Deacon Gary Stokes was called to the hospital one day to visit a man on the point of death. He had experienced it before; people ask what is ahead and it frightens the heck out of them. But this time was significant. He had very recently baptised the man’s children and soon after that, the same man was diagnosed with cancer. It all happened very quickly. Now the family, knowing him as a deacon, asked him to come and visit as the man lay in a coma. On arrival, he announced, “Deacon Gary here.” At that, the man came to, and whispered, “I’ve left it too late.” Gary answered, “No, you haven’t.” It was like a confession, like an anointing without the oils. Before long, the man made his journey back to God, as Gary gave comfort in his last moments. The peace that settled on his face was “just amazing.” The family asked Gary what he had done to him, as it had changed him completely. Who he was, and not just what he did, had made all the difference.
Gary has just celebrated his 10-year anniversary as a deacon, and he tells me that these last 10 years have been the happiest ever for him and his wife, Nita. They are truly a team, and Nita pipes up every now and again in the background of our phone call to add or clarify something. In fact, Gary tells me, being a married deacon is very different from a single one. They have been married a long time and Gary’s commitment as a deacon has to be seen in the light of his prior sacramental commitment to his wife. It is also a blessing, as Nita has been like a mentor or sounding board, offering support and like-minded rapport.
Gary started off as a teacher, and he was thrown into a class of 45 boys without any training. But somehow he began as if he had been born to it. Gary feels that God has blessed him with an ability and confidence to talk in front of people. He met and married Nita, and together they have had many life experiences, which now seem God-given as they enhance the ministry they offer today. Gary as a deacon, and Nita in music ministry (by the way, she conducted the choir for my own Final Vows in the Port Pirie cathedral).
For a long time, Gary has been very involved with the church, and some years ago felt called to apply for the permanent diaconate in the Port Pirie Diocese. The first thing that the Bishop did was to ask how Nita felt about it, and whether she was prepared to back him up. After receiving her go-ahead, he then went to Gary. The Bishop asked why Gary was applying, when he could do all the things that he was doing without a diaconal ordination. Without hesitation, Gary replied, “That’s all very well, but it is like when Nita and I met. We could have just lived together, but we wanted to make that commitment in marriage. Now I want to make that commitment to the Church, and do all I can to serve for the rest of my life. It is also a commitment between myself and God. I’d like to say, ‘I want to show that I’m serious. I want to do this, Lord.’”
After 10 years, Gary is still certain about the grace of the sacrament. He sees other people doing similar work, but being ordained does make a difference. It gives those he serves comfort to know that he is committed and has gone through a process. At the same time, it is very humbling to know the value of his service. He especially sees this in people on the margins, such as those who are bound to their beds. Gary loves this ministry, but also sees the value of having women in such roles, who may be able to relate better when sharing common issues or experiences.
As a married man, Gary also feels connected with others who know that they can talk to him freely. For example, when he brings communion to a man in a wheelchair, the man opens up about spiritual things, pointing upwards to say, “He’s the boss.” This is also the case in his homilies. Gary doesn’t preach in-depth theology, but how he sees the gospels relate to the time we are in now: the 21st Century. From first-hand experience, I know he is captivating. With this gift, Gary gets asked to preach often in his parish, the local prison and even for other denominations. In all of this I see a man fulfilled and following his vocation – bringing strength and hope to those who are suffering and in need of the word of God.