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Nebraska guard James Palmer Jr. (24) shoots a three-pointer in the first half against Michigan on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

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'Everybody is my brother or sister': Former pastor Bud Christenson helps refugees, inmates

In 1996, Haris Tanovic, a Bosnian Muslim refugee from Sarajevo, played basketball with Pastor Bud Christenson in a church gym in Lincoln.

One of several refugees Bud and his congregation at Sheridan Lutheran Church sponsored from the civil war-plagued country, Haris was living with Bud and his wife, Muriel, while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Meanwhile, Haris' sister, her husband and their 11-month-old daughter were still in Bosnia. One day, Haris approached Bud with the idea of sponsoring them, too. 

"Yes, yes, yes," Bud said.

With that eager response my family came from the war-torn valleys of the former Yugoslavia to start a new life in Nebraska.

* * *

Sponsoring a refugee family is no easy task, but Bud is the kind of man who likes to help people.

The 11th of 12 children born to Norwegian immigrant parents, Bud was born Milfred Luverne Christenson in Montevideo, Minnesota, in 1936. 

His nickname came from a family tradition of calling the youngest boy "Buddy."

An underdog from the start, Bud contracted polio, and he remained small because of a growth hormone issue.

Health problems made farm life difficult for Bud, but he got through it with support from his mother.

"(Ma) would say, 'There is no such word as can't. Don't let me hear you say that,'" Bud recalled.

Bud was often bullied for his 4-foot-11 frame until he had a 9-inch growth spurt his junior year of high school.

"As a consequence, I developed a real sensitivity for people who were bullied," he said.

That empathy has stayed with Bud since.

It was present when he joined the Navy in 1957 — men on his ship dubbed him "Padre," not only because he arranged the weekly church service but because he was a confidant for many. 

"I spent a lot of my time with my feet dangling over the edge of the ship, sitting next to someone and listening to them," he said. "They just needed someone to talk to, and I enjoyed doing that."

But when he joined Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1963, he was a nonconformist one professor described as "irrepressible."

Unafraid to challenge his professors' teachings or encourage free-thinking, his unique approach stirred some folks at the seminary.

Bud squeezed by, and he was recommended to become a street pastor in Brooklyn — serving underprivileged communities on the streets — rather than an associate pastor at a church.

"I didn't fit in very well elsewhere," he said. "When I went out to the streets, I felt perfectly at home."

For a while, Bud couldn't keep a stable job because of his alcoholism and nonconformity. 

He was a long-haired, long-bearded hippie who wore jeans to service and played guitar on the streets. Many thought that eschewed traditional church methods.

His family often fell on hard times, with Bud once loaded trucks on Christmas Eve to have money to buy presents.

He bounced around from job to job and city to city until 1975, when he got a call from a church in Macon, Nebraska. The Franklin County church needed a pastor and felt Bud was the right fit. He was hired over the phone, sight unseen.

By then, he had faced up to his alcoholism — an ultimatum from his wife, whom he married while in the Navy — and earned his doctorate in education from the University of Northern Colorado. 

Bud, Muriel and their four kids lived the small-town life, complete with a large garden, fruit trees, horses and sheep, until 1988, when Bud became the senior pastor at Sheridan Lutheran. 

* * *

In the basement of a Sarajevo hospital destroyed by bombs, my mother, Amila, gave birth to me in 1995. There was no running water, electricity or gas.

Eleven months later, my mother and father, Samir, hid me under a bulletproof vest in the back seat of their car as we drove out of town under the guise of "business travel," using my parents' accreditation with NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations, which allowed them to come in and out of the city. 

“Our only fear was that you would start crying,” my mother said.

The Bosnian war began in early 1992 when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to dissolve and each of its former territories declared and fought for independence, especially after the rise of Serbia’s then-president Slobodan Milosevic.

Under Milosevic, the tensions that had already been brewing between Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — came to a head. Genocide began with the “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosniak majority, the group my family belongs to.

For four years, our people endured what would become the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.

When we fled Sarajevo, we drove to a friend's home in Croatia, awaiting refugee status to join Haris, who was living with the Christensons in Lincoln. 

Pastor Bud met us at the airport the day we landed in Lincoln in 1996. My mom said meeting him for the first time was like meeting a long-lost family member.

"We already felt that deep connection," she said.

Bud felt it, too. 

"It's hard to explain," he said. "Love is hard to define, but you know, I literally fell in love with your parents instantly. We have so much in common. I've watched them grow up and succeed."

His family and the Sheridan Lutheran congregation helped my parents find an apartment and furniture and gave them rides to appointments and job interviews.

"When we had our doubts about moving to this strange place, (Bud) encouraged us to stay and told us that things get better," my mother said.

And he was right.

In many ways, my parents have seen their lives change for the better in the last 21 years. My twin sisters were born in 1997, my parents both found full-time work in fields they love, and after the war ended, we've made several trips to visit loved ones we left behind in Sarajevo.

* * *

It's not just refugees Bud has helped. 

He became the full-time pastor at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1997. Several hundred prisoners are released each year, he said, and there wasn't much of a support system to help them transition. 

Bud felt he had to do something. 

