Pastor Ron Pierre Vignec, Poet of the Eastside, Bringer of Peace to the troubled, Forager of Food for the hungry, Speaker of Truth to power, Sharer of Burdens with the hopeless, and Santa Claus to those who choose to believe, has died.
Thursday afternoon, Nov. 7, he suffered internal bleeding. Over the next days his wife Nancy, his son Lauren, his daughter Nicole, and his sister Christina Winch told him everything they needed to say and he needed to hear.
Sunday, he died, surrounded by love – and the understanding that grace comes at a price.
Nancy kissed him as he left, and word of the loss spread to all the souls who had worked with the Vignecs to transform Tacoma's desolate places into gardens of possibility.
She was 16 when she met him at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center by Lake Chelan. He was 22, the child of a broken Russian Orthodox family in Brooklyn.
“His mother was working in some factory with a Norwegian woman,” Nancy said.
Ron's mother did not feel welcome in the neighborhood's Catholic church.
“Well, send him to the Lutheran Church,” her friend said. “They'll take anybody.”
Ron Vignec spent the rest of his life proving that.
He already had dropped out of college twice when Nancy spotted him working at Holden Village.
“I came there with my youth group,” Nancy said. “He was very handsome, with beautiful dark hair and distinctive features. I liked him. So I sent him a little note, 'I have a crush on you, but don't worry.' I was there for one week. At the end of that week I told him, 'In five years, you will finish college, and you and I will marry.' We wrote letters for the whole first year. I have all of those letters, and they are all poems, just beautiful.”
They married in 1970. They taught in a grade school on Staten Island for four years. Ron became a Lutheran pastor, and they were called to a church in Stone Mountain, Ga. Ron threw himself into the community, immersing himself into meeting its needs over his own and his family's.
Two years later, when he was called to become campus minister at Pacific Lutheran University, they were thrilled.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” Nancy said. “Working with people that age is just so thrilling. Exploring ideas, choosing life goals. A lot of Ron's work was focused on peace and justice.” Plus, he had a day off each week, and vacations.
In 1985, he had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“You know this trip will change your life,” Nancy told him.
Just as El Salvador was Rife with political brutality, Salishan was awash in criminal violence.
When his church established the Salishan Lutheran mission, he accepted their call to serve it.
“He'd had those wonderful years at PLU working on peace and justice in an academic way,” Nancy said. “Here was a chance for the two of us to do it together. It was a totally new mission started by the national Church and the local synod. He had to start absolutely from scratch.”
Ron founded the mission, and Nancy worked for Lutheran Social Services.
In those days, social work revolved around the idea that good people with enough money and authority could parachute into troubled communities and fix everything from the top down. Funders allocated money on the basis of needs, not accountability for results. It didn't work, and Chicago's troubled public housing high-rises became the national symbol of its failure. Salishan was the local example.
Two University of Chicago social scientists were proposing a truer vision.
John P. Kretzmann and John McKnight identified strengths in troubled neighborhoods, mapped those assets and built funding around them. They called it Asset-Based Community Development, rebuilding communities from within.
The Vignecs, who are friends of Kretzmann and McKnight, brought the concept to Salishan. They started by learning the community, identifying its natural leaders. They got training for those leaders, and invited them to serve in associations and on councils.
“A main source was the parents who were part of the Head Start policy council at Lister Elementary School,” Nancy said.
Those parents were fighting to keep the school in Salishan when the school district replaced it. When they won that, they worked to make the school responsive, with resources open to the neighbors. Children going to the new school said it felt like it was reaching out to welcome them with a hug.
Salishan Lutheran Mission met first in the ragged East Side Neighborhood Center, with Sunday services at 4 p.m., followed by a meal.
In the neighborhood of poor families, food was the magic lure that drew people, especially kids, to participate in healthy programs.
Pastor Ron, as everyone called him, took to keeping a stash of non-perishable staples in the mission van so that he could offer hungry families immediate help.
“We focused a lot of work on three things,” Nancy said. “Responding to basic needs, identifying gifts and aspirations and having people share those gifts with the whole community.”
The Mission had a weekly Sing & Snack evening. It had an annual Christmas pageant.
“We always had a live baby Jesus every single year,” Nancy said.
And Pastor Ron was always Santa Claus, who may have been his long-lost twin.
The leaders blossomed. Kids went to college. Families learned the skills to support themselves and moved out of Salishan.
Nancy was an ally for Tacoma Housing Authority, which owned all of the old Salishan, built during World War II. In 1991, THA recruited her.
