Duluth minister makes racial justice his life's work

"My own liberation as a white person is tied to it," Nathan Holst said.

Nathan Holst (right), a licensed pastor at Duluth’s Peace Church, leads a youth program in a tent at the church Sept. 9. In addition to his duties with youths, he’s involved with racial justice issues in the Twin Ports with SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) and on the Dismantling Racism Team and Creation Justice Team for the church. (Steve Kuchera /

Sitting under a big yellow canopy outside Peace United Church of Christ , Nathan Holst talks with his hands. He taps his foot to an internal beat as he tells stories, and when he tries to recall names or details, his palms touch briefly and he closes his eyes, as if in prayer.

The church’s faith formation minister has become a leader in his religious community and in the greater Twin Ports.

Along with working with the church’s local youths, and in climate justice, peer ministry and dismantling racism teams, Holst is also a lead organizer of Standing Up for Racial Justice , a local chapter of a national organization of white people aimed at ending white supremacy and systemic racism in collaboration with people of color.

Nathan Holst gives high fives to younger participants in the 2019 MLK Tribute March to keep their energy up. (News Tribune file)


His many efforts are at an intersection of pastoral care, relationship-building and love. “I’m committed for life,” Holst said of this work.

Holst grew up in Duluth, where he connected with his Lutheran youth group and had early opportunities for leadership and inspirational examples of mentorship.

As he explored evangelical Christianity during his freshman year of college, he began to reject the religion. Holst later explored universalism, Quakers, Buddhism and pluralistic traditions.

Nathan Holst (standing) talks to youth outside Peace Church on Sept. 9. (Steve Kuchera /

With this exploration, along with mentorship, guidance and exposure to more examples of Christianity, Holst began to "reclaim" Christianity, feeling grounded in his roots.

“I grew up in liberal, white communities that talked about the concept of color blindness, essentially of treating people well, and we’ll all be good,” he said.

His understanding expanded his junior year of college, when he participated in an urban studies program in Chicago that introduced him to institutional oppression and how narratives are spun around racial discrimination.


Nathan Holst (left) and Lynn Goerdt, both of Duluth, protest Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen’s Facebook post calling President Barack Obama a “Muslim” in late 2015. Hagen later issued an apology for the comment. (News Tribune file)

It was a hard but exciting process, he said: “I can’t change that history now, but I can start doing that now and write a new story.”

He was further challenged to grow when he pursued his graduate degree in social work in Portland, Oregon. There he worked at the Sisters of the Road Cafe , an affordable shop that mostly served the city’s homeless. The cafe shaped him and how he views political work.

Holst was also introduced to a group of young organizers while in Oregon, which led him to spearhead a Portland chapter of SURJ.

We can support ourselves and help our white community see that their own liberation and humanity is tied up in this, he said.

Nathan Holst tosses out pieces of candy to students after a writing exercise on the topic of belief. (Steve Kuchera /


“I’m not doing the work for communities of color," he said. "That’s pretty much a white savior thing to do. I’m doing it because I care about the people in my life, and Indigenous folks and people of color. I’m doing it because I want to be more human, and whiteness makes you less human, right? Being connected to that history of enslavement and genocide, that does something to your soul, and I want to reject that and transform that in myself into systems."

This takes a lot of time, energy and cultural humility. That’s why a lot of white folks get defensive when you talk about whiteness, he said, “because you’re confronted with a system that doesn’t match the image of you who you think you are, and that’s a painful process, a necessary process.”

The work, that is at the intersection of faith and social justice, is deeply spiritual.

It’s easy to run from, so you have to be connected to “serious spiritual tools.”

But confronting this leads to transformation and wholeness. “I feel so much more human. My own liberation as a white person is tied to it,” he said.

Holst and his partner, Sarah, moved to Duluth six years ago. He met with leaders of color and launched the Duluth chapter of SURJ . (The group’s numbers, along with the local NAACP, have been on the rise since the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.)

Holst was selected by nationally recognized human rights activist and educator Ruby Sales to join a group of white men in discussing what it means to be a white man in the U.S., the theology of redemption and creating a new narrative.

Holst is a product of community, relationships and his mentors, including Ruby Sales.


“She sustains me,” he said.

And his work at Peace Church, with its justice-oriented and accepting values, makes for a perfect fit.

“Their creed is love,” he said.

For white people looking to step in racial justice work, don’t let guilt or your feelings of ignorance stop you. Acknowledge where you are, be honest and let’s talk, he said. Also build relationships with supportive people.

Looking ahead, Holst said there’s work to do from the white community, but he hopes Duluth can one day be thought of as a racial justice city.

“I want us to be known not as a city that in 1920 lynched three men, but as a city that has done its transformational work and is known for the opposite,” he said. “The way we’ll know that is when Indigenous folks and folks of color all say that it is.”

For more information about the Duluth chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice, visit .


Four years ago Nathan Holst used Sassafras (left) and Surfer Sam during Sunday school at Peace Church. (2016 file / News Tribune) free card

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