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Wise Words with the Waldrefs

Sat., April 3, 2010

Rita Amberg Waldref, 62, and George Waldref, 57, got married 34 years ago today. They vowed from the beginning to “live simply that others might simply live,” as reads a plaque on the wall of their modest home on Spokane’s North Side.

They both chose professions of service. George is a nurse at Providence Holy Family Hospital. Rita directs the social justice ministry at St. Aloysius Parish in Spokane.

The couple have traveled to El Salvador five times since 2005 and helped establish a sister-parish program there.

They raised their two daughters, now grown, with the values of service and simplicity. Their oldest daughter, Amber Waldref, was recently elected to the Spokane City Council.

This is the complete transcript of their “Wise Words in Troubled Times” interview with Rebecca Nappi. An excerpt was published April 3, 2010 in The Spokesman-Review.

  • George: I was born in Spokane, Sacred Heart Hospital. I went to St. Ann’s grade school which no longer exists. The building was torn down. They built the freeway right in front of our house. We saw the ribbon cutting right from our second story bedroom window. From about age 12, we moved down to Lewiston, Idaho. I went to grade school, junior high and high school in Lewiston. Then for the rest of my life, I’ve been back in Spokane. I started out at Gonzaga University, didn’t graduate from there, because I was going to be a chem major and the math kind of killed me. I thought I’ll do what my dad did which was more or less cabinet and woodworking, but he never had any formal training. I got training through Spokane Community College. Our family scrimped by. My dad was a bartender at night. And a jack-of-all-trades in the daytime. He did painting and all kinds of different odd jobs. My mom never worked outside the home. I had three siblings. My mom from a previous marriage had two kids. And my dad from a previous marriage had a daughter. So there was this blended thing going on. My stepbrother lived with us until he went away to the Air Force in 1967 or so. For the most part, growing up, it was the four of us – my three siblings and I. We lived real simply. My mom and dad saved everything. They didn’t throw anything away. Sometimes, it got to the point of ludicrous. When they moved out of the house, we spent tons of times cleaning things out. Rita has to work with me on that because I save lots of stuff, because my folks always did.
  • Rita: I’m the oldest of 12 and I grew up in Morris, Minnesota. We lived very, very simply also. We didn’t have much at all, in terms of worldly goods. I had a great childhood. We had fun. Clothes were passed on. We had huge gardens. When I tell people we had 20 rhubarb plants, they kind of freak out. But that was our fruit for the summer, fall, winter, until the spring came again, because my mom canned lots of that. And tomatoes. It was a huge garden. So we ate well. My mom made bread. We ate well, and none of us starved. We wore simple clothing. I was the oldest so some of my things were newer than my siblings. I lived there until I went to high school. I had a scholarship to go to a boarding school, which I did. It was an escape from all the realities of a large family in a very small house. Then, I went off to college, which was also an all-girls college. Then, I taught for one year and got involved in parish ministry in this diocese which has been wonderful for me. We’ve always lived simply as a couple. In our hallway, a (picture) says “Live simply that others might simply live.” Values? You work hard. You don’t need everything. And if you need something, you save toward it. We’ve not gone into debt for anything, except we took out a loan to buy a house and a car. I think we took a loan out for our first refrigerator. We bought everything with money we had. There were times in our marriage when George wasn’t working, and I was working part-time and we were living on that. When we got married, we said we weren’t going to spend a lot of money on a wedding, and we didn’t. Very simple wedding at St. Al’s. We made a commitment to live simply from the very beginning.
  • George: Our girls call it the hippie wedding, because Rita’s dress was made by her secretary. My sister made my open-collar shirt. It was the ’70s. We had a potluck reception. We didn’t have a wedding cake. The joke was we’re going to have a keg, not a cake. The idea was celebration. The kinds of things we spoke to in the invitations ceremony and the invitations we sent out, was all come here to celebrate. At the ceremony itself, we greeted people at the door. We tried to break the tradition that I couldn’t see Rita before the wedding. We wanted people to feel welcomed at the start.

    Rita: I just carried one rose. We didn’t get off on the flower bit.

    George: Your sister was bridesmaid. My brother was best man. When I hear about the elaborate weddings, how do I feel? Well, whatever they want to do, but I question why. It’s one day and then what are they going to do for their anniversary?