Salishan Lutheran Mission was already inviting other players to collaborate. PLU students volunteered there, and some lived there during the summer, staffing community programs. Tacoma Schools and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department partnered to put Family Resource Centers at the schools. The Health Department stationed a public health nurse there to address everything from parenting, cooking and budgeting to domestic abuse. Tacoma Police worked with residents in multiple languages to set up phone trees and report crime. The Girl Scouts adapted their programs for immigrant families. The Mission started anti-gang programs. The 4-H and Washington State University backed gardens and sewing classes.
Community heroes rose to the challenge. Darachan Ros. Norma Levingston. Gloria Morehouse. Joyce Miles. Justine Archer. Sue Bernstein. Lisa Miller. Dozens, hundreds more.
The Vignecs were in the thick of it, introducing potential collaborators to the wonders of a community healing itself. Metro Parks joined, and kids ate during the summer and danced and played all year long.
Pastor Ron invited everyone, everyone, to pile into his van for a tour of the hidden riches of the East Side, from the taqueria with the Vietnamese owner to the Gathering Place, the community garden, the Puyallup Tribe's cemetery, the African Drum and Dance Team practice and the Cambodian language and dance classes, the Buddhist temples, Holy Family of Jesus Cambodian Episcopal Church and HFJ Community Services with its Asian food bank.
He gave hundreds of tours, and drew in scores of collaborators.
When Tacoma Housing Authority gathered the money to tear down the old Salishan and rebuild it as a community that includes privately owned homes, the Vignecs had dozens of supporters waiting to help with, and invest in, that rebirth.
But Pastor Ron's tours acknowledged the East Side's grief, too.
He pointed out where a mother and her children were beaten, their house torched. He showed where school children had fallen to drive-by shooters and the Beltway Sniper had practiced on a young woman in Salishan.
When Associated Ministries started its Moments of Blessing to reclaim the places where murder victims fell, Pastor Ron was among the first clerics to join. Since then, the program has filled pole after pole with ribbons bearing the names of victims throughout Pierce County.
“Ron attended many, many, many moments of blessing,” Nancy said. “Often he was the only person there. He often had some of those poles in the car. That ministry was extremely important to him. He thought it was very, very valuable. It is a perfect example of the kind of minister he was – always in the community.”
Not only was he always in the community, he was always feeling the community. He carried with him the grief of fathers whose sons were heading to prison, the helplessness of moms who could not rescue children from drugs.
He shared that heavy understanding in his advocacy. He stood in meetings, and in his sermons, speaking in what was the poetry of God's love.
In 2007 he was awarded the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize for his life's work as a peacemaker. In 2009, he retired from his ministry.
He never retired from his mission.
Pastor Ron Vignec earned the love and respect of Tacoma's Southeast Asian community
By Darren Pen
When my family moved from Chicago to Tacoma in 1992, we heard many refugees, kids, youths and elders from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos talking about Pastor Ron not less than a million times, no matter where I went. That made me wonder who he was, and I wanted to meet him. Later on we met, and we became close friends.
As a Khmer community activist, president of Khmer Community of Tacoma, a Safe Streets Community Mobilization Specialist and commissioner with the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, I know why many South East Asian kids, youths and elders knew Pastor Ron. If they got into trouble with the systems or needed help, Pastor Ron was always there with them and for them.
Three decades ago, many refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos found homes in Tacoma. Many of them resided in the East Side Salishan Housing area and a Hilltop neighborhood. The majority of them were having a very difficult time due to new a culture, system, language, and a new way of life. Then there was a man many Americans called Pastor Ron Vignec. But those refugees called him a “white American church-man” because they did not speak English and it was too difficult for them to remember, and it was very easy for them to share the good deeds that a “white American church-man” had been doing among their ethnic groups there. Because a white American church-man had been involved, assisted, helped, mentored, represented them hundreds and thousands of times, they became close friends. They trusted the white American church-man and they met him more often, and called him “Pastor Ron.”
The humble white American church-man/Pastor Ron’s legacy will be in our Cambodian community of Tacoma for generations to come!
What were a white American church-man/Pastor Ron’s legacies among refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos here in Tacoma?
Supporting those who were hungry and underserved.
Defending those who were victimized by unfair treatment or abandoned by society.
Grieving with those who lost their loved ones in gang-violence, by accidents or natural death.
Building bridges for those who needed a better life and education.
Advocating on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves.
Listening to those who needed to share their problems.
Giving to those who were in need.
Not looking to enhance his reputation when he had a task to do among those refugees; he just started his work with compassion.
Encouraging those who were weak.
Celebrating with appreciation for those who had different beliefs and cultures.