"I Love God!" + The Legacy of Deacon Philip Gilbert
The core of Deacon Philip's service to everyone, whether as paramedic, husband, father, or deacon in the church, was his love for God. And that love has touched hundreds, even thousands, with God's mercy.
I cannot remember a time in my ministry when Deacon Philip Gilbert (also known as Frank Delano Gilbert, or affectionately as “Lane") wasn't somewhere around, helping, strengthening, and encouraging me. He was one of the most remarkable young men I have ever known.
We began working together when Lane was quite young. Even as a teenager, Lane was special. He was one of those who was always involved in church services, in special programs, in Bible study groups. At school, he was an outspoken witness for Christ. He was quite talented - an athlete, intelligent, musical. He devoted his summers to teaching children about Christ, working as a counselor at the Lake Region Christian Assembly in Crown Point, Indiana. His enthusiasm was contagious; he could be entertaining and still bring young people to see that loving Christ was what life is all about. And his sincerity made the music and teaching all the more special.
When l served as youth minister at the Deep River Church of Christ in Hobart, Indiana, Lane was in my youth group, as was his wife-to-be, Kimberly. God had his reasons for bringing us all together, for as future events would reveal, we would all make the journey to Orthodoxy at Holy Resurrection Church - first in Gary, then in Hobart. l would one day watch with joy as these two fine Christians were married, and celebrate with them the birth of their three children, David (now 13), Christine (11), and Emily (8).
THE BREAD OF LIFE
One Sunday, while still at the Deep River Church of Christ, I gave a sermon about the Eucharist. Emphasizing that this act was indeed, in a mystery, a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, the source of our life in Him, I asked Lane to come and sing the popular song, “l Am the Bread of Life.” This song, based on the tremendous passage from John 6, was to serve as the conclusion to my sermon.
His rendition and the response of the people sent chills up and down my spine. It was a tremendous message of hope: “He who eats of this bread, and drinks of my blood, he shall live forever .... And I will raise him up on the last day." The hearts of many were filled with a longing for a true participation in the communion of Christ. In a way, that day was the seed from which sprang the journey to Orthodoxy for many of us. We longed for true communion with God, and we would find it in its fullness only in the Orthodox Church.
After graduation from high school, Lane went on to my alma mater, Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois, to study for the ministry. For a couple of years he studied and served there, never really being able to separate himself from the action of youth work. He was hired as youth minister at First Christian Church in Dyer, Indiana, and had a profound impact on a number of young people there. Eventually, he became convinced that God was calling him to join in the pilgrimage others of us had begun toward Orthodoxy. Lane left school, came home to join our church, and got a job driving heavy equipment to support himself.
In our church in Gary, Indiana, he became involved in many kinds of ministry. He helped with ministering to young men, with music, eventually becoming the director of the youth program at Holy Resurrection Church. He was always zealous, optimistic, enthusiastic, and hard-working. He always needed to be involved in something, to be where the action was, so to speak. Lane became a deacon, taking the name of Philip, and served in the fullest meaning of that term, ministering to the needs of many, and serving beside me at the altar of God.
Though he always dreamed of a full-time work in ministry in the church, the realities of financial need led him to seek another way to make a living. He enrolled in an Emergency Medical Technician course, and then took further training to become a paramedic. He took a low-paying job with the Gary Fire Department as a paramedic. For several years he was right in the center of the action - on the go constantly through twenty-four-hour shifts. Lane would regale us all with stories of gunshots, midnight calls to bars where shootings had taken place, auto accidents, saving the lives of heart attack victims, train accidents, hazardous waste accidents in the mills... on and on.
Many lives were saved by Lane’s heroic actions and skills. ln order to make ends meet for his young family, he would also work second and third jobs, sometimes with private ambulance companies, other times going back to driving heavy equipment. He received recognition throughout the state of Indiana for his work, receiving awards and job offers. He was offered a position training medics for the Indianapolis Fire Department, but tumed it down so that he could continue to be part of Holy Resurrection Church. Instead he took a job running the paramedic training program for Methodist Hospital in Gary, and the Gary Fire Department.
But Lane was never really an administrator. He was a great teacher, but the paperwork and the office politics were more than he wanted to deal with. So he took a job as a lineman/paramedic with the Portage, Indiana, Fire Department, allowing him to be in the heart of the action again. In I994, he was honored as Indiana Paramedic of the Year. But he still wanted to teach and had a strong desire to serve his country. So Lane enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving for several years as a medic and paramedic instructor for the Navy.