  • George: Did we deliberately choose careers that meant service to others? I was talking about how I went to Gonzaga and how I didn’t become a chem major. I thought, “I can’t see sitting in a lab hours on end.” I liked science, but not that much. I liked working with my hands and making cabinets. I did the training out at the Community College, and I worked for a couple of different firms in the first 10 years. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t pay much. I never owned my own shop. I enjoyed it, but as we had kids, the firm I worked for didn’t pay for health insurance anymore and Rita had stopped working when the kids were young. We got by very simply, but it was really scratching to make ends meet. When the economy was doing its dip in the 80s, I worked four different places. I thought this is ridiculous, so I went back to school. I did some interest testing and it came out with physical therapy or nursing. Physical therapy required a master’s level and I didn’t have that much time to spend in school. So I did the program at the Community College in nursing and boom, our income levels went up considerably, because the pay was considerably better. I enjoyed it. I still have dreams of making cabinets. I loved that work, but it didn’t pay worth beans, and there is definitely more security in nursing. It is enjoyable, but for someone who finds it a little difficult to multi-task, it’s very demanding. I work as a staff nurse on a surgical unit at Providence Holy Family Hospital. I ride my bike to work. We have one car. We made that decision. I’ve done that ever since I’ve been a nurse.

    Rita: It was way before that. I think Amber was 3 or 4.

    George: So it’s been almost 30 years. We made the choice, because I was working at the cabinet shop, and Rita wasn’t working.

    Rita: I needed the car to take the kids around.

    George: And it was easy for me to bike.

    George: Do we ever miss a second car? In high school there were points when the girls had to be in different places and we told them, “You are just going to have to find a ride.” And it worked.

    Rita: Once a week, the girls could have the car. I worked my schedule around it. I would drop the car over at Gonzaga Prep and walk home. That would be my exercise for the day, so they could go and do what they wanted to do after school with the car. It requires a lot of conversation and organizing.

  • Rita: I could never see myself doing work at a place that was for profit. It’s just not me. I taught high school for one year, and that wasn’t me, either. I got into parish work the year after I taught high school. I had come out to Gonzaga for summer school, and I’ve stayed out here since 1973. I’ve always loved church work. I went to Catholic high school and college, and at the Catholic college, I was the religious affairs chair. Everybody else would have other affairs, but I had religious affairs! I ended up in church work and knew I was home. I’ve been involved in parish ministry since 1970. I did take six years off. When George said I wasn’t working, I was working harder than ever. I was not working outside the home. I was home six years with the children. It was a good time. But when George got home, he was on duty. He was a great dad. Anyway, parish ministry, I just love it, and I continue to love it. I’ve probably done everything in parish ministry over the course of these 34 or 35 years. Even the time I was home, not employed by a parish, I was a volunteer. Now, what I make is totally fine. I do work part time now. I work 20 hours. I went down to 20 hours when I turned 60. I really don’t see myself retiring. I have no desire to retire. I’m five years older than George and I told him, “You have to work five years after I retire to make it fair.”
  • Rita: I love this house, so why would I move? Though I love South Hill houses. But I can hardly keep this one clean, why would I want bigger? This is a beautiful house. George built on. Those cabinets (in the kitchen) were the cabinets he made when he was a cabinet maker. This (kitchen) table is really important, because it was around this table that everything happened. Our conversations and our meals. One of things I wanted to instill was the importance of our family meals. We always had family meals, either before their activity or after, but there was no option out. We talked about many things, social justice issues, church issues, what was going on in school. This table really had every conversation.

    In terms of money issues, they knew we weren’t going to buy another car. This is how we lived. And clothing. They love second-hand stores. They thrive on second-hand stores. Most of our clothes are second-hand. We loved used clothing. They are broken in. They are feeling good. Vanessa is coming home next week. The first place she’ll be is the thrift stores, because there aren’t as many in Silver Spring as there are here. And we have good ones here. We didn’t need the latest clothes. They got that message right away. Both the girls do live simply. Their weddings were a lot more than we put into ours, but there is also another person in that relationships – their spouses – and other family traditions and they had to respect those, too.

