Elizabeth Decker, formerly of Arlington Heights, Ill., says that she had written letters to her future husband since she was 16. Her practice began when she was a leader at a Steubenville conference in high school. A facilitator offered this as an idea during a journaling activity training presentation. Elizabeth continued to write the letters during her college years at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn. As a strong Catholic student, she joined the Campus Ministry team and led groups like praise and worship and confirmation preparation. “God was always firmly at the center of my life, but my faith grew even stronger because I had good friends who encouraged me as well.” It also helped that she grew up in a solid, faith-filled Catholic home with a loving and supportive family. Elizabeth always accepted Catholicism as truth and attended events that solidified and strengthened her belief in God.
Her experiences at Steubenville conferences and SEEK gatherings, organized by Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), ignited deep feelings and connections to the Holy Spirit. This nurturing of her faith permitted many more joyful and enriching opportunities as a young, discerning woman. After graduating, Elizabeth moved back home to Illinois for a year as she searched for a teaching job. Unsuccessful, she returned to the Winona area. The Providence Academy, an academy in La Crosse that teaches in the Catholic tradition, offered Elizabeth a position teaching third grade.
As for her discernment, she kept writing those letters to her future husband. “I knew I was always called to the married life,” says Elizabeth, “but I just didn’t know to whom that would be.” She had a few boyfriends during high school and college, but none of them were “the one.” Then she met Kevin. “I noticed a good-looking guy who was a FOCUS missionary. He looked a little like a deer in the headlights,” Elizabeth describes. “I wondered to myself what his story might be.”
Life Altering Moments
If Elizabeth’s story is the yin, then Kevin Decker’s is the yang. Kevin grew up with Christian values but did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. The story Elizabeth wondered about began before Kevin’s birth. His mother, who has type 1 diabetes, was made aware of the dangers to both mother and child if she chose to carry him to term and birth. Despite the odds, his mom chose life. Kevin was born six weeks early and, at birth, was placed lovingly into his father’s arms. “I was told, as soon as he held me, I started turning blue,” explains Kevin. “I needed oxygen, but the hospital wing I was on had none. The doctors and nurses rushed me to a different floor, frantically searching for oxygen.”
That day, the lack of oxygen caused cerebral palsy and brain damage.
Kevin had rhizotomy surgery approximately four years later. The surgery used lasers to burn off nerve endings to loosen his spine’s muscles. “The doctors said I wouldn’t walk or have a fully functioning life, but three days after the surgery, I was running around and jumping on my bed.” In his youth, Kevin participated in bowling and played basketball into his sophomore year of high school. “People said I was a miracle.” But despite his miraculous survival, Kevin never got baptized. His parents didn’t want to force religion on him. “I didn’t know what Easter meant until my early 20s. I didn’t attend Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes, wasn’t confirmed and didn’t have a Catholic upbringing.”
I prayed for the first time in my life, ‘God, if you are real, reveal it to me.’
Kevin continues, “In high school, I did all the things that our secular culture tells us are fun and freeing: smoking pot, hanging out with friends and doing stupid stuff. I didn’t have a care in the world.” He continued this lifestyle in college and dove into the party scene. “I failed out of college during my junior year and couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable. I prayed for the first time in my life, ‘God, if you are real, reveal it to me. If you aren’t, whatever, I’m done.’”
Then, a life-altering moment occurred while Kevin was working at a hospital cafeteria in his hometown of Grand Forks, N.D. “A particular nurse anesthesiologist came down to eat lunch every day and would talk about God and faith. We talked back and forth for about a week until one day he asked if I wanted to go to lunch with him. I said to him with a smile, ‘What have I got to lose?’” During that lunch, the Catholic medical professional talked to Kevin about the Faith, the saints and the Eucharist.
Falling in Love with the Faith
“My soul was searching for something at this time. I attended the non-denominational churches with their bands, but that wasn’t for me,” shares Kevin. “I went to a Lutheran service and did not feel a connection or fit there either. Then, I went to this ancient, beautiful Catholic Church and was immediately taken by the beauty of the building and the liturgy. What struck me at the time was that this Faith is hard; this is a lot to know and adhere to. But I wanted the challenge. Unfortunately, Easter was only weeks away, so I told myself I’d wait for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) next fall. If I go through with this, this is where I need to be.”
Falling in love with the Faith, Kevin received the sacrament of baptism at the age of 22, and on this same weekend, Elizabeth and her then-boyfriend broke up. The boyfriend heard a call to the seminary, and Elizabeth was heartbroken. “Ironically, each time Elizabeth’s life got hard, something good was happening in my life,” shared Kevin with a loving smile. Kevin’s baptism was life-changing, and he even prayed that lightning would strike him so he could, “go straight to heaven and not have to worry about this rough life!”
I felt God come back into my life; it was an ‘aha’ moment of God being there. I heard Him say, ‘I don’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve done, you’re Mine now.
