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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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From Neb. to death row, 'where we need to be'

Jack Nordgaard never imagined that his ministry would include murderers, but looking back at the last two decades he now considers his unexpected path a blessing.

The retired ELCA pastor followed his instinct, which took him from small town congregations in Nebraska to working with alcoholics in a rundown Chicago neighborhood. "I didn't know it, but it turned out it was where I was meant to be," he said. "It was serendipity, and everything has worked out really well."

From there, Nordgaard wound up working with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Members of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois asked him to visit inmates on death row. He would talk to them, relay messages to family, and help convince relatives to visit them. Part of his ministry included becoming a potential character witness.

"Sometimes it was enough to be their friend," he said.

Opposed to the death penalty, Nordgaard said one the best days of his career was when it was abolished in Illinois. "It was exciting," he said. "We had been struggling for it for years."

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In retirement, Jack Nordgaard, founder of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois' Prisoner and Family Ministry, maintains relationships with several inmates.

Nordgaard said the inmates he met on a regular basis were frequently teaching him more lessons than he provided. "I realized how fortunate I was," he said. "It could have easily turned out different for me if a few things were changed."

The pastor admitted that at first he had to overcome biases against the prisoners. Making assumptions wasn't helpful. Instead, he simply got to know them. Though their stories could be disheartening, he never got depressed because he knew he was doing the right thing — even if some Christians may disagree. "I think this is where we need to be, and whom we need to be helping," he said. "Jesus makes this very clear, although as a church I don't think we're very clear about it."

Nordgaard said you don't need to be clergy to be an effective minister. Laypeople with drive and determination can accomplish the same assistance as pastors.

One concrete example of the effectiveness of work by Nordgaard and others is Habitat for Humanity. Prisoners have been used to help build houses for those in need.

Even in retirement Nordgaard has maintained strong bonds with several prisoners whom he now knows as well as some family members. That bond was unexpected when he made that first prison visit. Now it's a highlight of his life. 


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