  • Rita: How did we pay for their college? They both got full tuition rides to Georgetown. They were both valedictorians at Prep. We didn’t have to pay for tuition. But the first year, we paid for their room and board and transportation, and every year we weaned them so by senior year they were paying almost everything themselves. They worked during the school years, a lot of it was work-study, and they worked summers. If they hadn’t had scholarships, they wouldn’t have gone to Georgetown. So we were fortunate. But they lived simply so they could pay their room and board.
  • George: We did not have a credit card for years. Until we had to have one to buy plane tickets or buying things over the Internet. We did not use credit cards at all those first years. The fact we talked about larger purchases and budgeted for them, we wouldn’t just buy on impulse. We didn’t buy them until we had the money. Young couples look at magazines and think “we have to get our home to look like something nice,” so they go out and buy furniture and appliances, and then bingo, they lose a job and pretty soon they’re moving and downsizing and asking for help. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll have this job for a long time so we can pay this stuff off.” Sometimes, it doesn’t happen.
  • Rita: It’s fun living simply. I really love living simply. There were times when it was hard. But if you have a goal to work for, work towards it. You don’t need everything now. You have a lifetime together as a couple to work toward things. Living simply is rather enjoyable. You don’t have all this stuff, all these debts, weighing you down. Be free.

    I’m glad we made the choices we did when we married. Even before we married, we decide to live simply. Living simply then was a little more drastic than what we are doing now, but I still feel we’ve made good choices along the way. We don’t have a microwave or a dishwasher and that’s deliberate. A dishwasher? We had two girls. I have George and I have myself. It’s a great time for reflection. Secondly, the microwave. First, we don’t have room for it. Secondly, I have a strong feeling, and it could be totally crazy, but I think the occurrence of breast cancer has increased with the use of microwaves and I won’t have a microwave.

  • Rita: We’ve been to El Salvador five times.

    George: Thanks to the encouragement of Sister Fran Stacey, there’s a group every year from the Providence Health system based in the Seattle area that send down a delegation. Usually, there’s a medical component – doctors and nurses. I was working at Holy Family and in this particular one, Rita got invited along. We as a couple both went. Every year they focus on different areas and when we went, six years ago, Tom Corley and Dr. Bob Clark and myself were chosen from Holy Family. Rita came along. Fran Stacey was instrumental in securing that spot for us. This was in 2005.

    Rita: I wanted to go because our JustFaith group, this group of 14 of us who went through the process, some of us wanted to establish a sister parish for the idea of solidarity, one of the tenets of Catholic social teaching. One thing led to another and Sister Fran wanted us to come down. She was my advocate. I went down and I knew this parish was going to work. Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is the parish. It took four years for all of this to come to fruition at St. Al’s. Even the first trip that we took down from the parish, we were still exploring. And everyone came back and said, “Why not?” It is kind of my passion.

