where you are today?
My call story is complicated — I came to a point where I realized that I would be a disciple of Jesus Christ for the rest of my life. I had a mentor, Rev. Todd Petty, who encouraged me to do two things — work closely with the homeless population in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood and go to seminary. I did both. I came out of seminary more politically charged and became a community organizer with the Gamaliel Foundation, working here and in Chicago, where I really discerned that God was sowing in me this passion for Congregational ministry.
We (he and his wife, Heather) left West Michigan, lived in the South for several years and did a stint in Palestine’s West Bank, where I was an emergency medical technician with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Ultimately, after supporting my partner through her Ph.D. program, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University and completed the coursework, but was broken-hearted that I wasn’t serving a church. So we decided together to do a “search and call” — that’s the process of finding a church home — and, as God would have it, received the call here to Kalamazoo.
Did you grow up as a Congregationalist?
Sort of. (he laughs). My parents probably would have liked me to spend more time in church than I did. I was kind of a terror as a teenager. I was not a good student and was a rebel. I needed some guidance, and my parents were just awesome and brilliant and provided me with every opportunity. I like to think that today it gives me a perspective on kids who maybe don’t stick to the straight and narrow — you know, don’t give up hope; they might grow up to be Congregationalist ministers (he laughs).
Why did you want to be on the Foundation for Excellence’s board?
The foundation’s board has a fiduciary role but isn’t in charge of how the money is spent — it’s critically important that people understand that. It really is the voters and elected officials by proxy who will decide how the revenue is spent. My concern is how the monies are invested. As someone who oversees a church with a fairly significant investment portfolio and a belief that these investments should align with our values as a church, I believe Kalamazoo has shared values and my hope in participating on this board is to encourage us to invest these monies in ways that are meaningful and impactful and align with our shared civic values.
What are those ‘shared civic values’?
Kalamazoo is a community that believes that public education is a public good. (Kalamazoo County) Sheriff (Richard) Fuller put it very succinctly when he said, “You either pay for schools or you pay for jails.” Giving people opportunities to get education — traditional, nontraditional, or vocational education — improves the quality of life for all of us.
I also believe we are a community that values inclusiveness and accepts people that perhaps are turned away elsewhere. We prayed for marriage equality for years in this community, and when we found out that Michigan would be the Supreme Court’s test case for marriage equality, we felt that God was moving in a really powerful way. When the vote came through, we had so many people come to the church to pray and give thanks that we spilled out into Bronson Park, and the city of Kalamazoo was there waiting for us. There were thousands in the park that day. That is emblematic of who we are as a people. We are a people of hope and, we believe, taking a courageous step to be on the right side of history.
You have a musical side as well.
I played the violin as a kid and in college was introduced to a song circle by a friend and started playing more traditional roots music. I’ve been in Who Hit John? off and on for over a decade now. We play American music and love the songbook of American history. Now we all have jobs, wives, kids and whatnot, so we don’t play as much as we’d like to. Jamie Cavanaugh has us play once a month at O’Duffy’s, and I love it.
You are also passionate about solving homelessness.
Kalamazoo has a very significant homeless problem. It ought to bother us and concern us because I don’t believe we need to have that.
I’m an advocate of something called “housing first,” which is the idea you can’t use homelessness as a punishment to try to get people to make better choices. I’m not a big drinker, but if I was told, “Pastor Nathan, you are going to sleep under a bush tonight and it’s 20 degrees,” I would go buy a bottle of whiskey or something to get through the night. Homelessness creates anxiety, terror, fear and mental instability, and all these issues compound the problem. When we put up barriers to housing, we exacerbate the problem.
My favorite example of a successful model is Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada — it’s the same size as Kalamazoo, has the same kind of economy and also has a funny name. They’ve reduced homelessness by 95 percent. They are motivated to do this for fiscally conservative reasons. It’s very expensive to treat people when they’re living on the street — they are hard to find and their illnesses compound. I believe we can create a solution to this problem that houses people first — not in an emergency shelter but with a set of keys, a bed to sleep on and an address to get mail — and then once there’s a roof over their head, initiate the intensive interventions and treatments that we have available to us in Kalamazoo.
We have 10 empty residential units in Kalamazoo County for every single homeless man, woman and child in our community. I am not saying the answer is to redistribute those houses or take them away from their owners or something like that, but it’s not a question of whether or not we have the resources to solve this problem, because we do. We absolutely do.
Do all your varying passions — music, solving homelessness, old buildings, community — ever come together?
When the sound of the pipe organ and the music, the light through the clerestory windows, the smell of church coffee and the liturgy are all there waiting for you to experience with your body, it’s like opening the pages of a beautiful book that was written thousands of years ago and is still being written today and you are part of writing that story. That’s when it comes together for me, on Sunday morning.
— Interviewed by Marie Lee