In I996, while sewing with a Marine unit on a counter-narcotics mission in California, he climbed five miles up a mountain to save the life of a Marine. His medical bag contained extra tools and equipment that he brought along "just in case." His preparedness enabled him to save the man's life. For his heroic effort he was awarded the gold Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
A TRAGIC ACCIDENT
On October 26 of last year, Deacon Philip was on a call, tending to a woman in the back of an ambulance. She had overdosed on drugs and was being taken to Porter Memorial Hospital in Valparaiso, Indiana, for treatment. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, the ambulance driver began to pass on the left a city dump truck which was in the right lane. As the ambulance came around the truck, the truck driver turned left into the path of the ambulance. The ambulance driver swerved to miss the truck, went off the road and through a fence, and crashed into a tree. Deacon Philip was violently thrown around in the back of the ambulance and received critical injuries to his spine.
For a couple of hours after the accident, Deacon Philip was able to breathe on his own. In fact, he gave detailed instructions to those at the scene as to how they should tend to the other victims of the accident. Only after he felt sure that everyone else was cared for did he tell those at the scene what he believed to be his own injuries - he knew his neck had been broken and that he was paralyzed - and how best to treat him. This act was very typical of the care and heart of Deacon Philip.
Later that day, Deacon Philip was airlifted to Northwestem Hospital in Chicago, where he underwent two surgeries on his back. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down and breathing on a respirator. Doctors at Northwestem told his family that he had about a fifty percent chance of regaining the ability to breathe on his own, and they offered little hope that he would be able to use his arms or legs again.
One of the parishioners at Holy Resurrection, who had gone duck hunting with Deacon Philip the day before the accident, described his experience of being at the hospital with him like this: "To see him the very next day, in traction, wearing a medical "halo" (and perhaps another halo, which l couldn’t see) and a large tube down his throat, was very, very difficult. Deacon Philip struggled greatly to tell me one very important message. Though it took me a long time to read his lips - the air tube making it all the more difficult - l should have known what he was trying to say immediately. ‘l love God!' was his message to me, and it's the message he wants everyone around him to hear. Anyone that has ever spent more than a few seconds with Deacon Philip already knows this. Evangelical Orthodox is still such a fitting description for this man.
The weeks and months which followed this tragic accident were to prove tremendously painful and trying for Deacon Philip, his wife, parents, and family, and the countless friends and supporters who waited and prayed for his recovery. His condition remained extremely critical following an operation several days after the accident in which two cervical vertebrae were fused together. Soon after, another six-hour surgery was needed to repair a perforated ulcer in his stomach. Several times he faced setbacks in his recovery, including a serious infection on Christmas Day which almost took his life.
Gradually, however, his condition leveled out, and hopes began to rise that though paralyzed, Deacon Philip would one day be able to return home to twenty-four-hour-a-day care in a specially constructed house to be built for him and his family. He was moved to a rehabilitation center in Chicago early in I997. He told his family that he would now seek to reinvent his identity - to find what he could do well and excel in it.
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
By late March, he was doing well enough to be allowed out of the rehabilitation center for a brief period, during which he was taken to church to attend his first Divine Liturgy in almost five months. A touching account written by Mitch Bright, his close friend and fellow parishioner at Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hobart, Indiana, tells the story of that glorious event in words greater than anything I could write.
I'm sure I won't be able to do justice to the wonderful weekend that Deacon Philip experienced these last few days, but l'm going to do my best.... For those who are wondering if something “spectacular” happened with our paralyzed friend the answer is, no. But the weekend was miraculous nonetheless....
Most of you are familiar with Saint George Antiochlan Orthodox Church in Cicero, Illinois. That church is the home of "The Miraculous Lady of Cicero," the Icon of the Theotokos which began to weep in April of 1994, just as Orthodox Holy Week was about to begin. When thousands flocked to witness the miracle firsthand the building had to undergo a number of alterations and enhancements. One of the additions was a lift, so the physically impaired could avoid negotiating the stairs.
Today, March 23, l997, was the first time since his accident on October 26, 1996, Deacon Philip was able to attend and participate in the Divine Liturgy!
My family and I were blessed to witness this heart-moving event, which we had been anticipating for many months.... It took longer than anticipated to maneuver and secure Deacon Philip into the van, and make the drive from Northwestern, so he and his family and two of their dearest friends and care-givers, arrived a few minutes after the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
The ushers had reserved a front-row pew for the special guest, and Deacon Philip was brought in and carefully positioned so that his wife and children could sit on either side of him, directly before the beautiful and miraculous icon. It didn't take long for the tears to begin to flow, both from Deacon Philip and the rest of the worshipers.
Shortly after Deacon Philip was positioned and made as comfortable as possible, Father Nicholas Dahdahl, the pastor at Saint George and long-time friend of Holy Resurrection and Deacon Philip, turned from the altar and saw Deacon Philip. He immediately gestured to someone who brought forth a stole. Father Nicholas approached Deacon Philip and with tears in his eyes, placed the stale around his neck. He then gave Deacon Philip the kiss of peace and blessed him. I don't think a dry eye could be found anywhere.
The liturgy proceeded as usual until it came time for the reading of the Gospel. All the clergy of Saint George approached Deacon Philip and with acolytes standing on either side of his wheelchair, and the Gospel book being held above his wounded body, the Gospel was read in English and Arabic. I can't remember the last time I was so happy to be Orthodox.
