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O’Neill couple know God has a plan

November 19, 2018

O’NEILL — Having a son in prison would break the hearts of most parents.

But firmly believing that God is in control of the situation — no matter how challenging — makes the burden easier to bear.

“God’s placed him there for a reason,” said the Rev. John Nelson, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in O’Neill.

Nelson is referring to his son, Wil, who was recently sentenced in Madison County District Court to 20 to 25 years in prison for first-degree sexual assault. Wil must serve at least 10 years before being considered for parole, and he must serve 12½ years before his mandatory release.

Nelson and his wife, Joanna, don’t make excuses for their son’s actions. They know what he did was wrong. However, they admit they had hoped for a lesser sentence — possibly even probation — especially in light of the fact that he was in counseling and dealing with his personal issues.

But that was not meant to be.

Now, the Nelsons, who previously lived in Norfolk, and their other two children are adjusting to a “new normal” — however difficult that may be. Their other children are Paul and his wife, Abi, of St. Louis, and Laurel and her husband, Brandon Scheffler, of Norfolk.

“We’re prepared that God will see us through it,” Joanna Nelson said.

The couple have long relied on their faith to see them through tough times. Both were raised in the Lutheran faith. In fact, John’s father and grandfather were ministers, so a life spent in ministry may have seemed a natural fit for him.

Joanna had always admired the minister’s wives she encountered and often hoped to join the ranks, she said.

“I wondered if God could use me like that,” she added.

John, on the other hand, initially was hoping to avoid the ministry — “like the plague,” he said with a laugh.

After witnessing how hard ministers worked, he realized he didn’t want a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. He wanted a career that would allow him to be home in the evenings and to have the weekends free.

God — and his future wife — had other ideas.

The couple met at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where John earned a degree in business and Joanna earned a degree with a double major in communication arts and history.

He worked in the insurance business for a couple of years before God came calling.

After deciding to go into the ministry, they moved to St. Louis, so John could attend Concordia Lutheran Seminary.

“I became a preacher so she could be a preacher’s wife,” John said with a smile.

The couple’s first parish was in South Dakota. Since then, they have served churches in Arizona, Oklahoma, Columbus and Norfolk. They have been at Christ Lutheran Church in O’Neill for two years. There, John serves as minister and Joanna directs the pre-school and the church’s youth group.

In addition to their son’s incarceration, the couple — and many citizens of O’Neill — have faced other tribulations this year, including the accidental deaths of several community members and friends, and battles with cancer for others.

The couple still grieve the loss of a son who was stillborn. Plus, Wil’s former wife will not allow them to see their 6-year-old granddaughter.

Still, the Nelsons are grateful for the support they have received from their friends and the people of O’Neill, some of whom participated in a community prayer vigil on their behalf.

“That was just overwhelming,” Joanna said.

They are still receiving cards and notes from friends and acquaintances around the country. Wil, too, is receiving letters and notes from well-wishers, they said.

They recognize that God reveals himself through those people.

“God put so many people in our path to help us. They make you have a grateful heart,” Joanna said.

However, the couple admit they had trouble facing their congregation the weekend after Wil was sentenced.

“I didn’t want to go to church and preach,” he said. “But the Holy Spirit filled us, and it was great. Even when I don’t want to (do something), God gives me strength.”

Consequently, he said, his first sermon was about joy and hope.

For comfort, the couple often have turned to 1 Peter 1, verses 6 and 7, which read: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Currently, Wil is in a temporary facility that is part of the prison system waiting for officials to determine where he will be sent.

The Nelsons try not to dwell on the notion that their son will be at least 36 years old when released from prison. Instead, they focus on how God will use him — and them — for good.

After all, John said, the experience “can make you better or bitter.”

The Nelsons are choosing the former.

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