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Answering a call from God, Duluth pastor journeys to the North and South poles

Spaniard Juan Jose Miramon Melgar (left) and Pastor John Halvorsen hold Halvorsen’s flag at the South Pole. John Halvorsen photo1 / 4
122617.N.DNT.SPoleC3 -- Pastor John Halvorsen in front of the plane that took him to the South Pole. Conditions were like one of the coldest days you'd experience in Duluth, he said. John Halvorsen photo2 / 4
The tent city where Pastor John Halvorsen stayed at while he was in Antarctica.The camp is about 700 miles north of the South Pole. John Halvorsen photo 3 / 4
Pastor John Halvorsen’s coffee mug bears a biblical verse about walking. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

John Halvorsen gets a laugh when he tells about what the radio guys from International Falls said to him after first meeting him.

"They go, 'Well, you seem lucid'," he related.

The journalists hardly could have been blamed if they came into that meeting wondering about Halvorsen's sanity. He had, after all, announced that he planned to walk across the United States in obedience to a call from God.

Now the pastor of Great Lakes Church at Glenwood and 45th Street East, Halvorsen was barely getting started with head-scratching journeys when he followed through on his cross-country walk in 1998-99.

Most recently, Halvorsen's walk with God took him to the ends of the Earth — the top and bottom ends, that is.

The 67-year-old, who grew up in Duluth, returned on Dec. 16 after a 12-day adventure that took him to the South Pole, where he unfurled a flag symbolizing people crying out to God.

Last year, he unfurled the same flag at the North Pole.

Like so many other things in his life, Halvorsen's polar expeditions were in response to what he describes as "encounters with God."

An unassuming man with dark gray hair and a ruddy complexion, Halvorsen describes his God encounters almost apologetically.

"This is where it gets spiritual, and it's hard to describe this stuff," he said at one point during a conversation in his office in the brick church he has served since 2003 — except for two years while he was walking across Europe and Asia.

Moreover, he isn't always certain why he's on the journey, at least at the time.

"I kept asking, 'God, why am I doing this?'" he said of the 6,020-mile Eurasian walk in 2008-09. He was accompanied on that journey by his wife, Sandy, who drove ahead in a recreational vehicle.

The answer came, Halvorsen said. "Number one, (God) said, because I knew you would. But number two, (God) said, I want my world back."

The idea of traveling to the North and South poles came in 2015 while Halvorsen was on New Ireland, an island that's northeast of Papua New Guinea. It was another place where Halvorsen had arrived because he had seen a vision, and he noted that the "Lonely Planet" guidebook said of it, "Welcome to the end of the Earth."

He was there, within a few miles of the equator, when his vision to travel to the poles came.

"It made no sense, and I struggled with this for months," he recalled. "Number one, how would you get to the North Pole? Why would you go to the North Pole? What good could it possibly do?"

Halvorsen went online to figure out how. He could join an expeditionary group on a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker. But it would be expensive: $39,000.

Halvorsen has never asked for money for any of his ventures, he said. He tells people what he plans to do, but he trusts God for the money.

"God provided for all the money I needed" for the North Pole trip, he said.

He brought the flag with him. It's white, with a depiction of a pine tree and the words "Appeal to Heaven" on it. It replicates a flag that was used in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

Halvorsen hadn't yet told his congregation his thoughts about traveling to the poles when longtime member Mark Eskola brought up the idea, joking that he thought Halvorsen was "bipolar."

"I said that off the cuff," recalled Eskola, who is retired from directing orchestra at Duluth high schools. "I don't know if that is the unction of the Holy Spirit or just my wackiness."

Halvorsen made it to the North Pole, unfurling the flag there, and then turned to an even bigger challenge.

The South Pole trip, with a starting point of Punta Arenas, Chile, would cost $49,750. Again, the money came in, Halvorsen said. He made the final payment a week before it was time to leave.

That included a $10,000 check that came into the church office two weeks before he left.

Pam Esselstrom, the church's office manager, was there to see the big donation.

"Being in the office and witnessing how money comes and from all the different places that it comes from is astonishing and amazing," Esselstrom said. "None of us can explain how all of this has happened except that God just provides."

Halvorsen's South Pole journey began with a flight from Punta Arenas to a base camp in Antarctica, followed the next day by another 700-mile flight to the pole with a refueling stop along the way. The temperature was 22 below with wind, he said, and the high elevation made it feel even colder.

He unfurled the flag and had photos taken at the "ceremonial" South Pole, which is close to the geographic South Pole but more conducive to photos, he said.

Pastor John Halvorsen talks about the long walks he has made. (Steve Kuchera)Only recently has he understood the point of his recent travels, Halvorsen said. He believes he is seeing the fulfillment of a promise Jesus made that the end of time would come only after the gospel had been preached to the ends of the Earth. He has found Christianity in New Ireland, which has been described as the end of the Earth. He has unfurled the "Appeal to Heaven" at the ends of the Earth embodied in the poles.

"My life is simply symbolic of what God is doing," he said.

Halvorsen doesn't think it will be long before his next journey. He believes God is calling him to Israel, he said, probably in February or March.

Eskola loves the simple willingness Halvorsen has to follow God, he said.

"He's open to that," Eskola said. "He's done these outlandish adventures, prayer-walking across the U.S. and Europe and Asia and going to these goofy places. But he feels he has his prophetic message for this time about the goodness of God being proclaimed to the end of the Earth."