  • Rita: How do people live there? Very simply. Most live in huts with dirt floors. Some of the walls are cinderblock and others corrugated metal. How do they live there? With hope. And that’s why I need to go every year, because they give me hope and they help me to live my faith. That is the bottom line. I could cry about it. It’s so important for me to be with them. Now that we’ve been with them five years, they are our friends. They are like family. We have relationships with a good number of the people, and they can’t wait for us to come down. They live very, very simply, because most of them don’t have regular employment, and if they do, it’s only during certain season, like the sugar cane season. The parish is involved in different cooperatives. I think there are two shrimp cooperatives, because they are on the ocean. They have a farm cooperative where they raise sugar cane, corn and cattle.
  • George: Sixty to 70 percent of the houses are cinder block and most of those were built with the aid of non-profits, NGOs. A lot of these areas we visit are new settlements, new communities built after the 1992 peace accords. So many people from El Salvador were in refugee camps outside the country. They weren’t able to resettle, or they were afraid to resettle, in the communities they originally came from. So this was a place they could get a fresh start and different European groups and NGOs from around the world helped fund these cinderblock homes. They are basic little homes with a dirt floor. They have two rooms. Sometimes they have a little porch area where people do their cooking outside in a lean-to area outside the two rooms. There are no doors. There’s an opening and windows, but no window panes. For the most part, this is warm climate, it’s tropical, so you don’t need a doorway. They have hammocks for sleeping, but most of these are put away in the daytime. Most of the homes have electricity. Most of the homes have water to their property, but it’s not in the home. They have outhouses. They have a little out-of-the-house area covered for their shower. And they have chickens and goats and pigs that are just running freely throughout the whole community. They all know to come home at a certain time.
  • Rita: Our friend Juventina has nine family members living with her. They don’t have to have any security. They have nothing to steal. They live in hope and faith. When we’re there, we stay in the Romero Center, a large building, sort of like a compound. It has a security component. There is a computer lab there. It’s a large building with a room upstairs and an open dining area. You don’t have windows. It’s owned by the Christian-based communities and the Christian-based communities make up the church, make up the parish. We go for nine days when we go.
  • George: Our group arrives and we’re divided into three groups of three or four, with a translator. We walk amid the different communities. People have been told we are coming. A lot of times we want to talk about how their lives were affected by the war. Even though the war ended in 1992, even though it’s been almost 20 years ago, there are vivid memories. Say the mom or father lost siblings in the war. Those memories are still fresh and raw. Even though the United States was instrumental in supporting the government that committed so much atrocity, they have no connection that we are part of it. They say: That was your government. We are excited you are here. We want to tell you our stories. We are blessed to have you here with us. They offer us food, but we can’t eat anything not cooked or anything washed with their water. We have to be careful and most the people know that and they might offer us pop. They bring out their little plastic, patio chairs for us to all sit. We ask them questions, and they tell us about their lives. And most often time, it’s interspersed with “Oh thank God, we have this and we have this.” They look at what they have and they are so grateful, instead of focusing on we don’t have this and we don’t have that. They are excited we are there. They want to tell their stories. They are very honest. Some have illnesses they can’t treat, because they don’t have access to the care they need or they have no money for transportation even if they could get to a free doctor visit. They can’t pay for medications; those are all too expensive. So someone who has very bad arthritis, or a wound that won’t heal, or a heart condition, they just get by. They don’t dwell on it. They say, “Tell people our stories. When you go back to the States, tell how we struggle to get by, and they don’t say it a whiny way, but just to say that if people knew how we lived they would understand why we struggle and why so many of our family members go to the United States. It’s a major source of support.
  • Rita: I appreciate the slower pace of life in El Salvador. Yes, the heat and humidity are part of the reason for walking and working slower, but mostly I think it’s because the Salvadorans we’ve met are not caught up in the complexities that pull us in many directions. They focus on relationships, family and friends, not on getting this or that project done or in shopping. They live in the NOW. And they know when to take “hammock time.” The first word I would think of in El Salvador is hospitality in our sister parish. Their openness to tell their stories. Their openness to share their faith. One gentleman at a Christian-based community meeting talked about how in May he had lost his corn to the floods. We were there in October, and he had just lost his corn to the floods again. But he said, “God will take care of us.” That is so amazing to me that they will share this deep faith of theirs. How they are committed to living the gospel of trust. To me that’s hospitality. They are so open to share. If you’re not open, it’s not hospitality.
  • Rita: Our personal lives, and our kids’ lives, have not been touched by the recession directly. We have not been. But the way we live is the way other people are living for the first time. And down in El Salvador, they live that way all the time. One of the things that has been very sad with their economy is CAFTA – Central America Free Trade Act. I know I’m getting political here. But they used to be able to grow their own corn and sell it and make a profit to feed their families. Well now there’s so much corn coming from the United States that people can buy for less money. CAFTA has (created) a greater economic depression, hardship for the people.
  • George: For the individuals. There are corporations, and a minority of wealthy families that have interest in fertilizer, banking and various industries, they have done well with CAFTA, but not the little guy, not the people at the grassroots level. So many of their people, they cannot make it, so their family members leave to go to the United States, illegally, and send money back. That’s a big portion of their gross national product — all the money that comes back into their country from immigrants. But that is less since the recession. Many of those people are marginal in terms of jobs, and they have not made as much money, so there is less money coming back into the country. They worked menial jobs – hospitality work, kitchen work, cooks, farm workers, whatever they can get.
  • Rita: What’s happening as a result of the recession in the United States? I think this is good for us to get back to our roots. Get back to living more simply, because we need to help our brothers and sisters in need. What’s happening as a result of this is that we are looking at others who are in need, building relationships with those who are in need. We see the needy around us, may our hearts go out, be more in solidarity with the needy. The needy can be those who have lost a $200,000 job and they are living in a way they have not lived in a long time. We don’t need all this stuff. What it is all about is relationships. Being brothers and sisters to one another. I don’t think we’ll be ever the same.
  • George: When we were there, we had a session with a woman named Pauline. She was born and raised in the United States, but has spent the last 17 years in El Salvador. She talked about her hopes for us as we were leaving. She said, “I want you to dispel some of the myths.” The more time you spend outside the United States, you learn that maybe things aren’t quite the way you were told growing up. There are things you accept. One is that the United States is the most powerful nation on the Earth. I don’t want to sound un-American with this but there’s this idea that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and the U.S. is in control. Then things like Katrina happen and you find out we’re one disaster away from not being in control. Or you hear that the U.S. is blessed by God. But then you ask: Who is blessed? When Katrina happens, you see people living on the margins. They are not blessed. You see the conditions in El Salvador and ask how do people make it? They are so poor. They just barely get by. And yet the relationships are so warm and strong and their faith is powerful. The first words out of their mouths are thank God for this and thank God for that.