"Every day, I would have one-on-one sessions with prisoners where I would share my story with them and I would ask them about theirs," he said. "A lot of them said they didn't know what they were going to do when they got out. They didn't know if they'd have money to spend on food or a place to live."

So Bud and Muriel started Bridges of Hope, a nonprofit that helps men and women transition from correctional facilities back into the community.

They provide furniture, clothing and household goods. They started operating out of their home until Muriel decided to start donating her salary to the organization. It has since grown immensely, serving more than 700 men and women in 2016.

Bud officially retired as a pastor after his 80th birthday two years ago, after serving many churches in Nebraska as a part-time pastor. But I'd say he never stops working.

Just this month, Bridges to Hope opened Bud's Thrift Shoppe at 3107 S. Sixth St., a secondhand store that provides free clothing, furniture and household goods to men and women re-entering the community after incarceration. Proceeds from items sold to the public serve as an ongoing fundraiser to the organization.

* * *

Time and again, Bud's compassion has led his life's path. 

Even through hard times — losing jobs, alcoholism, being bullied, losing Muriel to cancer in 2003 — he continues to pay it forward. He says his constant sources of support are the higher power he believes in and the memory of his Ma.

"Every challenge that has come along has been filled with blessings for me," he said. "I don't let things get to me or tell me what to do. What can I say? I'm irrepressible."

Bud says helping others just feels natural.

It's why he's supported people in the streets of Brooklyn, sponsored refugees like me and helped prisoners transition back into society.

Bud still roots for the underdog, just like when he was a kid. 

"It's just part of who I am," he said. "Everybody is my brother or sister. Any place you look, I've got family."

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Lincoln senator aims to let Nebraska voters decide on medical cannabis

Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, who has championed medical cannabis legalization in the Legislature, introduced a constitutional amendment resolution Thursday to allow voters to decide the issue this year.  

Wishart said Nebraskans deserve an opportunity to vote on establishing protections for patients who would use medical cannabis. 

"Tens of thousands of Nebraskans are needlessly suffering because they don't have access to medical cannabis, including veterans, children and the terminally ill," Wishart said. 

Nebraska leaders have failed to act, she said, and provide patients and doctors freedom to make decisions without fear. 

"I'm confident that if on the ballot, Nebraskans will support legalizing a medical cannabis system in our state," she said.

The resolution (LR293CA) would provide a right to use or consume medical cannabis subject to laws, rules and regulations, developed by the Legislature, to make use safe and sustainable.

"Nebraskans who find that cannabis eases their pain and suffering should not be forced across state lines or treated like criminals," she said. "I believe that medical cannabis is going to be a reality for Nebraska one day."

Brenda Potratz of Lincoln said in a news release that until someone personally experiences chronic pain or has a disease that doesn't respond to conventional medication, it is easy to ignore the urgent need to legalize medical cannabis. 

Nebraska Legislature: Proposals we've highlighted so far

"Those of us who wake up to that reality each day don't have the luxury of disregarding our own pain," she said. "We shouldn't be forced to move away from Nebraska or look into remedies offered by criminal elements."

Looking at the problems from painkiller overdoses and abuse, such as from opioids, it seems better to offer safe, natural, legal therapy to Nebraskans if at all possible, she said.

This month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that took a hands-off approach to marijuana in states where it was legal. Sessions said federal prosecutors can decide whether to crack down on marijuana businesses.

Wishart said medical cannabis legalized by states is not in jeopardy the way recreational marijuana would be. This resolution would allow for a vote on a medical cannabis system. 

"I think this is an exercise in states' rights," she said. 

Forty-six states — including Sessions’ home state of Alabama — have legalized some form of medical marijuana in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

A proposed constitutional amendment requires 30 votes in the Nebraska Legislature to place it on a general election ballot. If it passes, it would not be subject to veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

Wishart has another medical cannabis bill (LB622) in play, which legalizes medical cannabis and details how the systems would operate in the state. It was co-sponsored by nine other senators.

That proposal reached first-round consideration last session, but debate stopped after two hours. Wishart would have to come up with 33 votes to break a filibuster on the bill in order for it to be put back on the agenda for more debate. 

That bill would be subject to veto by the governor if it passed. 

Her preference, she said, would be to have LB622 go forward. 

"But I wanted to give (senators) another option to let the people have a say," she said. 

If others outside the Legislature succeed in a potential petition drive to put legalizing marijuana to a vote, it might not have the safeguards the Legislature could put in place with a bill.

Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers was one who spoke against LB622 during debate last session. He would probably oppose the resolution, too, he said. 

"I don't think the Legislature is the place to be making these kinds of decisions on any kind of drug, whether it's medical marijuana or anything else," Hilgers said Thursday. 

He's never heard of any precedent for having people vote on use of any medication or medical treatment, he said. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a process in place for clinical studies on efficacy and how different drugs interact with other drugs, Hilgers said.

The FDA has continued to classify marijuana as a Class I drug, having high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. 

But it has approved two drugs containing a synthetic version of a substance that is present in the marijuana plant and one other drug containing a synthetic substance that acts similarly to compounds from marijuana but is not present in marijuana.

The FDA has said that although it has not approved any drug product containing or derived from botanical marijuana, it is aware there is considerable interest in its use to attempt to treat such medical conditions as glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, neuropathic pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and certain seizure disorders.