In a small Winona County town, a new pastor and his parish discover a deeper faith amid the debris of a summer flood.
At Grace Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jesse Krusemark and church elder Don Borck chatted after a service last Sunday as Borch hung a sign to publicize the Thanksgiving service. Despite the mess the flood left behind, townspeople are upbeat. In that first week, people were ministering to me, too, Krusemark said.
STOCKTON, MINN. -- When the Rev. Jesse Krusemark counts his blessings today, he will include his ordination, his new pastorship, and his marriage in August.
And he won't forget the flash flood that slammed into Stockton on Aug. 18 that put many out of their homes where they remain three months later.
"This is what a pastor dreams about," said Krusemark, 31, whose one-week honeymoon ended when water and mud rushed into the basement of the parsonage and also Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where he had become pastor in June. "To meet people and have actual things to preach about -- it's a blessing in disguise."
If that sounds like a back-bent view, it's no surprise. Thanksgiving will be a particular challenge this year in Stockton, a town of about 680 people where nearly half the city's homes were damaged by the flood. Twenty of its 251 homes have been or are about to be demolished. Dozens of others are still caked with dried mud and abandoned.
Some residents are still unsure whether they will be able to return to or rebuild in Stockton.
Yet for many, giving thanks will be simple.
"Material things you find out are not worth as much as you think," said Margo Riemann, the longtime organist at Grace Evangelical and a mother of seven boys who lost a total of 12 vehicles in the flood. "We have a lot to be thankful for -- that we're all alive, that we're all right, and we're still able to come here and worship.
"Maybe you've lost some of your possessions, but you still have each other."
Wondered about challenges
Grace Evangelical is the only church in Stockton, a tidy, white clapboard church in the vale built in 1859 and expanded in 1971. It has about 100 members.
When Krusemark, fresh out of seminary, took the job in June, he thought a small congregation might not offer enough challenges. Still, his wife-to-be, Elizabeth, 20, a medical secretary at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, worried about the demands on his nights and weekends while she worked days -- but was looking forward to meeting new people and working with the many elderly in town.
They were married Aug. 11 and decided to spend the first week of their married lives fixing up the parsonage.
It rained much of that week, and the rain seemed to increase in intensity with each day. That Saturday, Elizabeth went to Faribault for a friend's party, and Jesse spent the early evening working on his sermon in the church office.
The line of storms then locked in over southeastern Minnesota, and by late evening Jesse was back at the parsonage hauling wedding presents and other belongings out of the basement, singing "Upon the Cross Extended" as he worked.
Elizabeth called to say she couldn't get back to Stockton through the storms and was turning back to stay with her family in Faribault. Soon, trapped like many of their neighbors by the torrent that had once been the placid Garvin Brook, Jesse Krusemark was rescued by boat and spent the night in a shelter at St. Mary's University in Winona.
The couple spent the next month living with Elizabeth's family in Faribault while Jesse returned to Stockton to do what pastors do. In this case that included checking on church members but also hauling buckets of mud and debris out of the basement of both the church and the parsonage.
It was a time of intense ministry as Jesse dealt with church members and a community on the edge of despair.
"I don't know how he was able to do it himself emotionally," said David Haedtke, who the night of the flood had helplessly watched two people drown across the road from his home outside of town. "He just did a wonderful job."
But it was also a strain on a young marriage.
"This was something I wasn't prepared for as well," Jesse Krusemark said. "Being newlyweds, I didn't know how to console my wife in that situation. That's where I felt a lot more helpless."
Ministering to the pastor
Elizabeth Krusemark said that month was "a test." But she added that she and Jesse have a strong relationship and had endured a long separation while both were in school.
"In that first week, people were ministering to me, too," Jesse Krusemark said. "They were very encouraging to me as a young pastor."
With the minister in a shelter in Winona the morning after the flood, Sunday services were canceled. But a week later Grace Lutheran was open for worship. In his sermon, Jesse Krusemark spoke of building on the rock of faith, then helped clean the aisles and pews of muddy footprints.
By last Sunday, things appeared mostly normal at the church. The lights were on, the new furnaces were running and about 30 people were in the pews when the bells chimed for the 9 a.m. service.
But effects of the flood were still in evidence. A state Lutheran crisis consultation representative announced that she was there to help people dealing with grief, loss and other anxieties. Churchgoers were reminded of the free clothing, furniture and other supplies available at the Winona County fairgrounds. On the table next to the coffee percolator was a stack of Styrofoam cups labeled "Salvation Army."
In the basement, a complete overhaul has already cost $10,000 and isn't half done, Krusemark said.
But Saturday night, he had been able to carry wedding presents back into the parsonage basement. He's thankful he and Elizabeth won't have to be stepping around the boxes any more.
And there is the matter of perspective.
"This was not 40 days and 40 nights of rain. This was perhaps 40 hours," Krusemark said. "There were many people praying for it to stop raining, and that prayer was answered. So God is still listening and is still there as a comfort to us.
"We ought to give thanks for everything, because he has provided everything."
Bill McAuliffe 612-673-7646