It was beach day at the end of a long difficult week when the Rev. Ryan Ankersen met the little girl.
At the time, Ankersen was an associate pastor on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
A sandy white beach bordered the beautiful blue ocean and three team members prepared to be baptized.
Girls from a local orphanage were dropped off at the site to spend the day with the team. One 7-year-old girl would stick by Ankersen’s side.
“I think I realized that God needed me to be a father figure for her in that moment,” he said.
After returning to the United States, Ankersen and his wife, Keri, considered adopting the child. The adoption didn’t occur, but the experience would be yet another part of Ankersen’s call to ministry – and to Fremont.
In October, Ankersen became senior pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at Military and Lincoln avenues. He’s been enjoying the congregation and his ministry here.
“We’ve got a wonderful community that I think God can use in powerful ways to be a Christ-like influence in people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve got a great facility, called the Community Life Center, that we want to utilize more and we’re working on ways to make that more available to groups in the city.”
Ankersen stressed the importance of working with others in the Fremont community.
“We want to engage better with mercy ministry groups that already exist in the city,” he said. “We want to take practical steps to bring Christ to others.”
Bringing Christ to other people has been a desire in Ankersen’s heart for years.
Ankersen was born and raised in McCook, where he was influenced by devoted followers of Christ.
He remembers being a little kid in Sunday school and the teacher with a passion for Christ. The teacher talked about the importance of sharing the message of Jesus with others.
“That really stuck with me,” said Ankersen, who shared the Gospel with one of his young friends.
Ankersen recalls confirmation class and the older gentleman who was filling in as an interim pastor at his church. The man was full of life and energy.
“He really struck me as someone who loved God’s people in a very genuine and special way and it inspired me to want to serve God’s people as well,” Ankersen said.
Ankersen’s parents, Russ and Sue, were quite influential as well.
They were involved in doing sound and audio work, singing in the choir, serving on the church council and helping with the youth group.
Ankersen smiles at the thought.
“They kind of did everything,” he said. “They were good role models for me in wanting to serve in the church.”
Ankersen went to Concordia University in Seward.
“It made sense to go into ministry,” he said. “God has been putting that calling in my heart for several years.”
While in college, Ankersen would lead a small service with a group of friends at several nursing homes.
He spoke at small praise services for the student body at Concordia.
Ankersen graduated from Concordia in 2010, the same year he and Keri married.
He then went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. While there, he was assigned field work, gaining practical experience at St. John Lutheran Church in Ellisville, Mo.
Ankersen and other students preached at services in a church that had about 1,200 worshippers on a weekend.
“They were a church that had a very strong, missional DNA and they were a huge influence in me—in my development as a pastor,” he said.
Ankersen graduated from seminary in 2014 and took his first call to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Flemington, N.J., which had about 300 worshippers on a weekend. Ankersen served as associate pastor at that church, which he said also has a strong, missional DNA.
While at St. Paul, Ankersen served as a staff member who accompanied a team on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
“We spent a whole week down there, helping impoverished families and building a school,” he said.
Earlier in the week, a few girls on the team were asking questions of faith and he’d have good conversations with them.
People gathered on the shoreline on beach day. They waded into the water for the girls’ baptism.
That’s when about 50 orphan girls began singing a beautiful Christian hymn in Spanish, their country’s language.
“There was no dry eye,” said Ankersen, who realized that while the girls didn’t have earthly dads, they were singing to their Heavenly Father.
At the same time, the three team members were baptized – adopted as children of God – which Ankersen describes as a beautiful moment.
That day, the 7-year-old orphan girl stuck by Ankersen’s side at the beach and later danced with him during what reminded him of a daddy-daughter dance.
The Ankersens began looking into the adoption process and learning Spanish to be able to talk to the girl. They’d be up late at night, going through Spanish 101 books and flashcards.
Circumstances in the Dominican Republic didn’t allow for the adoption to take place.
And Ankersen wondered why God had him learn Spanish if the adoption wasn’t going to take place.
He’d already been sensing the call to be closer to home and family in Nebraska, when – in August—he received a call to become pastor at Good Shepherd.
“What really intrigued me was their passion to do ministry differently,” he said. “As I inquired about that further, I really saw their heart for the city of Fremont and a passion for the lost, which really resonated with me.”
Someone from Good Shepherd also talked about a large number of people coming to the city, because of the Costco and Lincoln Premium Poultry chicken operation.
“We realize these people may look different and sound different and maybe even speak different than us,” the person said.
Ankersen said he felt like a lightbulb went on.
“I felt like God was saying, ‘This is where you need to be.’”
He’d immersed himself in learning Spanish and this was a tangible sign from God that he was meant to do ministry in Fremont.
And it started with learning Spanish for a possible adoption.
“If God would use a little girl to bring me to this city, I have to believe he’s on to some new and exciting things – that the Spirit of God has plans for ministry in the city of Fremont,” he said.
Ankersen said the church has identified an influx of people coming to Fremont with the addition of the Costco facility and want to determine practical steps to reach this demographic with the Gospel.
“Our greatest passion is to see people experience the grace and the mercy of Christ, regardless of whether or not they come to our church,” he said.
The Ankersens have two daughters, Abigail, 7, and Eliana, 2.
“Fremont seems like a really wonderful community to settle down in for my wife and I and our family,” he said. “We’re excited to be closer to home so my kids can see their grandparents.”
He is looking ahead to the future.
“I’m very passionate about reaching the lost people,” he said. “As we’ve been working through our mission and vision series, Good Shepherd has been casting a new vision to become a church for the unchurched.
“We want to be more intentional about being a church that meets needs in this city and resonates better with those who are disconnected from church.”