BROOKSVILLE — Sheriff Al Nienhuis was the first public official to respond to an invitation to attend the National Day of Prayer event May 5 on the courthouse steps.
He said he felt, as the new sheriff of Hernando County, he should set a good example for residents.
Nienhuis, 47, began his duties Jan. 1, after being appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to finish the last two years of the term of Richard Nugent, who was elected to Congress in November.
"We need to take time to pray," Nienhuis said before the Day of Prayer event, "and if I can set a very small example and let the community know where I stand, I'll be happy to do that."
Whether it's regarding his line of work, his love of country or his personal life, Nienhuis is not shy talking about his faith.
Recently, the sheriff took time from his busy work schedule — and moving his wife, Rhonda, and their three daughters from Pasco County into the home they bought in Brooksville — to speak about his beliefs.
You were praying in Jesus' name at the National Day of Prayer event. Were you reared as a Christian?
I was brought up in a Christian household, and I've been very fortunate to have known the Lord my entire life. My dad grew up in a Christian household. It was very important to his parents, and he made it important in my life and my mom's life and his life. So church was something very important to us.
I guess some people, and I kind of envy them, can point to a date when they had that "aha!" moment and became a Christian. But to me, it was always fact. I remember early on realizing I needed a savior, but I was so young that I really don't remember the date.
Where do you attend church?
My father helped found Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Pinellas Park. So I grew up in that until we moved to Sarasota, where my wife and I got married. Two of my daughters were baptized at a reformed church there. When we got down to Fort Myers, we went to Westminster Presbyterian, and my girls went to school there. In Pasco, we were in Grace Bible Church. My girls go to Grace Christian School there, and my wife teaches high school math there.
Now we're going to Faith Presbyterian just north of Brooksville. I'm really impressed with the pastor. You can tell he puts a lot of work into his sermons, and that's important to me.
You have said that you believe we are a nation under God. Can you elaborate on that?
We have a great country — by most accounts, the best in the world — and I think a lot of that has to do with our belief in God, from the saying on our money to the Pledge of Allegiance. I think that's the reason we have been so blessed and why our country has been successful for over 200 years. I don't think we should get away from that as a country. I've tried to instill that in my daughters.
I think our whole country, our laws and the Constitution, were based on biblical principles because they work.
In 1989, when you made the decision to make law enforcement your career, was God a part of that decision?
I think so. Part of it was what I believe was my decision, but God put everything in place for it to happen. My father passed away a couple of years prior to that, and my mother and I closed the family business, and an opportunity came up.
Was God involved in your decision to accept the appointment as sheriff?
I know that the reason I'm here is because he wants me here. I also want to make sure that I do what he wants me to do. Not being ashamed of that is important.
You've also said you believe God is in control. What do you mean by that?
I know there are just too many things that happen in life for it to be mere coincidence. So I'm a firm believer that God is in control.
You have to have faith, but I don't think your faith and your intellect are mutually exclusive. There's so much in this world, if you really look. I say to my wife all the time: Based on something that might have just happened, can you believe that people think there is no God or that there may not be a God, or that he's not involved in the day-to-day affairs? Because look at this particular thing. It's amazing how everything fell into place.
For example, with this appointment from Gov. Crist, I will tell you wholeheartedly, totally honestly, that I was looking for reasons to not put in for it or for it not be the right thing. Every time I would think maybe God doesn't want me in Hernando, some obstacle would fall to the side. It all fell right into place. If you would have told me a year ago that I would be sitting in this seat, I would have laughed, probably.
So God paved the way?
All the things that transpired to make it happen, that's why I'm very humbled to be here. I realize it's very little of what I did. You could say I prepared for it, but at the same time it was definitely God's hand in it. And I'm a firm believer in that.
How does your faith affect your work?
I think it is definitely an attitude of service. In Romans 13 (in the Bible), it talks about leaders and servants and people who are given the authority. I don't take that lightly. I realize I've been given authority, but I also realize that I'm under authority, both here on Earth and from above.
It's very humbling when you realize that. It's a tremendous amount of responsibility and humbling to know that I, in my office, carry the sword. We have to use it very sparingly, but at the same time, we have to be willing to use it. It's what God put in place. We have to have a strong arm to keep the community safe but yet not abuse that power and lose the confidence of the people that we're here to serve.
The Bible says if you are doing the right thing, you should not fear those in authority. And I think that's a huge responsibility for me to make sure that we are not putting good people in fear but putting the wrongdoers in a lot of fear. The people who are doing the wrong thing need to be very scared, but the people who are doing the right thing, the good citizens, should not fear the Sheriff's Office. They should know that we're here for them.
Does being a police officer give you a unique perspective?
As a law enforcement officer, you see things. The Bible talks a lot about evil, and some of the things you see happen in this world that the average person doesn't see firsthand, you realize there's a tremendous amount of evil in this world. It goes beyond just randomness of two atoms colliding a million years ago. There has to be a force behind it.
Then is law enforcement a profession that God honors?
Again, going back to Romans 13, God has instituted it. God protects people in law enforcement because they're ordained, in my opinion, and put in place by God. There are so many opportunities for things to go terribly wrong, and they do go wrong sometimes. But for every time you hear that something went wrong or a deputy was seriously injured or killed, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, where that could happen and it doesn't.
Every single law enforcement officer you talk to can talk about times when they shouldn't be here because the way things happened. Something obviously interceded to make sure that they did not get injured.
I think most law enforcement officers realize that they have a huge responsibility.