By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
At first glance, Luke Henkel may seem like a carefree soul, but shake his hand and you know that he means business. The son of a nuclear weapons engineer and a teacher, Henkel and his older brother grew up on the road in a traveling yet structured environment.
Born in Virginia, the 26-year-old Luke has claim to the world as his home. He has explored 25 countries and all states in the United States, except Hawaii and a few in New England.
When his dad retired from the Navy in 2001, the family moved into an RV. For four years, they traveled while the brothers were home schooled. Luke attended a public high school in Washington State for freshman and sophomore year, and then the Henkels settled in Lake Lanier, Ga., so Luke’s brother could train for the Olympic kayaking team.
During Luke’s senior year of high school, he studied in Chile. Technically, he graduated from high school through his school in Georgia.
After high school, he returned to the West Coast for college, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Western Washington University. Certified in English as a second language, Luke moved to Seoul, Korea, for a year to teach.
Simultaneously, he contemplated religious life. While doing online research about the Franciscan order, Luke saw a link to learn more about the Society of the Divine Word. One step led to the next. He spoke with National Vocation Director Len Uhal via Skype and then met Divine Word Father Dennis Callan in Korea.
After returning to the United States, Luke attended a Come-and-See weekend at Divine Word College, the congregation’s major seminary in Epworth, Iowa.
"The people there are so real," Luke said. "It felt like home. It had that ‘welcome back’ feeling. The Jamaican Mission Trip in 2013—that sealed the deal. Honestly, Brother Bernie [Spitzley, who works in Jamaica] was one of the people who inspired me to be a brother."
After studying philosophy at Divine Word College, Luke began his novitiate year at Techny in 2015.
"For me, one of the best parts of novitiate year is having time to practice mindfulness," said this five-time marathoner, citing an appreciation of Buddhism. "Prayer is such a hard word to define. We all want to be in conversation with God. For me, what prayer has come to—what it means—is awareness."
Why be a brother? "I’m still trying to figure that out," Luke said. "For me, it’s about bringing the faith to something concrete."
He said he loves the Mass and the Sacraments but feels called to proactively do his part to solve social injustice. He envisions work in which he can be in the trenches and not tied to parish administrative duties.
As part of novitiate, each novice has ministries. Luke’s ministry was a tangible start to his life as a brother.
Once a week, he jumped on an elevated train and headed into Chicago. Often, he went to Lake Shore Drive, traveling towards the beach. The Lake Shore Drive viaduct at Wilson Avenue looks like a tent city. During the summer, a passerby can count as many as 20 makeshift abodes.
Luke visited the residents of the streets. One resident whom he got to know is Jerry, a middle-aged man who has lived on the streets for 15 years.
Jerry lives under a viaduct about a mile south of Wilson. He says that he’s noticed more traffic and more gentrification of the neighborhood in which he lives. It’s the city’s fourth coldest corner in the wintertime, but Jerry likes it because of its relative quiet. Layers are the key to his wintertime survival.
"Each situation is unique," Luke said. "Jerry has friends and could get off the streets. Some people are waiting for housing; some don’t know how to save.
"One guy told me that he was in jail, and when he got out, his apartment reminded him of the cell," Luke said. "He felt too confined and needed more freedom."
Luke said he has learned a great deal from these encounters. For instance, he learned to give gift cards instead of food. That way people in need can choose food in accordance with dietary needs.
"People on the streets are dependent upon what others donate to them, not the best nutrition-wise," he said. "Lots of people on the streets have dietary issues—gluten intolerance, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, diabetes. What I’m trying to do now is learn what they want."
He hopes to find a way to bring that listening skill to ministry, give them a sense of ownership in their stories and empower them.
"One of the most important things that we can do is to listen. Until we listen to their stories, nothing can be done to solve their problems," Luke said. "I want to know them. It’s not the poor; it’s Jerry."
As a brother, Luke will begin full-time ministry later this month.
"I learned much about life on the streets and even more about myself," he said. "Hopefully, I can [eventually] bring better diets to people—to people on the streets and all kinds of populations."