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‘Nice Old Methodists’ continue serving with NOMADS

Ida Lake couple Duane Gebhard and Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard have been RVing to service projects around the country since 2017.

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To participate in NOMAD projects, Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard and Duane Gebhard travel to the site in this camper and live in it for three weeks, providing their own meals.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise
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Officially, NOMADS stands for “Nomads on a Mission, Active in Divine Service.” For Rev. Duane Gebhard and Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard, it stands for “Nice Old Methodists Avoiding Deep Snow.”

Either way, the organization draws volunteers to service projects that, according to Duane, help agencies affiliated with the United Methodist Church (UMC) to carry out their ministry.

Volunteers can sign up online for three-week stints at one or more work sites. They travel there and live in their own RVs, provide their own meals, work 24 hours per week and hold daily devotions with their team.

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Duane Gebhard and Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard celebrate the end of a NOMAD project in October 2021 by sharing a relaxing moment on a bench they built at Bay Shore Camp in Sebewaing, Mich.
Contributed / Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard

According to an internal report, NOMADS has 849 active volunteers and 190 alumni living in 45 states. In 2021, they completed 130 projects in 33 states, including disaster relief, construction, remodeling, maintenance and temporary staffing at churches, schools and camps.

The report estimates that NOMADS volunteers donated more than $25 million in labor in the last 10 years.

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Duane said they’ve personally been on 12 projects since 2017, including a couple that were cut short due to COVID – six of them as team leaders.

Their latest projects, this August, included expanding the nursery at a church in Coon Rapids, to help the congregation meet the great demand for infant care.

“We saw ourselves as helping the congregation there meet the goal of expanding their nursery to serve more people with high-quality, low-cost childcare,” said Duane.

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Duane Gebhard (right) and other NOMAD team members sheetrock the director's house in April 2021 at Casowasco United Methodist Church Camp in Moravia, N.Y.
Contributed / Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard

“It was fun,” said Jennifer. “It was exciting to work at this particular church, because they are so focused on serving the people of the community.”

Meanwhile, Duane said, the other half of their team rehabbed the parsonage of a church in Mounds View that had closed its doors, though a small group still gathers to worship.

“The conference now was looking at that property, saying, ‘How can we best use this property to carry on with ministry in this area?’”

Their goal was to encourage the church to feel they still have important resources to offer for future ministry.

Career of service

Fresh out of college, Duane served as a short-term missionary in the Congo, “meaning I committed to three years rather than for life.”

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Upon his return, he went to Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., then served as a minister of education and youth in Rochester. This got him involved in mission trips, including the youth service project on which he and Jennifer met as youth counselors.

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Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard stains the walkway to Lake Huron during a NOMAD service project in October 2021 at Bay Shore Camp in Sebewaing, Mich.
Contributed / Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard

“For me, that kind of set the stage for our relationship, starting 40 years ago,” said Duane. “We’ve done a lot of work in missions.”

Jennifer recalled the project as her first introduction to people living in poverty. Her career experience includes a vocational rehab facility, where she led work programs for people with severe disabilities; starting a hospital endowment fund in Winona; fundraising for the YMCA in Rochester; and nine years as director of Kinship of Park Rapids. She was also involved in the Ojibwe signage project, served as chapter president of Wellspring for the World, is a lay leader at Riverside United Methodist Church and chairs the endowment committee for NOMADS.

Early in their relationship, Duane said, Jennifer invited him to visit the work activities center she directed. “I was so impressed,” he said. “I was blown away with Jennifer’s ability to work with people in difficult circumstances and help them to get a life.”

Meanwhile, Duane pastored a church in Winona, taught summer courses at Garrett Seminary, and served as northwest Minnesota district superintendent, interim minister for several small churches and chaplain to the Methodist pastors in the district. He was also a key figure in the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s 1997 Red River flood relief efforts.

“By that time, together or alone, we had participated in 20 or more service trips of various kinds,” he said.

The couple has lived in the area since 2005, enjoying a view of Ida Lake, north of Dorset.

Hard work

Jennifer acknowledged mixed feelings as a NOMADS volunteer – “because you have to get up so early,” she laughed. “It’s hard work, and yet we always have a good time. It’s fun. You meet new people. You make new friends on the team. Sometimes you see people you’ve worked with before, and that’s always fun, too. We get tired out.”

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She said they’re always glad it’s a four-day week, but they’re also happy to sign up for another project. “Each project is so different,” she said. “Partly it’s the people; it’s the location; it’s the work that we do.”

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Duane Gebhard, third from left, and other NOMAD team members pop open a bottle to celebrate the point where both ends of the "corduroy highway" met Oct. 6, 2021 at Bay Shore Camp in Sebewaing, Mich. Team members cut down ash trees standing dead throughout the camp and haulded in truckloads of mulch to build a trail through the wetlands on the shores of Lake Huron.
Contributed / Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard

A project that stands out in their memory is Bay Shore Camp in Sebewaing, Mich., in October 2021, where Duane’s team cut down a stand of dead ash trees and built a “corduroy trail” out of the logs and “truckloads and truckloads” of mulch. On the same trip, Jennifer and another woman stained a boardwalk out to the shore of Lake Huron.

Jennifer said the project came about because the camp’s young director had a dream of doing outdoor education with school children. But they needed a raised trail because the property floods at high tide.

Duane also built some log benches for the camp. “By the time we got done, we had built a trail that was two football (fields) in length,” he said. “We looked back on it and we thought, if someone had told us this was what we were gonna have to do, none of us would have agreed to it. But when we got done, it was amazing.”

Variety of experiences

“Sometimes on our projects, we like to work together,” said Jennifer. Sometimes, like at the camp, they worked in different areas.

“We’ve been in Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin,” said Duane. “The idea is, you have to get there, and they will provide hook-ups, so we get electricity and water or some kind of sewer or septic. And you provide all your own meals, and you live in your RV. And then we work Monday through Thursday from 8 until 4:30.”

“Part of the appeal,” said Jennifer, “is that you have a three-day weekend to explore the area, or rest up, whichever or both.”

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The Gebhards' "Serenity" camper carries this magnet with the NOMADS logo during their service project trips, assisting United Methodist Church-affiliated agencies throughout the U.S.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

During a project in New York, for example, they spent their time off visiting their daughter and grandchildren living an hour away.

The Gebhards don’t have an end date in mind for their NOMADS service. “We’ll do it as long as we can,” said Jennifer. “We’ve got two projects we’re signed up for next spring. One is in Virginia and the other is in New York.”

Duane estimated that about 20% of NOMADS volunteers are full-time, living in their RV and traveling from one project to another. The rest, like the Gebhards, do a few projects a year.

While the agencies served by NOMADS are all affiliated with the UMC, Jennifer said volunteers don’t have to be Methodist.

Duane said something he appreciates about NOMADS is “that we can be Christian community and work together, regardless of differences in background and politics and all the rest. Our world is so much in need, these days, of models of people who are willing to work together for the good of the world without getting hung up on political or even religious differences.

“The reason we’re on this mission is to do the work of Christ and to be the church. It’s so fulfilling to me.”

For more information, visit www.nomadsumc.org .

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Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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