[The text for the day was Mark 2:1- I2. the healing of the paralytic.] As you can imagine, everyone was quite moved by the scene unfolding before them. It appeared quite difficult for Father Nicholas to get through the reading. Was this a simple coincidence, or mere chance? I, for one, say, “No!” I believe this was not a coincidence that this was the day Deacon Philip was first able to attend Liturgy since his accident. I believe that it was not a coincidence, that on the Sunday of the Paralytic, his friends and loved ones labored to bring their beloved Deacon to the Divine Liturgy.... to the Lord of all, Jesus Christ, and His holy Mysteries. I am not surprised or amazed. I am simply overjoyed to be a witness.
Following the Gospel reading, Father Nicholas presented a wonderful homily. As one would expect, he referred to our wounded servant of Christ as he spoke about the Gospel passage. Although I thought every word was full of hope and grace, I was particularly moved when he said that one does not need to be able to walk to get to heaven. One does not need to be able to move his arms or DO anything with his body to enter the Heavenly Kingdom. The only thing that MUST be healed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is one's soul. “And your soul," he said, while turning his eyes to Deacon Philip, "is healed." I'm sure Deacon Philip would say that his soul continues to need healing, but we all knew what Father Nicholas meant.
Then came another touching moment. When it was time for the Great Entrance, Father Nicholas brought forth the aer and placed it around Deacon Philip's neck. The aer is the cloth that is normally used to cover the holy Mysteries. It is also worn by the deacon - tied around the neck - during the Great Entrance.... Everyone was quite moved by Father Nicholas' demonstration of love and honor toward our dear brother.
Immediately following the Liturgy, Father Nicholas and the rest of the clergy gathered around Deacon Philip and offered special prayers of healing for him. During these prayers, Deacon Philip was anointed with holy tears from the miraculous weeping Icon.
I must admit that l would have very much liked to see my friend leap from that wheelchair and shout for joy with a voice that was no longer hindered by a ventilator. After all, it had been just minutes earlier that we heard of the paralytic picking up his mat and amazing all when our Lord healed him. Why not Deacon Philip?
Obviously I don‘t know. But I do know this. Deacon Philip's life has been miraculous already. We nearly lost him many times over. The accident could have easily killed him back in October. But he remains with us now. I know l can speak for Deacon Philip when I say that "we " will accept whatever the Lord has in store for us. If it is a miraculous healing, sometime in the future.... fine. If it is confinement to a wheelchair and a respirator.... fine. Whatever may happen, our God is good and He loves mankind. Blessed be the Lord!
After a long, six-month battle, Deacon Philip was finally able to return home on May 1, 1997, to an outpouring of love and support from the whole community. Sadly, after a day of reunion, rejoicing, and love, he became seriously ill with an infection and had to be taken to Porter Memorial Hospital in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he underwent further surgery to attempt to find and correct the problems. For four weeks he continued to fight for his life, but the multiple problems he faced proved to be too much.
In the Divine Liturgy we pray “for a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, and peaceful." When the time came for Deacon Philip to enter into his heavenly rest, he was surrounded by family and friends who sang and prayed with him. The comforting presence of the Holy Spirit filled the room, bringing peace to his family and loved ones.
His funeral services were a testimony to the impact that Deacon Philip had made on so many people. The Divine Liturgy at Ss. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Merrillville, Indiana, was attended by several hundred people. The sounds of the Resurrection hymn resounded over and over through the church: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
From the church his earthly remains were taken to Portage High School, where the Fire Department paid tribute to their fallen comrade. Over a thousand people from the community, from other fire departments all over the state of Indiana, and from the church community joined in remembering and giving thanks to God for the blessing He had given us in the good deacon. The funeral procession included dozens of fire engines and ambulances, in addition to the cars. As the procession wound its way to the cemetery, people lined the streets to pay their respects. Cars pulled over to the side of the road in honor of Deacon Philip. At the cemetery, the traditional prayers were said by His Grace Bishop Demetri. Deacon Philip was then honored by the military and fire departments with a twenty-one gun salute and the playing of "Taps."
Father Phillip Drennan, pastor of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, referred in his eulogy to a comment Deacon Philip had made to him after the accident. "If this accident can bring even one person to Christ, it will all be worth it." God has indeed been good. A whole city has seen what a life dedicated to the service of God and neighbor is about. The core of Deacon Philip's service to everyone, whether as paramedic, husband, father, or deacon in the church, was his love for God. And that love has touched hundreds, even thousands, with God's mercy.
Now, it is finished. Deacon Philip Gilbert's life of service to God and to neighbor is complete. Thanks be to God, his legacy, the good that he has done, will declare the glory of God for many years to come. May his memory be eternal!
"The community has lost a loyal and dedicated paramedic. The firefighters have lost a brother. Heaven has gained a true man."
-Chief of the South Haven Volunteer Fire Department