Thomas S. Neilsen, 1976 M.Div.

2006Distinction in Congregational Ministry

For more than two decades, Thomas S. Neilsen, senior pastor of the Swiss United Church of Christ in New Glarus, WI, has been heavily involved in programs aimed at protecting human rights of the Latin American poor.

Since 1984, Neilsen has worked in partnership with various groups: Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and Mexico; indigenous Mayan people in Chiapas, Mexico ; the Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de las Casas; as well as partnerships in El Salvador with Pastor Miguel Tomas Castro and rural communities in Usulutan, El Salvador. He is also involved in human rights projects in other countries in Central and South America, including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Guatemala.

In 1994, he was nominated by Bishop Ruiz as the first Protestant member of SICSAL (International Christian Solidarity for Human Rights in Latin America), a solidarity community started by Monsignor Oscar Romero, Bishop Ruiz, and Bishop Acero, leading human right activists in Latin America. He continues to serve on the Executive Committee of SICSAL. He has been recognized there for his work saving the lives of many indigenous Guatemalans between 1984 and 1997, as well as establishing projects between churches and conferences in the United States and poor communities in Latin America. He is currently involved in a sponsorship program that helps poor children in El Salvador continue their education beyond the sixth grade.

Neilsen has received many awards for his work in Latin America, including human rights awards from the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (1989), the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico (1984, 1986), the city of San Salvador (2000, 2005), Gustavus Adolphus College (1992), and others. He has been a frequent speaker throughout the United States on Latin America and United States policy in Latin America, including appearances in documentaries on Central America and testimony in Washington.

He earned his B.A. at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN and is ordained in the United Church of Christ. He and his wife, Joan, have raised four adopted children.