By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, MN With a humble heart and love for people, Pastor John Peterson, 81, of Dassel was named a 2016 Outstanding Senior Volunteer by the Wright County outstanding senior volunteer selection committee.
The program was created to recognize seniors for contributing their time and talents to the Wright County communities.
To be eligible for “outstanding senior” recognition, the individual must be a Minnesota resident, and at least 70 years old. In choosing, the committee searches for leadership and diversity in accomplishments and services performed.
If asked, Peterson’s wife Lynda would confirm that he has done all of that, while Peterson would modestly and humbly say the recognition is simply, “nice.”
“It pleases me to get this type of honor. I was not expecting it at all,” Peterson said.
Volunteering became part of Peterson’s life when he was ordained in 1963.
About that time, Peterson went to Austin, TX, during the Civil Rights movement. “That was a tumultuous time,” Peterson stated. After being in the south for a while, it was decided it would be better for him to return to the northern states.
Peterson then served a parish in Carlton, just outside of Duluth, for seven years before being called to a large ELCA church in Brooklyn Center. He served there as assistant pastor for 15 years.
While serving, the Petersons became good friends with Mary Jo Copeland, founder of Sharing and Caring Hands, an organization dedicated to helping those unable to benefit from the welfare system.
Before the organization got started in 1985, Copeland was working with Catholic charities in several places, giving out bus fair money, praying with people, and washing their feet. The bureaucracy of the organization, however, did not support Copeland’s volunteer approach, and she was eventually told she could no longer be a part of its ministry.
When Peterson heard this, he went to the board and told them they were making “a huge mistake.”
Copeland was devastated by the board’s decision, but determined to continue her service to others. As a result, Sharing and Caring Hands was formed, and Copeland asked Peterson to be pastor on its first board of directors. He remained there for about 10 years.
Peterson said he found it interesting she had asked him, a Lutheran pastor, to be on the board when she had two or three priests at her own church.
“I guess she had her own reason,” he said.
Being involved in Sharing and Caring Hands proved to be a “very fulfilling” ministry for Peterson as well as his involvement with youth.
He would take confirmands to the location, and have them serve breakfast to people who came.
Lynda remembered one occasion where a young girl confirmand told Peterson she was nervous about being around “bums.” Peterson told her to simply “follow directions, and you will find fulfillment.”
While serving, the confirmands would see Copeland at work, washing feet, crying and praying for those who came in, and loving them. That day, a family came in, and Lynda recalls the children “wolfing” down their food, they were so hungry.
In seeing this, the same girl who was nervous about the trip asked Peterson if she could bring them some more food, because she realized “they’re still hungry.” She then proceeded to teach the family’s daughter how to play some string games.
Peterson said that even though the history and viewpoints between Catholics and Lutherans have not always been friendly, or in alignment, the two denominations did come together in that ministry.
Called to Cokato
It was a struggle for Peterson to leave when he was asked to come to Cokato.
He did sense the need at Evangelical Lutheran, however, and moved to serve another 15 years before his retirement.
While at Evangelical, Peterson dedicated much of his time to mentoring confirmands and establishing relationships with them, many of whom still write and call on him today.
“That’s part of the pluses of living in a small community: you make close ties, and some of them last,” he said.
Before the Petersons were unpacked after their move near Darwin, Peterson was asked to be the visitation and emeritus pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, which he accepted, and continues to do.
Throughout his services, Peterson has made himself available at all hours of the day to address people’s needs.
“He’ll be in the parking lot at the Marketplace and someone will say, ‘Can I talk to you, Pastor?’ So they’ll sit down and have coffee at the drop of a hat,” said Lynda. “Members or non-members. If there’s a need, he goes.”
“I hurt with people, and I feel I have a calling to reach out with pastoral care. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. A way of life,” stated Peterson.
Other service opportunities Peterson has had include:
• leading worship services at nursing homes, assisted living, and apartments;
• conducting one-to-one communions;
• providing counsel;
• assisting in emergencies and financial aide;
• supplying transportation for the needy; and
• performing weddings, funerals, and baptisms.
Serving in hospice
In addition to his involvement within the communities, Peterson serves as chaplain at the Ecumen of Litchfield hospice, which houses people from Meeker County and Wright County. Lynda, a retired social worker, also serves there as an active volunteer.
“It is inspirational to minister with people that have a close walk with Jesus,” stated Peterson. “And it’s not a matter of fear, but it’s a matter of going home. And with peace, and looking forward to seeing loved ones that have gone before.”
Prior to Minnesota even having hospice services, the Petersons started working the field when Lynda’s mother was dying from cancer. Lynda was her nurse, and Peterson her chaplain.
“I think that really got us into the hospice mode,” stated Lynda.
“There are rewards in that kind of ministry that go beyond money,” said Peterson. “It’s a precious expression of our Christian ministry, and our care for people being with them when they’re actively dying.”
Peterson plans to continue volunteering in hospice, though he is retiring from the chaplain position at the end of August.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle that,” Peterson stated. “I’ve found a lot of meaning in being a pastor and chaplain.”
Lynda will continue volunteering as well, as she feels the same calling her husband does.
“Lynda’s been a wonderful partner for me in ministry,” said Peterson. “She’s a pianist, an organist, caregiver, and Bible study leader.” She also goes with him on some of his pastoral calls.
“It’s been a good ride,” both John and Lynda commented.
“We both do a fair amount of volunteering, and I imagine we will continue to do that,” Peterson continued.