When Don French responded to Hurricane Katrina, he had little idea that his life would be upended by the experience. After three trips to the battered region, the retired computer systems programmer said “yes” to an invitation to be baptized on June 3 at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Waukesha, Wis.
French, 63, is one of more than 18,000 ELCA Lutherans who headed down to the Gulf Coast. Upon his return, he found that he couldn’t stop talking about the magnitude of the disaster and the powerful encounters he had with the people there.
The kicker, said Gary Liedtke, a pastor of St. Luke, came on a Sunday morning following French’s third trip. “I touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘Don, would you consider being baptized when Pastor Pat (Keen) is here?’” Liedtke recalled.
Days later, after many conversations, French knew he was ready. He told Liedtke, “I know I could not be who I am without God’s Spirit. I know there is a love and grace that pervades this world and that we are blessed by that love.”
On the day of the baptism, French was overwhelmed with emotion—and so were the pastors, family and friends gathered in St. Luke’s sanctuary. “I could not believe this was happening, and I was overcome by the emotion —friendship, love, joy—that must be an extension of the love God feels for all of us.”
The move from observer to baptized member was a gradual process for French. He had attended St. Luke since 2002 after his wife, Anna, was baptized. But, he explained, “my journey of faith is a very complicated one. I wasn’t going to say something that I didn’t believe.”
When French saw Katrina’s destruction on TV and heard that St. Luke was sending volunteers, he was eager to help. Working with Liedtke, French assembled 36 members from St. Luke and other ELCA congregations in Waukesha.
As he worked side by side with volunteers, disaster response staff and local residents, French’s faith grew. He was inspired by people like Patrick Keen, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in New Orleans.
“You don’t do this for other people and get feedback that’s so positive without understanding that there’s something bigger than you going on,” French said.
Keen was present for the baptism. He said it was one of the greatest joys he’s experienced since the hurricane. “An infant baptism is wonderful, but an adult baptism … and an adult who’s been so engaged in the ministry,” Keen said. “Heaven is rejoicing!”
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