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One pastor’s burden: Reaching the ‘white slums’

Thor Sorenson grew up in Duluth’s Central Hillside District. So when U.S. News & World Report (October 17, 1994) named that district the "fifth worst white slum in America," Thor was already painfully aware of the families there that are riddled by violence and suicide attempts. In fact, in his home in the ’60s and ’70s, those were "just typical weekend events," he writes in his book, The Hillside Story.

Thor, 44, now pastors Hermantown Community Church in a suburb of Duluth, five miles from the Hillside District. And he remembers …

The turning point for Thor, the angry, troubled junior high student, was meeting a college student, Lynn Kern*.

Pastor Thor Sorenson (l) and James Laitinen in the lobby of Hermantown Community Church.

Lynn had been challenged by reading David Wilkerson’s book, The Cross and the Switchblade, and began to see the teen-agers in Central Hillside as his mission field. He prayed that God would give him five junior high students who would get saved.

"And God," he added, "I would like You to do this by August 1 [1968]."

Thor says, "In July 1968, I was almost 13 and going into the eighth grade. I was playing basketball with a friend and this college guy, Lynn Kern, asks if he could play. Then he invited us to a Bible study that evening."

"We’ll play basketball first," Lynn said.

Thor went because it was an opportunity to improve his basketball skills. Several nights later, after a Bible study, Thor accepted Christ.

As Lynn poured his life into Thor and other teens, soon almost 100 kids were playing basketball and studying the Bible.

Thor went to college and also studied correspondence courses and became an Assemblies of God minister, but he never forgot those turbulent growing-up years on the steep hillside, overlooking the city of Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior.

Chris Hedin, 31, is thankful that Pastor Thor remembers. He and his wife, Debbie, are among many who have come to Christ since Hermantown Community Church was organized in October 1991 in the home of Thor and his wife, Karen. He’s been a believer for a year.

"Neither my wife or I had been members of any church of any kind," Chris, a massive hulk of Norwegian descent, says. "Our lives had been consumed by alcohol. Then a friend invited us to the drama, Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames. My wife went to the altar, but I waited. I talked with Pastor Thor. I was just concerned about my 4-year-old daughter, Samantha. She was coming home from day care saying, ‘Mommy, did you know that Jesus loves you? And He loves you too, Daddy.’ "

Soon Chris surrendered to Christ. Through tears, he says, "Jesus is my whole life, what I’m about. He saved me from a pitiful existence. I sobered up in 1987. That’s when I met Debbie. We were both about a year sober. Our lives before that were horrible. Jesus is just consuming our lives. He’s asking us to step up — to go above and beyond."

Kids like Samantha Hedin were everywhere the November morning I visited HCC; in fact, children’s pastor Cliff Olson oversees ministry to 250 kids — 150 of them nursery and preschool age.

Debby O’Hara, diminutive worship leader at HCC, was 39 and her marriage was failing, when she saw the sign: "Coming soon to a theater near you: Hermantown Community Church."

Debby says, "When we came [eight years ago], there were 50 people." (HCC’s new 800-seat auditorium is now comfortably filled for two morning services.)

"As a Bible study leader, I get to know a lot of the stories [of those in the congregation]. Now, as worship leader, I see their faces and know what the Lord has done."

Last November more than 3,000 people attended a drama of Thor’s life, The Hillside Story, in a high school auditorium; almost 200 were saved. Thor says, "We ask our counselors to give a year of their lives to get to know these people."

Plans are being made to take the drama to other cities. "People need to hear that my entire family eventually came to Christ," Thor says.

Chris Hedin sums it up: "Pastor Thor has a heart for hurting people."

— Ann Floyd

*Lynn Kern is associate pastor at Hermantown Community Church. He married Thor’s sister, Paula.


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