[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here with permission a week after their run date. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on May 23, 2015.]
By Roxane B. Salonen
FARGO—Joe Natwick remembers the first time God descended from heaven to the earth where he, in all his awkward, middle-school humanity, was dwelling.
At Camp Wilderness near Park Rapids, Minn., with a group of peers from church, Natwick had been enduring a “treacherous and cumbersome” trek through the woods, blindfolded.
Tethered to a rope and guided by their youth leader, Rollie Johnson, the boys were brought to a spot near water and then led to the ground as the blindfolds came off.
“We were basically sitting on the dock above a bog, and Rollie spoke some words into the silence,” Natwick recalls. “He said the same God who created those stars and this whole wilderness knows you by name and loves you. My whole life since then has been lived in the wake of that moment.”
Natwick, a recent graduate from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, will be ordained a pastor May 30 at his home congregation of First Lutheran Church in downtown Fargo. Soon after, he will begin serving as one of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s youngest pastors at age 25.
He’s what they call a “pipe-liner,” one of the few to go straight into seminary from college, which seems especially fitting with his first assignment in the Oil Patch at St. John Lutheran Church in Dickinson, N.D.
“I thought about doing a million other things, but they would always slowly fade away, and this call-push was always latent in my life,” Natwick explains. “Toward the end of college it was obvious where my life was heading.”
Just as those at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington came to recognize Natwick by his physical characteristics, many locals know him even from the back. His long, curly hair worn wild and full or pulled into a ponytail, makes him easy to spot.
But his golden locks are the least of what makes him stand out, according to another former youth director, Erik Hatch.
“Having long curly hair as a middle school and high school boy is an oddity. Having long, curly hair as a pastor is completely bizarre and incredibly awesome,” Hatch says. “But you could describe him by his appearance or by his passion; as either the guy with long hair or the guy on fire for Christ.”
Hatch says Natwick first caught his attention after volunteering to help with a skit while he was ministering to a group of fifth- and sixth-graders.
“He was just a few years older than they were, but they looked to him like he was a Greek god,” Hatch says. “He was willing to be a total doofus in the name of Christ, and I fell in love with him at that moment, and from there we forged a brilliant friendship.”
Born in 1989, Natwick was reared by his parents, Brian and Julie Natwick, in south Fargo, and, along with his older brother, Jake, and younger sister, Mari, was absorbed into the thriving community of First Lutheran, where he was baptized in October of that year.
“It’s pretty special that I’ll be standing up there being ordained in the church where I was baptized,” he says. “It testifies to the work of the church throughout my whole life at all these various points along the way, inspiring me in the faith, pushing me to grow and challenging me to seek out opportunities.”
His youth group brought Natwick everywhere from an inner-city soup kitchen to the top of Devils Tower, an 800-foot peak he scaled with 23 others in the mountains of Wyoming in 2006.
“I was so hungry to go on these experiences to see different parts of God’s world, surrounded by people who loved and supported me,” he says. “Whether it was canoeing, white-water rafting, hiking or doing mission work in the city, all these little moments built up the foundation of faith for me.”
Natwick says he wishes every technology-dependent person could have the privilege of experiencing God outdoors, no outlet in sight.
“You don’t even need a mountain. Just look up at the stars and realize, they are billions of years away,” he says. “And then to have the gospel preached in that moment, that can be such a transformative point in someone’s life, to realize that the same God who made all of that—the God of power and majesty—is also the God of love and relationship.”
Natwick’s parents say the qualities that led their middle child onto his current path showed up early.
“Even in preschool, he was the one that would include the kids the others wouldn’t,” says his mother, Julie. “Like the child in the wheelchair … that’s who he would gravitate towards.”
His father, Brian, says whenever they’d go to parent-teacher conferences at school, the teachers often would become emotional over Joe’s generous ways. “They saw something in him, how he acted with other kids.”
It’s one thing to be kind, however, and another to get up in front of hundreds of people to a deliver an impassioned sermon.
Natwick had no idea he had this gift until, unexpectedly, he was chosen to give the closing talk at his South High School graduation at the Fargodome in spring 2007.
“When I stood up to speak, I stepped into this new reality I had no idea was there,” Natwick recalls. “I spoke to the people, and they were captivated, and this was so surprising to me. I would say a joke and people would laugh. I would be serious and they would grow quiet.”
As he walked through the Fargodome to find his parents afterward, Natwick was stopped by countless people who wanted to share how moved they’d been.
Last August, when his family went to hear him preach at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Wash., at the close of Natwick’s internship, again, strangers came up to them with tears in their eyes, telling how he’d stirred their hearts.
“He can say nothing and yet he’s there listening to everything you’re saying,” his father, Brian, says. “And yet if he needs to take the room over, he can do that, too, which makes for a good pastor.”
Johnson says it was amazing watching Joe in his younger years, but it’s been even more extraordinary seeing “those seeds of faith flourishing” into what’s about to happen downtown.
“We try to do good things as a faith community, and you hope you’ll have an impact on people,” he says. “But every once in a while you get lucky and get a Joe, and it’s a really cool thing to witness.”
(To watch a video of Joe in action at seminary, go here.)