West Fargo author challenges readers to consider ‘opening the borders of your heart’
Roxane B. Salonen writes about the "Grace Gallops" author's book and her quest to help others.
WEST FARGO — Throughout her life, Vicki Schmidt has traveled worldwide, often to war-torn countries, in search of Christ. She always finds him, most notably on the faces of the abandoned and downtrodden.
Her quest became clear early on.
“I was in a refugee camp, and a little girl gave me a cross,” she shares. “The director said, ‘Carry this with you. Tell the people (back home) that Christ is being crucified daily here.’”
It became a defining moment for Schmidt, who continues to hold and share that cross with others. “I got the great commission from a little girl who handed me a cross and told me to carry it for her.”
She realized her desire to bring the Gospel to people in distress had been reversed; they’d brought it to her. “The materially poor are extremely spiritually rich,” she says. “They depend on nothing but God for their faith.”
The illumination inspired and changed her forever, leading to the founding of Sister Parish Inc. and Abriendo Fronteras; two ministries fostering hope along the Texas-Mexico border and much of Central America.
Along the journey, Schmidt has been jotting down stories of those she meets. And during the pandemic, she finally had a chance to compile them into “Grace Gallops,” an account of the “relationships and experiences that have been put in my pathway and changed my life.”
When challenged on her work along our country’s southern border, as she occasionally is, Schmidt challenges back: “It’s more about opening the borders in our minds and hearts.”
While serving as bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Terry Brandt traveled to the Texas-Mexico border with Schmidt and other pastors and laypeople, where they “immersed ourselves in some of the challenges” of those areas.
“Vicki is one of the most grace-filled people I know, and when you read her book, you see that she’s an advocate — a bold one — who wants to change the world.”
She’s also gentle, welcoming and non-anxious, he adds. “It’s a pretty special mix.”
Watching her in action, he says, he began to think of Schmidt as “my Mother Teresa.”
“It’s in the way she interacts with the least, the lost, the lonely.” And when she’s not with them, “she’s doing everything she can to change policies” to help them.
Her motivation, he says, originates from her feelings of abandonment as an adoptee. “She had to come to terms with who she was, and see herself of value.”
Once she found that and experienced grace, he says, “she became an advocate for others” to see it in themselves.
In her exchanges with those who’ve endured traumatic situations, Brandt observed: “There would be an embrace, there would be weeping, and Vicki would have their hands, praying for them, offering whatever she could.”
She is “faith in action,” he concludes. “When we came back from the trips at the border, Vicki made it very clear that we had no right to experience the poverty and go home and back to our lives as before.”
He hopes her memoir will inspire others to see and share how grace has galloped in their own lives, he says, whether traveling far from home or right next door.
Heart of a teenager
If not for the heart of a young man who’d befriended Vicki and her husband, the Rev. Peter Schmidt, during their years in Bemidji, Minn., it’s possible none of this would have happened — or at least not in the way it did.
At the time, in 1984, Schmidt was a mother of three young children. Along with her family’s physical needs, finances were limited.
But Patrick Lochwood, who’d been in an accident as a youngster, and recently received money from a trust fund, had been praying about how God wanted him to use that money, and offered a sizable portion of it to Schmidt for her first trip to Central America.
“I’d gotten to know Peter and Vicki through various activities and ministries,” including their gifts in music and theater, which they incorporated into Bethel Lutheran Church, along with a community meal Schmidt organized for Thanksgiving and Christmas — a tradition that remains today — and a refugee resettlement task force she helped institute.
“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” Lochwood says. “Pretty much the same amount Vicki needed was what I wanted to tithe to the church. I knew Vicki’s track record and trusted her to do great things.”
But if he hadn’t offered it to her, he says, the Lord “would have found another way to help Vicki. God just gave me the privilege to participate in this great act that was unfolding.”
It wasn’t until after the Schmidts moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area, where Peter served for 23 years at Faith Lutheran in West Fargo, that Vicki met Val Farmer; first, as a psychologist, and later, a friend and comrade.
“Vicki and Peter and I had this interfaith relationship,” says Farmer, an adherent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We admired each other’s work, and (Vicki) could see the faith and the belief in God and living the commandments as being crucial to a good and happy life.”
“We didn’t talk doctrine; we talked about helping people,” he adds, noting that, like Schmidt, he’d been to Guatemala for mission work, and shared her affinity for the people there.
“I have a great view of the brotherhood of mankind,” as does she, he says.
But he stands in awe of Schmidt’s ability to move about the world, getting “right to the heart of places that really need help” with limited resources, a gift he says has eluded him.
In the book’s foreword, he calls Schmidt “the Forrest Gump of her age.”
“She was in the room when it happened, whether South Africa or Central America. You just start talking to her about her life and she’s been there.”
Additionally, along with mothering her own children, Schmidt has offered herself to hundreds of foster children and foreign-exchange students, he says.
“Giving service is probably the ultimate manifestation of Christianity, and I’ve noticed that about Vicki, how engaged and connected she is with others. It’s amazing.”
What’s possible with grace
Some might glimpse such a life and wonder how it’s possible. Schmidt says certain “foundational pieces” of her life have made it so, including connection with others who understand what it means to live in faith.
The first, perhaps, was her husband. The one criteria to which she held during her dating years was that her future mate would have his sights on being a pastor. When Peter mentioned he wanted to be a pastor someday, she told him, “Well good, because I want to marry a pastor.”
Together, the two have made a way to minister to others while still tending to their primary ministry of marriage and family.
“Grace has always filled my life,” Schmidt says. “It’s not something I understood early on, and still don’t totally, but I count on that promise.”
She claims 2 Cor. 12:9 as her favorite Bible verse: “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.”
“When I come against things like refugees, or foster kids that have been so degraded and deprived of love and concern, and my own adoption story of not feeling wanted… God’s grace is where I go,” she says. “The brokenness that any of us experience is never too big for God’s grace. That’s the place from which my solid foundation has grown.”
From there, she springs into action.
“Action for me comes out of relationships, in advocating for those who are on the edge of life,” Schmidt says. “That’s my calling. That’s all our calling.”
Find “Grace Gallops” at Melberg Book and Gift, Moorhead; Ferguson Books, West Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck; Red River Coffee, Fargo; and Amazon.com.
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at email@example.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com.