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Merrie Sue Holtan, Published December 12 2012

Gifts of faith: Church’s chest project carries on legacy of ‘grandpa love’

PERHAM, Minn. – When Tracy Bieger, youth and family coordinator at Calvary Lutheran here, returned from a faith conference, she pitched a new idea to her church.

“I brought back plans to design small boxes for kids’ special items and God things, like baptismal candles, Bibles and other faith milestones,” she recalls.

The plans ended up in the hands of Calvary’s men’s ministry, the Fishermen, and member Jim Nordbeck, owner of Nordbeck Construction, built a prototype.

When Bieger saw the first sample chest, she was blown away. It had changed from a relatively small box to a Faith Chest with dovetailed joints and hinged top, all made from local black ash, measuring 11-by-20 inches.

“You guys really ‘Calvarized’ this idea,” she told them. “It’s bigger and better than I ever imagined.”

Three years later, Nordbeck’s model has produced 85 chests, with 30 more in the works, one for each of Calvary’s kindergarten children.

The Fishermen’s group believes that during baptism, the congregation promises to support children as they grow in faith. They also value the fellowship that occurs over many hours spent together building. Most of the Fishermen have children and grandchildren who live far away, so this project becomes an opportunity to help other people’s kids.

The Nordbeck legacy

The chests also serve to honor Nordbeck, who died from nonsmoking lung cancer in 2011.

“It just went so fast,” says Nordbeck’s mother, Dorothy. “Five months and he was gone from us. Jim took care of everybody. He was always helping.”

“Fishermen presented me and one of our foster children with a faith chest,” says Nordbeck’s wife, Mary. “I keep everything that reminds me of Jim in my faith chest.”

Jim and Mary, both Fargo natives, have two biological daughters, two adopted sons, and have had several foster children. They also believe in caring for other people’s kids.

“When they called our foster kindergartner up to receive his faith chest, his face just beamed,” Mary says. “During church, he kept opening it and tracing his name routered in the top of the chest. ‘I can’t believe this is for me,’ he said. He went through his drawers to find special objects, like his rock collection, to put in the chest with his Bible.”

The chests still start out in Nordbeck’s shop, where the black ash is prepped, dovetailed and sanded. Dorothy does her part by making the men gooey caramel rolls, which she says are 10 percent roll and 90 percent caramel.

“I can’t believe some of them eat six or seven,” she says, smiling.

From Nordbeck’s home, the chests travel to eight or nine different Fishermen’s shops, with a specific task at each place. Twenty-five Fishermen make different pieces, taking more than three months to finish 30 chests.

Grandpa love in Santa’s workshop

Lee Mindemann, retired sales executive with Proctor and Gamble, took over the coordinator job after Jim’s death. He hopes the faith chests will become a lifelong connection between the children and their home church.

“Most of the work is done by retired grandpas,” Mindemann says. “So there’s a lot of grandpa love going into each and every faith chest – regardless of the name being carved in the lid. We also like to have lunch together at local cafes. This year a couple of high schools students will join us as well.”

When the chest is nearly finished, the lids end up in Santa’s workshop, not at the North Pole, but in New York Mills. Patrick Kilby, who works seasonally at Rockefeller Center, New York City, as a professional Christmas Santa, has a large shop and router, which gives each chest a personal touch with the child’s name.

Santa Kilby’s construction business is Simple Pine Box, where he and his wife, Karen, build alternative, simple and more affordable pine caskets. Their Sugar Creek Woodworking business also provides furniture refinishing and upholstery.

“I’m happy to provide a way to personalize the chests for each child,” Kilby says. “Plus watching the kids and parents respond when they get their chests during the church service brings me great pleasure.”

The Fishermen estimate that each piece of wood travels 42 miles before it is finished. The final assembly takes place in Fisherman Rand Stolee’s garage.

Stolee, a surgeon in Perham, explains that the Fishermen group formed in the 1980s after a fishing retreat.

“We were called to lay down our nets, actually fishing poles,” he said, “and organize a men’s ministry at Calvary. We wanted to encourage men to feel comfortable at church and give opportunities for service.”

Besides the faith chests, this ministry includes men’s breakfasts, Bible studies, canoe/outdoor outings and service to the community through a “fix-it ministry.”

The Fishermen spend the year fundraising with pancake breakfasts and encouraging congregation members to sponsor components of a chest: lid, front, back, bottom, hardware and supplies.

After receiving a chest, parents report children touching and tracing fingers over their carved names on the lid. One child told her baby sitter that toys were not allowed to be stored in the “God Box.”

“This project remains a great opportunity for me to get to know people both in and out of the congregation,” Mindemann says. “Members of the Greatest Generation, a soft-spoken Vietnam War veteran who works wonders with wood, a professional Santa Claus, a surgeon, an engineer, salesman, retired educators, retired bankers, a retired telephone repairman. They run the full gauntlet of life experiences. They share a love for children, a dedication to their church, and they enjoy making sawdust together.”

Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays.