For the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, serving people in need isn’t just a talking point for Sunday-morning sermons. It’s a way of life. Because of this devotion to her congregation and community during times of tornadoes and other turmoil, the Virginia native will be honored for her compassionate efforts at the 16th annual Bales Humanitarian Gala, to be held August 15.
As pastor of St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville since 2006, Mills-Knutsen counsels and supports her congregation of 200 through the good times and the bad. But compassion doesn’t end at the sanctuary door. St. Luke’s, with Mills-Knutsen at its helm, recognizes its purpose as something more.
“The point of the church isn’t to serve the people who are already inside of it,” she said. “It’s to be a witness to the community and to make a difference in the life of our neighborhood and the city of Jeffersonville. And so St. Luke’s sees itself as a community of people put here to serve in our location.”
Practicing what she preaches, Mills-Knutsen opens the church to all those in the community by hosting a variety of services. Stop in the rectory on a Tuesday night for a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. Earlier those same mornings, knitters gather to create sweaters for needy children across the world. Wednesdays this fall, families can attend a music night where kids can express themselves in a safe, friendly environment.
Expanding the ministry, the church has begun to organize prayer vigils for local victims of violence. At times, evil can hit close to home. Just this year, Mills-Knutsen lost 17-year-old Tara Willenborg, a long-time church member, to an unspeakable act. Tara’s mother Kelley Curran credited the pastor’s “superhuman compassion and abilities” in providing comfort for her during this difficult time.
“Our family would've been lost without Jennifer's spiritual and practical support when we lost Tara. She managed to spend time with us. Counseling was a great resource in coping with the media circus,” Curran said. “Yet she also managed to write a eulogy while herself grieving for a kid she knew and loved.”
Helping to relieve the burden of those in pain comes naturally to Mills-Knutsen. Every Saturday at St. Luke’s, churches from across Southern Indiana come together to provide food for those who might not always have the opportunity to receive a hot meal. Now in its 20th year, the Loaves and Fishes program feeds 75 to 100 attendees each week.
A full belly can help make life a little easier for some. Still, others have a different type of hunger that bread alone can’t satisfy. Some folks, Mills-Knutsen said, need something further.
“Sometimes that’s more of a spiritual food. Sometimes people need to know that the violence and the destruction of this world won’t have the last word. They need to know that they can be loved and forgiven. And they need to know that they can be healed of whatever it is that ails them,” Mills-Knutsen said. “And that’s the kind of ministry we provide here.”
Unexpected disasters, like the March 2, 2012 tornadoes that devastated Southern Indiana, provide unfortunate opportunities for this type of ministry. Several of St. Luke’s families were affected by the storms. Two in Henryville lost their homes. Others searched for more than just their belongings underneath the debris the twisters left behind.
Immediately, the congregation and their leader went into action. Numerous helpers gave time behind the scenes at the volunteer staging center that was opened by the United Way at the old Bales’ building. Teams went into the field to clean and rebuild the homes that were destroyed.
Mills-Knutsen found her calling in a different kind of renewal. Like so many material things, hopes and dreams were broken that March day. Survivors needed help reconstructing their spirits too. Through her affiliation with the church, Mills-Knutsen chaired the Spiritual and Emotional Recovery team for March 2 Recovery, an organization that supervised the allocation of funds and provided other resources for victims of the tornadoes. As the efforts progressed, she would go on to chair the March 2 Recovery Steering Committee.
“We dealt with helping people get access to mental health and pastoral care if they needed it because in the wake of a disaster, often times people find that it is a spiritual crisis,” Mills-Knutsen said. “It awakens a lot of questions about how God works in this world. And so people need a place to process that.”
St. Luke’s congregant Jack Vissing didn’t need any time to understand why he nominated his pastor for the humanitarian honor. The local attorney extolled Mills-Knutsen for her ideas and enthusiasm. Among many impressive qualities, those were why he and the other selection committee members hired her as their pastor.
“I have been around leadership all of my life. I’ve seen good leadership and I’ve seen bad leadership. And she does exceptional,” Vissing said. “I’m humbled by the fact that she is my pastor.”
Humility resonates with Mills-Knutsen as well. Receiving the award isn’t something to which she aspired, but she remains grateful for the honor. Serving her community in ways she believes Jesus would sanction, though, is her ultimate reward.
“For me, it all goes back to the idea of call and the idea of following Jesus. That’s what I do. My life is about living the life that God can use and that Jesus would want me to live. And that means being willing to serve,” Mills-Knutsen said. “If you’re doing it in Christ’s name, that’s what it’s all about.”