Call to the ‘frozen north’ leads pastor, family to open Northern Grace Ice Cream truck in Cook, MN

“Just come up here for a visit,” said Roger as my wife Liz and I were searching for God’s placement for us in ministry. “Up in the frozen north? Cook, MN? Not a chance,” I said under my breath.

I experienced great fellowship over the phone with Roger, a member of the pastoral search team at Cook Covenant Church, but I gave the obligatory answer, “We’ll pray about it.” Meaning, “Not very much.”

Months before the call, Liz and I had prayed, “Lord, we will go where you want us.”

Some churches said no to us, and we said no to some churches. Months went by since the call with Roger and suddenly God hit me with a 2×4: “How can you say you will go anywhere I send you without even checking out the church in Cook?”

The church was not what I had in mind. And besides, Liz gets cold easily and her mother lived close to us. I called the search team and arranged for a quick visit thinking I would just satisfy God and move on.

To our amazement, we loved our visit and fell in love with the people! On the way back, Liz and I looked at each other and said, “This is God’s call.”

This was the first of many “God sightings” involving Cook Covenant Church. Liz’ mom responded saying that she would not even visit us up there. Soon, however, she would be living with us in Cook and finding her own place on the lake in Duluth, MN.

‘Little’ victories

Since coming here to Cook, we have learned to count “little” victories. For example, I counselled and married a couple just before the pandemic with the husband coming to trust in Jesus as his Savior.

Then the pandemic hit—and we were dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century regarding technology. Attendance was very low, but sometimes up to 400 people tuned in on facebook.

And that couple? They came back to our church and are now running our technology ministry.

Deaf ministry

Even further north, there is an off-grid cabin we considered buying as a getaway spot since the next-door neighbors came to our church. Since it was quite far, and I didn’t like the idea of having to make our own electricity, we passed.

A deaf woman named Alisha bought the place, and her neighbors brought her to church. Alisha is a vibrant Christian and ministers encouragement very naturally. But communication was a problem. She had a writing tablet, and we downloaded an app called “Live Transcribe” so she could participate in worship.

In addition, we had close to 20 people sign up for Zoom training in American Sign Language (ASL) from the American Association for the Deaf. When Alisha told us she was bringing a friend on a recent Sunday, we assumed that friend would also be deaf. But instead, Anne is hearing and very fluent in ASL. She said she would like to come every other weekend—clear from Wisconsin—to worship with us.

Our people responded with even greater desire to learn ASL. Alisha is now teaching us conversational ASL every Tuesday and letting Jesus shine. I recall that I took a sign language class as an elective in college. Over the years I wondered about possibilities for deaf ministry. I don’t know what God will do, but He remembered those possibilities too.

We’ve been learning so much. Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled, and we have changed our thinking too. God ministers not only to the deaf, but through the deaf, with “like precious faith.” Many deaf or hard of hearing people are overlooked in ministry. Our church sees a door opening.

Northern Grace Ice Cream

Coincidentally, Alisha is now working for us. As a bi-vocational pastor, I was looking and praying for summer work. One day God simply said, “Ice Cream.”

Somehow I knew that God was meaning to make my summer gig an ice cream business. Liz and I wanted to make it an outreach and a ministry. That’s how Northern Grace Ice Cream was born.

Our tag line is: “Just a little taste of Heaven.” Our mission statement is: “Serving up God’s grace one scoop at a time.”

Alisha is very outgoing and wants to meet people, and we do too—witnessing to the grace of God as much as we can. It’s been a lot of work, but we were finally able to open a few weeks ago. In addition to our own livelihood and support to our church, we are contributing to the local food bank, a food and ministry program for a Maasai village in Kenya, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

God is at work in the “frozen north,” and we are thrilled to be a part of what He is doing.

Follow Northern Grace Ice Cream on Facebook

Read more about the formation of Northern Grace Ice Cream in the local paper

By Brian Burton, Pastor of Cook Covenant Church