Saying yes to God’s call, even in suffering

Deacon Tom Frankenfield has received plenty of orders in his 24 years in the Air Force, before retiring in 1999 as lieutenant colonel. The best “Yes, sirs!” however, have come from answering God’s call.

He and Joanne, his wife of 46 years, have said yes to leading Cursillo weekends in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, and English-speaking Marriage Encounter in Europe while stationed abroad. They said yes to Tom’s call to the permanent diaconate, with ordination in 1997.

But in 2009, they suffered what many would consider a serious blow. Healthy for so many years, Deacon Tom was diagnosed with leukemia. He said he has found the 10-year struggle a way to practice living yes by “following wherever God leads.” 

There have been chemo infusions, drug interactions and reactions. Exhaustion, stomach problems and hearing loss are among the side effects he’s experienced.

“It’s been a long road,” said Joanne, talking about the most recent chemo infusions in June. She is a nurse practitioner and takes off work the days around the treatment. “Whatever we are going through, we are doing it together. I do a little cross stitch and a lot of praying. But it only stops us for a couple of weeks after the infusions.”

Even the infusions have offered opportunities to say yes. “The VA is a place where God sends me,” said Deacon Tom. “It’s ordinary things like bringing candy to the chemo and infusion lab. It’s not hard to stop and pick up a bag of candy to share. Because it’s for others, I feel like God rewards me with warm looks, smiles, handholding. 

“I’ve got nothing compared to people there with really serious cancer. I get to be there, be quiet with them. I get to be there and affirm the medical staff. What they do is incredible.”

According to Joanne, Deacon Tom has a gift for connecting quickly with people. His willingness to share from the heart is what he calls the grace of vulnerability. He described it as being open to and trusting in God’s plan, as well as ignoring any fear of being real with others. 

“The more vulnerable I am, the more doors God opens. All the things I couldn’t do became a source of grace. When we get out of the way and let God do things, it’s just amazing,” said Deacon Tom. 

Deacon Tom shares good days and bad days, setbacks and joys. Father Marc Lim considers Deacon Tom a spiritual person “who draws from his life experiences and integrates it with his relationship with God … relating to people as a deacon in a very real way.”

“He doesn’t sugarcoat things, but he also looks at things very hopefully,” said Father Lim, who met Deacon Tom when he was associate pastor at Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha in 2010. On July 1 he returned as the parish’s pastor. Deacon Tom is assigned to St. John Vianney Parish in Omaha, and he and his wife are parishioners at Mary Our Queen, so his ministry covers both parishes.

Archie and Bev Carpenter, longtime parishioners at Mary Our Queen, first met the Frankenfields 20 years ago.

“We’ve seen the good and the bad,” said Archie. “He’s an ordinary man, but he loves the Lord. He shows it … in how he lives. He shares his life in a way that allows us to see his suffering … he isn’t sick because he wanted to be, but he’s living in the moment. It’s suffering and surrender, but there’s joy in it.”

“You can see in his physical appearance that he’s challenged to surrender,” said Bev, adding she sees his example as encouragement to “surrender to the life that’s in front of us.”

This kind of surrender is anything but quitting, said Father Lim. “He doesn’t let his illness hold him back. He’s looking forward to the next day and what he can do.” 

The Carpenters agreed. “He hasn’t given up. That’s one of the things that comes across when he speaks to you – this may be a setback, but ‘I’m not ready to give up. I’m putting myself out there and accepting what God has in store for me,’” said Archie. “I think if he’s going through all of this, I should be able to do what the Lord is asking me.”

Deacon Tom and Joanne have recently started a new chapter in their lives, entering the Benedictine Oblate program at Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn. “It’s really given us a chance to talk about spirituality and how we respond to God,” said Joanne, adding that Deacon Tom is “a very good listener.”

“We’ve always felt like we don’t need to know everything or where it will end because we figure God will tell us what we need to know,” she said.

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