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Originally published July 29, 2011 at 9:21 PM | Page modified July 30, 2011 at 12:01 AM

The Rev. Jon Nelson, 'a man of action, not a man of words,' dies

The Rev. Jon Nelson, former minister at Central Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, died of cancer Saturday at his beloved cabin at Sand Lake, Minn., surrounded by his family. He was 77.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Jon and Juni Nelson celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, they amended their wedding vows with this caveat: "Whoever leaves the marriage first has to take all the children."

All 14 of them.

The last time the Rev. Nelson, a longtime civil-rights and peace protester, was arrested, his wife told him: "I'll go to jail and you stay home and take care of the 14 kids." Three were born to them and 11 were adopted.

The Rev. Nelson, former minister at Central Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, died of cancer last Saturday at his beloved cabin at Sand Lake, Minn., surrounded by his family. He was 77.

He was a longtime advocate of civil rights, Native American fishing-treaty rights, gay rights, and he helped lead protests against nuclear weapons. He also started a ministry at the prison in Monroe.

Juni Nelson said her husband went to jail many times because of social justice and peace efforts.

"He was a man of action, not a man of words," she said.

He was an early protester of the Vietnam War and once was arrested in front of former Sen. Slade Gorton's office in a sit-in protesting war and nuclear development, Juni Nelson said.

The Rev. Nelson was born in St. Paul, Minn., and was raised in Washington, D.C., and Duluth, Minn.

He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and Augustana Seminary in Illinois. He was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1959 in Hartford, Conn. He served parishes in Olympia and Missoula, Mont., and was campus pastor at the University of Montana from 1966 to 1972, where he developed one of the nation's first black-studies programs.

He was a campus minister at the University of Washington and retired from Central Lutheran Church in 1998.

When he came to Seattle in 1972, the Rev. Nelson helped draft a letter of apology to Native American tribes from Protestant and Catholic churches for violations of Native American religious practices, said Darel Grothaus, a former board member with the Church Council of Greater Seattle and longtime friend.

"He was very involved with people with disabilities and was an advocate for gay rights, performing a number of commitment services," Grothaus said.

"The two things striking about Jon and Juni was their family, the kids wounded in body and spirit. Most started out as foster children and they adopted them."

Every Monday night for more than 40 years, the Rev. Nelson would go to the Monroe prison, where he met with those incarcerated for life.

"These were men who were living without hope, and Jon was instrumental in seeing that they had a life whoever they were," said Juni Nelson. "These were men who would probably never get let out."

Grothaus said he went to the prison last Monday to break the news of the Rev. Nelson's death. "There were a lot of tears," he said.

Two years ago, Grothaus presented to the Nelsons the Gertrude Apel Pioneering Spirit Award from the Church Council of Greater Seattle at a church council dinner. They were the first recipients.

In an obituary she wrote for her husband, Juni Nelson said, "he laughed with gusto, loved life, people, singing, hummingbirds and all of nature. His children laughed to tears with his stories."

The Rev. David Mesenbring, senior associate at St. Mark's Cathedral, who will preach at a memorial service for the Rev. Nelson in September, said the Rev. Nelson could have gotten discouraged by the political limits of the church as an institution, but he never compromised or abandoned it.

He said when the Rev. Nelson started going to the prison at Monroe he was committed to helping those incarcerated inside. "He's a guy who was thrown into prison himself, yet remained an advocate for the rest of his life."

His embracing of gay rights caused some battles within his church, but history has vindicated the positions he took, said Mesenbring.

"He was doing marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbians when it wasn't popular," said Juni Nelson. "He believed anyone who had a loving and committed relationship deserved the right to be married. He came up against the church, but was never thrown out."

Daughter Heather Nelson, 44, said growing up she learned from her father that you accept everybody for who they are.

Heather Nelson, who is a Choctaw Indian, said her father helped her explore her Native American roots. "We're going to miss our dad. No one can fill his shoes."

The Rev. Nelson is survived by his wife, Juni, and 13 children: Sarin Nelson Leang, Leah Moon, David Nelson, Ben Nelson, Micah Nelson, Elizabeth Daniels, Hai Mai Nelson, Matthew Nelson, Anna Nelson, all of Seattle; and Suzi Burwick of Missoula, Mont.; Kristin Berg, of Port Townsend; Heather Nelson, of California; and Antoinette Nelson, of Boston. He also is survived by three sisters, Mary Nelson, of Chicago, Elizabeth Lempp, of Stuttgart, Germany, and Lorraine Johanson, from Batavia, Ill.

He was preceded in death by son Joshua.

Services for the Rev. Nelson will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 17 at Central Lutheran Church, 1710 11th Ave. There will also be a memorial service at Monroe.

The family asks that any contributions in his name be sent to the community lunch program or the Lutheran Peace Fellowship at Central Lutheran.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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