The Accidental Deacon

The Choosing of the Seven “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Acts 6:1-6 NIV

12-13 Deacon

THE ACCIDENT

In 1980, Ken Rasnick was 20 years old, a Marine on his first days off in months. After a night of celebrating, Ken and his friends decided to sleep in their car, rather than drive home drunk. One friend, intoxicated and anxious to return home to his partner, decided to drive the car full of his sleeping friends back to their apartment.

Ken awoke as his friend crashed the car into a gas station. Despite his two broken collarbones, broken ribs, and burns, Ken managed to kick out a car window and slide out through the shattered glass, slicing his ear off in the process. A nurse who happened to see the accident ran to help him. She grabbed his severed ear and forced him to run before the fire ignited the gas station.

Moments later, the station exploded. Ken was severely injured, but he was also the only survivor.

“That was my first experience with God,” he said. “I had a lot of survivor’s remorse. Why did I live? Why did my friends die? I didn’t get it.” During his six months recovering in the hospital, the nuns tried to reassure him that his survival was no accident. “The nuns told me that God had plans for me.”

“Did I believe it? Absolutely not,” he replied, laughing. At the time, Ken remembers scoffing and saying, “Yeah, right.”

After his recovery, Ken was chosen by the Marine Corps to serve as part of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Guard. Part of his duty was to teach handicapped kids in Washington, DC’s inner-city how to swim.

“I thought, ‘I’ve found it. This is what God has planned for me.’ But I found myself not going to church at all, but doing outreach, I guess you could say. But I felt that God was leading me somewhere.”

Twenty years later, he became a deacon.

This year, almost 30 years after his first encounter with God, Ken Rasnick received the Association of Episcopal Deacons award, honoring his exceptional ministry to veterans and the homeless. The award is an incredible honor, only offered once every three years. Only four other deacons from the Diocese of Michigan have received the award since it began in 1995.

MEETING GOD THROUGH PEOPLE

6T3A9757One of Ken’s greatest gifts is how easy he is to talk to. He’s open and calming, and it’s easy to fall into comfortable conversation with him. Connecting with people through conversation happens to be a huge part of his ministry. Each week, Ken spends hours with people in hospitals, hospice centers, and retirement homes. For many of these people, Ken is the only person who visits them at all.

Part of the reason Ken can connect so comfortably with so many people is the depth of his personal experience. He’s lived through military service, horrific accidents, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), divorce, familial rejection, and much more.

“I had to go through all that bad stuff to become who I am today. God’s done this throughout the centuries. He’s put people through some bad times so that they would become the person He wanted them to be.”

Ken also knows what it’s like to be in the minority. Born and raised in southwest Detroit, the majority of his neighbors and schoolmates were Mexican, Hispanic, Arab, and Black. “I was raised by my family to take care of our neighborhood. If somebody’s car broke down, we helped fix it. If someone‘s grass needed cutting, I’d cut it,” he said. “If somebody needs help, you help.”

THE INTENTIONAL DEACON

“I knew Ken was meant to be a deacon right away,” said The Rev. Keith Mackenzie, Archdeacon of the Diocese of Michigan. “But when I have that feeling about someone, I usually don’t say anything. I like them to feel the calling themselves.”

Though people sometimes see deacons as the first stop along the road to priesthood, this is far from true. “The first thing you need is a servant’s heart.” Keith said.

“A deacon’s responsibility is outside the church. If you look at a priest, their stole goes over their shoulders and points straight to the ground at their feet. I like to say that’s because they’re planted in the church and they’re teaching in the church,” Keith explains.

“A deacon’s stole goes over one shoulder and comes down to one hip. This signifies that they have one foot in the church and one foot out in the community. Our work is to bring the needs of the community to the church and bring the church to the community.”

A common question posed to many deacons is “So, when are you becoming a priest?” If you ask this of Keith or Ken, the answer you’ll likely hear is never.

“It’s a completely separate calling,” Keith said. “I’ve been a deacon for 16 years. Serving the community is my calling.”

However, Keith is quick to note that deacons are not called to minister to the needs of the community alone. “We’re out there to identify needs and to take care of them. An important part of the diaconal ministry is not necessarily finding and meeting these needs all by yourself. It’s important to identify the gifts of others who can join you in this ministry.”

REFILLING THE CUP

These days, you can often find Ken ministering to veterans. In particular, he volunteers with the Veterans Court, an alternative judicial system that serves veterans dealing with nonviolent legal offenses resulting from mental health and substance abuse issues. This court helps veterans avoid the regular criminal justice system and provides sobriety, recovery, and stability support.

Ken serves as a chaplain and mentor to the veterans currently going through the Veterans Court, providing emotional, spiritual, and moral support for anyone who requests it.

“This court is not a break for these vets,” Ken said. “The judge is very tough. I stand beside them for every court appearance and I help to advocate for them.”

Retired Navy Chief and current Veterans Court coordinator Kevin Van Boxell has worked with Ken at the Veterans Court for the past three years. He’s seen firsthand the difference that Ken has made with the veterans.

“As a mentor, he’s a perfect fit,” Kevin said. “With the work he’s done, I’ve seen a turnaround in the veterans. It’s been a winning situation ever since.”

Ken has also leveraged partnerships with some home improvement stores and local governments, which have donated tools and equipment to allow the veterans to perform meaningful community service, including lawnmowing and volunteering for other aging and disabled veterans.

The number and depth of the problems facing these veterans is often dizzying. One veteran that Ken has worked closely with served four tours as a medical specialist in Afghanistan, caring for the soldiers wounded in combat. However, PTSD is not the only difficulty this veteran is wrestling with.

“When she went into the service, she was a man,” Ken explained. “She’s a war hero. PTSD, gender transitioning — each of those is hard enough to handle in life. She is dealing with both at one time.”

Ken often finds that open communication and service to those in need can help these struggling veterans process their experiences and begin the healing process. Through his weekly lunches with the transitioning veteran, Ken found out that her neighbor had their child removed from the home due to a broken water heater. Ken and the veteran got a water heater and helped to install it in the home.

“She’s real proud of that,” Ken said. “Helping other people, even when you yourself are hurting, is really special. That’s what helps to get you back on the right path.”

When asked where he gets the strength and the energy to continue such a tough ministry, Ken almost appears surprised. “I get a lot out of it,” he said. “They help me as much as I help them. There’s nothing in this world that makes me feel better than when I’m helping people who need it.”