    And then another thing, about the Bible. Even the subtle things, such as the translation of the Bible. Righteousness, in the Spanish translation of the Bible, is justice. It affects their expression of their faith. God is out for righteousness. He’s out for justice. I was overwhelmed with the things Pauline was talking about. She used a term coined by Jesuit Volunteer Corps: Ruined for life. When she first came back to the United States, she decided she had to change her life. She decided to wash her dishes by hand. She did this for months and then realized she didn’t know if it was going to do anything good for the people of El Salvador. She just wanted to simplify her life, be in solidarity with the people down there. Some people find that they are so radicalized by that, they have to change their lives or change the world. But what it comes down to is finding a way to integrate that knowledge of the people there and the poverty there and make it a focus for change, in some small step fashion. To move toward change in some way. The political choices you make or the personal choices you make or the conversations you have all direct people toward breaking those myths we grew up with, like we’re blessed here and people aren’t blessed over there. But understanding relationships and how faith is important in their life, and not things. So much here is about acquiring things, acquiring houses. It’s not what they have down there but who is happier?

  • Rita: There is joy as they show us the little that they have or introduce us to their grandkids or their children. There’s joy. I always think of that Scripture package: Give me back the joy of your salvation. Sometimes I can become overwhelmed by all the things I should be doing. But I always go back to the fact Jesus chose 12 apostles. He started small in his mission. They weren’t perfect guys. I always identify with Peter. He started small, and this movement has come 2,000 years. So I think what we’re trying to do in living simply and live the Gospel as we see it is our small step. And if we can pass that onto one person, or if we touch one person’s life. In terms of ministry at the parish, I can get disappointed if a lot of people don’t show up. But then I think: If one life has been touched, it’s all worth it. I think that’s the difference between me at 24 when I started in parish ministry and me now in my 60s doing parish ministry. Everything is gradual, everything takes its time. Just like creation, it takes time for everything. That’s an important part for me is that it does take time to make changes. And sometimes when the economy did what it did, we have to make the changes faster.
  • Note: After the interview, George sent an e-mail explanation of a unique health-care cooperative in the sister parish in El Salvador:

    George: The beginning of the Fondo de Emergencia, or Emergency Fund, was a Lenten “fast” some years ago. Fr. Pedro and the pastoral team at Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, well aware of the desperate medical needs of many in the community, proposed that every family contribute the equivalent of 25 cents a month to an emergency health care fund. The proceeds of this collection would defray the expense for some of traveling to a nearby clinic or hospital or the cost of medications. Through the years this Fondo has grown to include two clinics that provide basic care — regardless of parish membership — and some medications, including natural/herbal ones prepared in the parish. With the financial assistance of Providence Health and others, the Fondo now has a doctor on staff and a van to transport people to local hospitals or even to San Salvador, the capital. An additional focus of the Fondo is advocacy for the government to fulfill its role in providing health care for all as defined by current law.

  • Note: Rita e-mailed a summary of the main points she hoped to relay:

    Rita: Both George and I grew up in large families with humble roots. I think that similar background helped us, before marriage, to commit to a simple lifestyle, starting with our wedding day. It’s not always easy to live simply in a society that pulls at you to “be more” by buying more. However, I have found great freedom in living simply, without debt and with fewer things. We’d rather travel than have things. When difficult times come (George was laid off several times when a cabinet maker), we’ve been able to adjust and move forward because we lived within our means. The following is a list of choices that we’ve made over the years and are now part of who we are:

    -Sharing our abundance/blessings by monthly tithing. (The first checks we write each month are to our church and charities.)

    -Owning one car

    -Living in our “starter” home for nearly 33 years

    -Raising an organic garden

    -Recycling and composting

    -Freezing and canning foods

    -Cooking from scratch

    -Making most of our bread

    -Drying our clothes on an outside line 3 seasons of the year

    -Buying only what we can pay for at the time. (except for the car and house)

    -Shopping at thrift stores for most of our clothing

    It has been helpful to surround ourselves with couples and families who also seek to live simply. That makes our choice easier and makes us more accountable. I’m aware that we didn’t mention Gospel values in our interview, but as you know, that is where our lifestyle is rooted.

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