On a snowy Sunday in December, the Rev. Kathy Nelson scurried around the sanctuary. Eleven masked teens sat distanced in the pews, awaiting their live-streamed confirmation.

“It’s like producing a live TV show,” Nelson said before go-time.

This would be the last confirmation Sunday for Nelson, who is retiring on Jan. 10 after 30 years leading Peace United Church of Christ.

It’s unusual for a pastor to stay three decades — most leave after six to eight years — but Nelson and her family fell in love with the congregation.

Before a confirmation Sunday service, the Rev. Kathy Nelson talks to students being confirmed at Peace United Church of Christ. Nelson is retiring after 30 years at Peace Church. “She taught us to love everyone no matter what,” said Andre Good, 16. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Before a confirmation Sunday service, the Rev. Kathy Nelson talks to students being confirmed at Peace United Church of Christ. Nelson is retiring after 30 years at Peace Church. “She taught us to love everyone no matter what,” said Andre Good, 16. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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She still loves what she does and has gratitude for it, but she’s also tired, she said.

“My kids will always joke, ‘You don’t have a job; you have a lifestyle,’ and I think that’s true. I pretty much work 50-55 hours per week.

“It might be time for a lifestyle change, and there’ll be other ways to serve that won’t be quite as intense,” Nelson said.

It’s going to be a challenge for the congregation going forward as Nelson has been an integral part of who they are as Peace Church, said Doug Bowen-Bailey, Peace Church moderator. But now is a time to figure out what it means to be a congregation without her as their leader.

“Kathy has provided a firm foundation and a strong community that isn’t reliant on her, so she’ll be able to step away and find new outlets for her talent in ministry,” he added.

* * *

The Rev. Oliver White speaks as the Rev. Kathy Nelson listens during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Community Worship Service at Pilgrim Congregational Church. (2004 file / News Tribune)
The Rev. Oliver White speaks as the Rev. Kathy Nelson listens during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Community Worship Service at Pilgrim Congregational Church. (2004 file / News Tribune)

Nelson and Peace Church are known for social justice work and pastoral care in the Northland.

“Anything related to the African heritage, Native heritage communities of color, Rev. Nelson and her congregation were with us in partnership. Not because she or they had to be there, but it was because of their love of God and love of God’s people,” said Duluth activist and community elder Henry Banks.

Both Peace and Nelson have been heavily involved in Duluth’s annual commemoration of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations as well as recent events for slain Black men George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

Banks also frequently observes Nelson and members of Peace making sure people are fed at the Damiano Center and participating at CHUM’s annual vigil remembering those who have lost their lives.

“She is one of the most incredible, faith-based, interfaith leaders that I’ve ever met.

“She is a gift to the community,” Banks said.

Rev. Kathy Nelson (right), pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, and Herbert Perkins, intern at the church, enjoy conversation with the CHUM Drop-In Center patrons as the two make pancakes to serve at the 10 a.m. breakfast. (2008 file / News Tribune)
Rev. Kathy Nelson (right), pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, and Herbert Perkins, intern at the church, enjoy conversation with the CHUM Drop-In Center patrons as the two make pancakes to serve at the 10 a.m. breakfast. (2008 file / News Tribune)

It’s a sentiment mirrored by Mary Roling.

(Pre-COVID) Nelson has been bringing a weekly Bible study to the St. Louis County jail for more than two decades.

“She wants to figure out where each individual is at and because of that, I think they share on a pretty deep level when they’re in her group,” said the jail program coordinator.

“In deep listening to each other, God is present. In the moments where we hear each other’s stories and make space to hear where God is moving in that,” Nelson said.

Henry Banks, Mary Roling, the Rev. Kathy Nelson
Henry Banks, Mary Roling, the Rev. Kathy Nelson

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Nelson grew up in the United Church of Christ, where she learned to love community and the woods.

She had many examples of pastoral care at home and through the church.

Nelson’s mother was a chemotherapy nurse. “Watching her was really watching someone do ministry. … Trying to listen to each other’s stories can help each other heal,” she recalled.

When her father was diagnosed with lung cancer, the congregation rallied, scheduling coffee visits in the hospital for her father and feeding her family.

She attended seminary and worked as a youth pastor in New Brighton and St. Anthony Park, Minnesota, before moving to the Northland.

Peace Church pastor Kathy Nelson and Lyle Wildes from Men as Peacemakers talk at the church. Wildes, a former convict, teaches a class on Positive Attitude Development. (2008 file / News Tribune)
Peace Church pastor Kathy Nelson and Lyle Wildes from Men as Peacemakers talk at the church. Wildes, a former convict, teaches a class on Positive Attitude Development. (2008 file / News Tribune)

When Nelson began in 1991, there was a period of adjustment.

She is Peace Church’s first female settled pastor, and people would comment on her clothing in the beginning. “It’s a surreal thing to say, ‘I like your dress,’ or comments about your clothes rather than about the content,” she recalled. Soon after, Nelson started wearing a robe over her clothes.

