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Our Neighbors.... Nathan Rasmussen

Nathan Rasmussen has made reaching out to people his life's work. The former Cloquet resident has spent the better part of the last 25 years doing just that - in Africa.

Nathan Rasmussen has made reaching out to people his life's work. The former Cloquet resident has spent the better part of the last 25 years doing just that - in Africa.

That Rasmussen is a pastor is not surprising. He is the son of Virgil Rasmussen, who was head pastor at Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle for 24 years before retiring in 1988. Nathan knew he would follow in his father's footsteps, but after graduating from Cloquet High School in 1973, he thought it would be in a different direction.

"When I went to Concordia College in Moorhead, I wanted to go into Christian

counseling," he remembered. "But in the middle of my studies I realized the real

answers were in the word of God."

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Shortly after that revelation, Rasmussen transferred to Bethel Seminary in St. Paul and studied to be a pastor while also earning minors in Greek and religion. With a recommendation given by a pastor Rasmussen knew in St. Paul, he moved to Smithtown, N.Y. in the late 1970s to be an assistant pastor at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle.

"For five years, I did all the things head pastors did not want to do," he said with a laugh.

While in New York, Rasmussen met his wife, Karen, and the two were married in 1981. Karen, from Long Island, found they had some cultural differences - most notably their accents. Since Rasmussen was the one out of his element, however, his Minnesota accent caught plenty of attention in New York.

"Everybody wanted to hear me talk," he said. "We all had fun with that."

Rasmussen enjoyed his work in Smithtown, but a chance visitor from Tanzania, Africa, would have a life-changing impact on him.

"Ron Mlongetcha was in the States doing further education and he told us about the needs in his country, especially for training evangelists and pastors," Rasmussen said.

With several other pastors in line for Rasmussen's job in Smithtown, he and Karen offered to travel to Tanzania to assess the needs themselves. With funding and blessing from the church, they set out for Africa in 1983.

"We spent six months with just one carry-on suitcase each traveling in Tanzania and around the region," he said. "We did seminars for pastors in one area and then moved to the next. It was fascinating."

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The couple saw the great needs - which were obvious as it was the world's second poorest country at that time. After they returned to the U.S., and again with church backing, the Rasmussens decided to move to Tanzania in 1984 and become missionaries.

So, they packed up and traveled to Tanzania to build a new life and reach out to "unreached people groups" as they are called, with their Christian message.

That task, however, was far from simple.

"Tanzania was a bleak place when we arrived," Rasmussen recalled. "Nothing functioned and adjusting was tough."

They eventually settled in Kigoma on Lake Tanganika, but settling itself took awhile. It didn't help that although they had brought supplies to build a house, most were stolen soon after they arrived.

"We were pretty naïve," Rasmussen said.

One of Rasmussen's brothers, Arlen, came to Tanzania to help make the transition and slowly but surely, the Rasmussens found success. Their vision of establishing a Bible school has resulted in 10 schools in Tanzania, as well as Burundi and Congo. People are training in both diploma and degree programs.

His brother Steve eventually came to Africa, too, and today holds a doctorate in missions and teaches in Kenya.

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One thing Rasmussen is most proud of is their work to set up an orphanage in Rwanda after hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's Tutsis were killed in 1994 by Hutu militia.

"We've had about 500 children come through the orphanage and find relatives or other Rwandan people to adopt them," he said. "At this time, we have about 40 children living there who are older or have [acquired immune deficiency syndrome] AIDS."

They also worked with a group called the Penticostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa (PEFA), starting churches in areas where there are none. In Tanzania, 500 churches have been started, with similar success in Berundi.

"In Berundi we've had a church revival, but haven't seen it in Rwanda," Rasmussen said. "Other churches have seen growth there."

The Rasmussens also helped refugees and Karen, especially, works with women in the country.

"She has been as supportive as a wife can be," Rasmussen said.

The work of missionaries is important, Rasmussen explained, because much of Africa has never heard the gospel of Christ.

"Our focus is to give everyone an opportunity to hear the gospel - and make their own choice," he said. "Others have learned that Christianity is evil, or the great Satan. We strive to make the gospel understandable to the world so people can choose to follow Christ or not to follow Christ.

"Sixty-six percent of people in the world die without ever hearing Christ's name," Rasmussen said. "These unreached people groups are any group with a distinct language and culture but who do not have a church amongst them."

After 20 years in Africa and with Christianity gaining a stronghold in the country, the Rasmussen family, which by then included their four children, Tori, Eirik, Kari and Kristian, decided to move back to Smithtown.

Two years there, however, was more than enough for the family.

"For our kids, Africa is home," Rasmussen said. "For me, it was a cushy life back in New York but I felt I had too much experience in African culture and with the government not to continue my work there."

For the past three years, Rasmussen has turned his missionary focus to training African pastors and evangelists to go as missionaries to other people in Africa who have never had a chance to hear the gospel. He and three others have given more than 200 seminars on the topic and plan to open a mission training school in April.

"The goal is to mobilize the churches in southern Africa, who have mostly had the blessing of the gospel and bring it to the north," Rasmussen explained.

The Rasmussen kids, now in their teens and early 20s, between home-schooling and college, are reaching out to unreached populations in their own mission work.

"They believe it is their calling," he explained. "We have a responsibility to take the gospel to the unreached, to the ends of the earth."

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