Family of beloved Minnesota pastor killed in DUI accident forgives drunk driver in courtroom

The family members of Pastor Verlyn Strenge extend forgiveness to David Nelson at the Clearwater County Courthouse on Nov. 14, 2021.
The family members of Pastor Verlyn Strenge extend forgiveness to David Nelson at the Clearwater County Courthouse on Nov. 14, 2021. | Screenshot: WDAY ABC

The family and grieving congregation of a Minnesota pastor who died after a drunk driver rear-ended his car extended forgiveness to the man responsible for the clergyman’s death, stunning an entire courtroom.

In November 2020, 58-year-old David Nelson was going nearly 70 mph in a 30-mph zone with a blood alcohol content of .267 when his pickup rear-ended 69-year-old Verlyn Strenge’s Jeep on Highway 92, The Legal Advocate reported.

Strenge, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Clearbrook, was killed in the crash, and his wife was seriously injured.

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At Nelson’s court hearing on Nov. 14, where he was sentenced to almost three years in prison for vehicular homicide, Strenge’s family and congregation shared words of forgiveness — the topic of the pastor’s final sermon before he died, WDAY reported.

Verlyn’s widow, daughter and son walked up to Nelson to hug him after hearing. They told him they forgave him and would be praying for him and his family. They stressed that he needs to forgive himself.

“We have been forgiven so much; how could we not forgive you,” church member Rick Moore said.

“We forgive you, Mr. Nelson,” Strenge’s daughter, Jayme Nelson, said. “As hard as it was at first, we want you to know that we have been praying for you for the past year because we know your life has been impacted by the biggest mistake of your life.”

Verlyn Strenge and his wife.
Verlyn Strenge and his wife. | Screengrab/WDAY ABC

Judge Eric Schieferdecker said the act of forgiveness was something he had never seen before. County Attorney Katy Lorsbach was brought to tears by the reaction.

According to troopers, the 2020 accident occurred after Nelson consumed mixed drinks while hunting. A local fire chief was following Nelson’s pickup after calling 911 to say his vehicle was running cars off the highway. 

“By the time he reached Bagley, he was unstoppable. And in the final moments, before he struck the vehicle, his foot was jammed onto the accelerator. The black box in the vehicle showed from the time he entered the intersection to the time his truck was disabled, he never took his foot off the gas,” said prosecutor Lorsbach was quoted as saying. 

At the court hearing, Nelson apologized for his actions: “I very much appreciate the forgiveness aspect of what they brought up. I decided today I was not going to ask for it,” he said. 

Strenge, who pastored First Baptist Church for 25 years, was described as a “devoted student to the teachings of the Bible.”

“He read through the Bible at least 6 times every single year and committed many verses to memory,” his obituary reads. “His love of Christ helped lift up countless communities and people in need. Verlyn made numerous trips to Ukraine to help with youth day camps at a fellow sister church. His strong faith and love of travel led him and his wife to Jordan and Israel in 2020. This trip was a treasured highlight in Verlyn’s life.”

"Verlyn gave endless love and energy to the communities and people he served. He presided over countless weddings, baptisms, life events and funerals. He was there for families in crisis and times of struggle, and in times of celebration and triumph.”

Following his death, dozens of people posted tributes to the pastor, sharing how he’d impacted their lives. 

"Verlyn was a hero to us and to so many. Thank you to the Strenge family for sharing this great man of God with us and all those whose lives he touched. We have precious memories,” wrote one supporter. 

“I find courage looking at his life of love and Gospel witness. I hear him saying scripture in my head and I remember the lengthy hours he put daily into reading God’s Word. He is a hero of the faith to me and many,” wrote another. 

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