Nick VanHeel shares his journey from atheism to Catholic discipleship
When Nick VanHeel was in high school back in the late 1990s, he considered himself an atheist.
In fact, he even persecuted Christians. When a group of Christians gathered in front of his school, St. Paul Central, he went out of his way to be mean.
“At my school, the Christians would have a See You at the Pole meeting in the fall, and they’d gather around the flagpole and pray for the school and pray for the country,” said VanHeel, now 33. “My friends and I would walk by them, nudge them, push them, grab their backpacks and throw them in the dumpster — really persecute these kids. I remember a girl that was in one of my math classes who was a pretty outspoken Christian. Me and another friend would pick on her all the time because of her faith.”
Some dark times a few years earlier had spawned a deep anger that prevented him from acknowledging God. Growing up in a house where faith wasn’t practiced, he had no answers for the death of his grandfather from cancer and the death of his aunt from a motorcycle accident — both within a year during junior high.
“At that point, I was definitely a very strong atheist,” he said. “There was no way that God existed because how could he let that kind of suffering and loss happen?”
Little did he know that, by the time he would accept his high school diploma in the spring of 1998, he would rediscover his belief in God and join the Christians — the ones he formerly persecuted — in prayer around the flagpole.
He traces his change in outlook to his grandpa and grandma, who took Nick and his parents and two brothers to Mass whenever they came to visit in Foreston, near Milaca in north-central Minnesota.
“If we stayed the night, the rule was you had to come to church with them in the morning,” he said. “As a youngster, I remember sitting at Mass one time thinking, ‘How much of this guy’s body [Jesus] do they have left if every Sunday they’re handing out little pieces?’”
The questions went unanswered, with the only other exposure to God and the faith coming when someone was sick or dying. Then, his parents would pray and ask Nick and his brothers to do the same.
That’s what happened when Nick’s grandfather was in the final stages of cancer in 1992. Just the day before Christmas, he lay dying while in hospice care. So, Nick prayed that either God would heal him or end his suffering soon.
His grandfather died two days later. That was the start of the dark time in his life. But the light began to shine in his heart not long after his other grandmother took in a foreign exchange student from Slovakia, Martin Luteran.
Because his grandmother lived only two blocks away and because Luteran was close to his age, Nick was the natural choice to show him around.“
At first glance, we didn’t have a whole lot in common,” Nick said. “He was pretty well-educated, liked classical music and playing chess. I was leading a different life at the time. I was very involved with auto shop at school, I liked to go cruising down to Porky’s drive-in on the weekends, and generally hung out with a rougher kind of crowd. But, being a good grandson, I wanted to honor my grandmother and hang out with this guy that was staying with her.”
Grasping a Lifeline
Nick didn’t realize it, but Luteran was a devout Catholic looking for a place to plug in during his time in Minnesota. He heard about National Evangelization Teams (NETâ€ˆMinistries) in West St. Paul and wanted to attend a Lifeline event, which is held monthly and includes Mass for teens followed by a speaker.
Some of the NETâ€ˆteam members and a few of the Lifeline regulars also gathered for praise and worship meetings at other times during the month. Luteran decided he wanted to go.
Problem was, he didn’t have a ride. So, he turned to his new American friend to meet the need.
“I offered to give him a ride and drop him off,” Nick said. “I asked him what time he wanted me to pick him up. But he insisted I join him for the evening. I didn’t have anything else going on that night, being it was winter and there was no cruising going on down at Porky’s.”
Inside the chapel, he saw something he had never seen before: people praying out loud and raising their hands. He thought it was a cult, and decided he would rescue his friend.
Then, the meeting ended and he and Luteran talked with some of the people there. They were kind to Nick and seemed interested in talking to him.
He softened. Then, he returned for a Lifeline event in February. The speaker, Father Dimitri Sala, a Franciscan priest from Chicago, told the crowd of several hundred teens to close their eyes and imagine themselves reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak, like the woman in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 5).
“All of these people around me, including Martin from Slovakia, closed their eyes and stuck their hands out,” he said. “I was a little uncomfortable doing that. I thought, ‘Now this is getting a little weird. I’m not going to do that.’ And, I looked up and the priest, Father Dimitri, was looking directly at me from all the way up in front. So, I very quickly closed my eyes, bowed my head and put my hand in the air, being afraid that he might come and single me out.
“So, I pictured Jesus standing there in his robe. I said to God in my head, ‘God, I don’t have faith. I don’t have that kind of faith where I believe if I just touch your robe, I’m going to be healed. I don’t even know you. So, I’m going to have to just reach out and take your hand.’ So, I reached out and imagined grabbing Jesus’ hand. And, as soon as I grabbed his hand in my mind, I was just filled with this overwhelming peace and feeling of love that I had never, ever experienced before.”
The experience penetrated deeply, and gave him the desire to become Catholic. He went to the remaining Lifelines throughout the rest of the school year, and then took part in a NETâ€ˆMinistries Discipleship Week Retreat over the summer. On that retreat, he tried to go to confession, but the priest said he needed to be Catholic.
So, he enrolled in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at St. Joseph parish in West St. Paul after taking part in a small prayer group there started by a girl he met at the retreat. Leading the class was Father Frederick Campbell, the pastor of St. Joseph who went on to become a bishop and now serves in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.
A new life
Nick became Catholic on April 11, 1998 near the end of his senior year. After graduation, he served on NETâ€ˆMinistries for a year, then later joined a Catholic lay community called Community of Christ the Redeemer. It was there where he met his wife, Emily. The two were married at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul on Aug. 18, 2007 and now have two children, Dominic, 4, and Elise, 2.
Nick said his parents were not happy about his conversion at first, but have softened to his Catholic faith. In fact, he got into an argument with them when he first told them about his plan to become Catholic. Later, however, he received a tangible sign of support from his mother.
“When I went on the road with NET, she had tucked a letter into my suitcase, wrapped up in a pair of jeans,” he said. “In it, she said how proud she was of me and she wished there had been something like NET when she was fresh out of high school. And, she said she’d be praying for me every day.”
In just a matter of days, Nick and Emily will be heading to Slovakia to attend Luteran’s wedding, where Nick will serve as a groomsman. In this way, the relationship will come full circle, with Luteran having been a groomsman in Nick’s wedding.
Perhaps, the biggest surprise of Nick’s conversion journey came when he came to the flagpole prayer event at St. Paul Central in the fall of his senior year. The girl he had teased relentlessly was there.
“She was just across the circle from me and she came running over when we finished up and she said, ‘What are you doing here?’” Nick said. “She thought I was mocking them again or picking on them. I apologized to her. I said, ‘I’m sorry for making fun of you all these years. I met God this summer and I want to be a Christian.’ And, she gave me a big hug. It was pretty neat.”