“I think you had to earn their respect maybe in a way a man had been given it,” she added.

The church grew. They added youth programming and a dynamic worship team.

They launched their Dismantling Racism team about 25 years ago. Around that time, Nelson started conducting holy unions for LGBTQIA couples.

And, Peace became a sanctuary church with a living space for people who may be facing deportation. Nelson said the church has received pushback for this and its other social justice work. “But I don’t really care. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said.

The Rev. Kathy Nelson of Peace United Church of Christ talks about converting this basement room and adding space for as many as four undocumented immigrants working toward becoming documented. Peace is a sanctuary church. (2017 file / News Tribune)
The Rev. Kathy Nelson of Peace United Church of Christ talks about converting this basement room and adding space for as many as four undocumented immigrants working toward becoming documented. Peace is a sanctuary church. (2017 file / News Tribune)

The drive for this is rooted in Jesus, who challenged systems. “When I look at the scripture, he got crucified for cleansing the temple, and he was attacking a system that was oppressing the poor.

“Our scriptures have a compelling call to love thy neighbor, and that’s not just acts of kindness, but works of justice,” Nelson said.

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Doug Bowen-Bailey (left), a member of the congregation, and the Rev. Kathy Nelson, pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, get their hair shorn by hairstylists Misty Peterson (left) and Sheila Hill during the fundraiser for Locks of Love. (2002 file / News Tribune)
Doug Bowen-Bailey (left), a member of the congregation, and the Rev. Kathy Nelson, pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, get their hair shorn by hairstylists Misty Peterson (left) and Sheila Hill during the fundraiser for Locks of Love. (2002 file / News Tribune)

Nelson and the congregation have been through a lot.

Nineteens years ago, she had stage 3 breast cancer. “Literally, the church fed my family for a year. I would say we ate their prayers,” she said.

Nelson also recalled a church-hosted event where 35 people shaved their heads and donated the hair to Locks for Love in solidarity.

More than a year ago, Nelson was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Its removal affected her hearing and balance. Through it all, the congregation supported her and her family.

During Nelson’s last service at the helm, she and the congregation will make pledges to each other, in gratitude and in release of further responsibility. She will remove her stoll and sit in the pews. It will be really nice and really difficult, she said.

The Rev. Greg Briggs will work as interim pastor for at least a year, and Peace will form a search committee and begin the process of seeking a settled pastor.

Banks hopes the next pastor continues to support people of color and other disenfranchised or ostracized communities.

Sue Moss (from left) David Hill, Pat Anderson, the Rev. Paul Reiff and the Rev. Kathy Nelson discuss the role chaplains play in the St. Louis County Jail, Arrowhead Juvenile Center and Northeast Regional Corrections Center, as well as the needs of the chaplains in a multipurpose room at the St. Louis County Jail. (2003 file / News Tribune)
Sue Moss (from left) David Hill, Pat Anderson, the Rev. Paul Reiff and the Rev. Kathy Nelson discuss the role chaplains play in the St. Louis County Jail, Arrowhead Juvenile Center and Northeast Regional Corrections Center, as well as the needs of the chaplains in a multipurpose room at the St. Louis County Jail. (2003 file / News Tribune)

Nelson and her husband plan on staying in Duluth, and she plans to camp, read, fish, bring more Bible studies into jail and figure out where to volunteer next.

Nelson said she’s glad she was able to get her congregation through a major part of the pandemic before retiring.

After the recent Sunday service, Andre Good, 16, said it meant a lot that he could be confirmed by Nelson. He has been going to Peace for more than 10 years.

“She taught us to love everyone no matter what,” he said.

And: “It doesn’t matter who I think God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, just that I’m connected with them,” added Mary Karstens, 16.

“She is a huge beam of light in my life,” added Ellie Evenson, 16. “She changed my view on God, how he can live everywhere.”

Their hopes for Nelson’s retirement are for her to do all she desires, to still come to church and “to know she is loved,” Karstens said.

Then a social worker and now mayor of Duluth, Emily Larson stands with The Revs. Kathy Nelson of Peace Church (left), Jerome Ebabold of Trinity Lutheran, Arthur Foy of St. Mark A.M.E., John Sippola of Gloria Dei Lutheran and Joseph Alsay, also of Gloria Dei. Five Hillside churches hired Larson to help handle the job of working with people who come to the churches with various needs. (2001 file / News Tribune)
Then a social worker and now mayor of Duluth, Emily Larson stands with The Revs. Kathy Nelson of Peace Church (left), Jerome Ebabold of Trinity Lutheran, Arthur Foy of St. Mark A.M.E., John Sippola of Gloria Dei Lutheran and Joseph Alsay, also of Gloria Dei. Five Hillside churches hired Larson to help handle the job of working with people who come to the churches with various needs. (2001 file / News Tribune)