Out of the ashes: Discipleship as a call to action

Out of the ashes: Discipleship as a call to action

“The Call to Stewardship” is a periodic series profiling individuals and families throughout the Diocese of Camden who have shown an inspiring response to the call to Christian charity highlighted in 1 Peter 4:10: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Father Nicholas Dudo stands with Jerry and Diane Vekteris of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Galloway, and their children, from left, Alex, Andrew and Nathan. A devastating house fire renewed the family’s commitment to the church.
Photo by James A. McBride

Jerry and Diane Vekteris know a little bit about looking at the bright side of a dark situation. Four short years ago Jerry got “the phone call you never want to get.”

A pediatrician with a busy practice, he was making a house call to check on one of his young patients. It was around 10 p.m. on an unseasonably cool night in August and Diane and the kids, Alex, Andrew and Nathan, were all at home when a fire broke out in the garage on the family’s rural property near Galloway Township.

Jerry rushed home to find fire engulfing the house in flames. His family was outside in bare feet. They watched together for six hours as their home disappeared in an inferno. The house and all of their belongings were gone, but as Jerry and Diane are quick to point out, “nobody got hurt — and that’s all that matters.”

Jerry considers the upside in what might have been a tragedy: “Sometimes God allows these things to happen.” And then with characteristic wit he adds, “We had a lot of clutter going on in our lives, emotionally and physically.”

In the aftermath of the fire, the Vekteris family learned just how generous their community could be. The father of a friend offered a carriage house where they stayed for six weeks. The same man, also a contractor, rebuilt their house in record time. Friends and strangers flooded them with the necessities they needed to stay together and start anew. The entire community — neighbors, young patients and their families, and members of their parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help — came together to see the Vekteris family through a trying time. And in the ashes of their former home they saw the opportunity to reassess their priorities.

What came out on top were their commitment to family, and their commitment to seeking a deeper level of discipleship.

It was no surprise to their pastor, Father Nicholas Dudo, that the Vekteris family responded to a traumatic situation with grace and a desire to serve. Commitment to their parish has always been at the top of the family’s list.

“They’ve recognized the gift that God has gifted them and are passing it on,” Father Dudo says. “Stewardship carries the idea…[that] it’s someone else’s gift that I’m carrying.” And he notes, “They are persevering because they have a relationship with the Lord.”

Jerry assesses his tendency to overextend himself in simpler terms: “I have a problem,” he says. “I just can’t say, ‘No!’”

He’s chairman for the parish festival that takes place in September and also serves as a lector and as a member of an innovative parish initiative called the Good News Commission. The group meets to discuss evangelization and planning across the various ministries at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The goal is to help various groups within the parish to work together not just to get things done, but ultimately, to focus on discipleship by growing in relationship with Christ.

Similarly, helping others on their road to discipleship is at the core of what drives Diane in her mission as a mom and as a religious education teacher. She’s taught in her parish now for 19 years, sometimes in past years with daughter Alex, now 24, or son Andrew, now 18, teaching a class, too. Nathan at age 13, is still too young to teach, but he’s often along lending a helping hand in the latest family endeavor.

“We’re kind of old school, like that,” Jerry says, referring to the family tradition of parents and kids serving together. “If we’re involved, they’re right there with us.”

In fact, fostering discipleship in their family and in their Catholic community is at the core of what drives both Diane and Jerry. But finding that focus in their relationship has been a process across their 26 years of marriage.

“When we first got married, we’d go to church every week but we weren’t really involved in the church.” says Diane.

It was along the way that their commitment to a deeper faith grew. The year before the fire, Diane was invited by a close family friend to train to become a facilitator to help bring the Emmaus movement to southern New Jersey. Emmaus is a ministry for both men and women that focuses on spiritual renewal and formation, beginning with an intensive weekend retreat. Along with a small group of other women, Diane helped lead the first South Jersey Women’s Emmaus Retreat in April of 2016.

Today, Diane has embraced her role as facilitator of the team that plans and runs the retreats twice a year at the Pope John Paul Retreat House in Vineland. Jerry has also participated in South Jersey Men’s Emmaus Retreats, and in typical fashion, Diane and Jerry have shared the experience with their older two children.

“Emmaus,” says Jerry, “helped us go deeper.” Daughter Alex credits Emmaus with her return to the faith after an absence during her teen years and early 20s. Not surprisingly, the idea to take part in Emmaus was sprung by her dad, who convinced her that she could “endure anything” for a weekend to support her mom.

As Alex describes the experience now: “It changed everything.”

At one point during the weekend, “I felt so cold and dark. That’s hell in my opinion. I felt that darkness.” And she realized, “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

“That’s when I reached out and He was right there.”

For Andrew, the path has been steadier. Already at age 18, his commitments have been numerous, from helping his dad with the annual parish festival, his mom with her work in religious education, and anywhere else he’s been asked to serve. Like younger brother Nathan today, Andrew served as an altar server, and at age 15 was asked to become a extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He in turned asked mom Diane to join him in the training class, and at the end, they were inducted together.

As part of his Eagle Scout project, Andrew recently completed a prayer garden at Assumption School, where he attended grammar school and Nathan is now completing seventh grade.

Throughout their journey, through marriage, family life, a thriving pediatric practice, and a deep commitment to parish service, the underlying catalyst for Jerry, Diane and their family has been a deeper commitment to relationships with God. The focus on discipleship is the spark that has been their call to action.

For the Vekteris family, the way out of the ashes seems to have been to find a renewed way to serve in their parish and the greater Catholic community, and to do it together whenever possible.

“We’re called to service,” Jerry says. “And we’re excited about it.”

The mission of the Office of Stewardship is to help the disciples of Christ who live in the Diocese of Camden to live out Christian charity in a sacrificial way that “we might understand the grace that comes from giving back from our blessings so that in all things God may be glorified.” For more information, contact Deacon Russell Davis at 856-583-6102.

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