The lightning didn’t come, but it wasn’t long until Kevin fell away from the Faith. There was no one Kevin’s age near him that he could relate to and encourage him to stay the course. In another contrast with Elizabeth, this was the very thing that kept her grounded in the Faith. So, Kevin began a new career as a stand-up comedian. He also fell back into drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. “I had all these so-called friends, but I was still unhappy. It’s like that St. Augustine moment; you know what you should do, but you love sin more than God. That’s where I was at.”
It was when he was almost 25 that Kevin went back to attending Masses at a Newman center. One morning, he sat in the back pew, dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, praying that no one would notice him. After vespers, Father asked Kevin if he would consider attending the upcoming SEEK conference in Orlando, Fla. Kevin was still heavily into the party scene but realized he had had enough. “I went into confession and said, ‘Look, I’m willing to go to SEEK, and here’s enough money for someone else to go to SEEK, too.”
The bus, bound for the SEEK conference in Orlando, departed from Grand Forks on New Year’s Eve. Everyone kept telling Kevin this experience would be life-changing, but Kevin had heard all that talk many times before, so even Kevin was surprised at his own revelation. “I had the holiest week of my entire life! I felt Christ in confession, adoration and Mass. After receiving the Eucharist, I felt God come back into my life; it was an ‘aha’ moment of God being there. I heard Him say, ‘I don’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve done, you’re Mine now.’”
During a cigarette break, the FOCUS team director asked Kevin if he wanted to become a FOCUS missionary. Without hesitation and without even knowing anything about the ministry, Kevin answered yes. He met the director in the office the following week, who helped him complete and submit the application.
“I was living a pagan and unchaste life in November of 2012, and on Jan. 3, I reverted to Catholicism. Just weeks later, I found myself interviewing for a FOCUS missionary position.” The interviewer offered Kevin a position and asked him if he wanted time to pray about the decision. “I immediately replied, “No, I’ll take it!,” shares Kevin. “And then I got rid of all my stuff and quit the job I had for 5½ years and was providing me with a good salary. I left all the stability in my life and all my friends to go on this journey.”
“I sought the FOCUS missionary position to give something back. I thought, if God is truly real and can do anything, I need to trust Him. I wanted to trust God that He could do anything fully.”
A Dating “Fast”
He then packed all of his belongings in a little Chevy Malibu, left the life he knew behind him in Grand Forks and drove seven hours to La Crosse the next day. He arrived as the other team leaders were having a welcome barbecue meal. Kevin was exhausted from the drive and almost didn’t go, but with continued encouragement, he did. It was that night that he met Elizabeth. “I was exhausted, but that quickly faded to awe when I saw her.”
At this same time, Elizabeth had been working at Providence Academy for one year and living with two local female FOCUS missionaries. Kevin was the new male missionary. When they met, they became fast friends. “We grew in love together as friends, and we knew that we would do anything for each other as friends,” says Elizabeth. “But by the middle of the year, we both figured out we had deeper feelings for each other.” However, FOCUS missionaries cannot date the first year while serving in the ministry. This is called a “dating fast.” The missionary team suggested a complete fast for both of them from each other for the rest of the year.
Knowing her vocation was to married life, Elizabeth wondered if Kevin wasn’t the one after all and eventually began dating someone else. At the end of the dating fast, Kevin contacted her to say he still had feelings for her but was amid his own discernment. “The first year of FOCUS was hard for me,” he shared. “I’m learning how to be Catholic, sobering up from my previous life and trying to evangelize my Faith, which I don’t really know yet.” Kevin even considered the priesthood and ultimately participated in a summer missionary training program in Ave Maria, Fla.
A Relationship Realized
Instead of trying to get closer that summer, Kevin and Elizabeth put more distance between themselves. Elizabeth explained, “I had this backpacking trip planned in Europe alone for six weeks.” In her heart, she knew she was supposed to marry Kevin, but Elizabeth let him believe she was still dating someone else so that he could discern his true vocation while he was in Florida and she was in Europe. “When I got to France, I sat in this huge basilica and wrote my first letter to Kevin there in the holy quiet. It began with, ‘Dear Kevin,’ I knew Kevin would be my husband, but he didn’t know it yet,” she laughed. When Elizabeth returned from Europe, Kevin called her and asked her for a date.
They’ve been married for eight years and have four children, Joshua 6, Gemma 4, Joseph 2 and Andrew 1.
Kevin currently serves as a Parish Mission Associate (PMA) at St. Joseph’s Cathedral under the guidance of Monsignor Richard Gilles. Kevin leverages his FOCUS training there and works alongside Monsignor Gilles to build and grow the parish. He facilitates a men’s group that meets twice a month, conducts Bible studies and has reinvigorated parish picnics and potlucks. Kevin knew that this role as a PMA would be a family mission.
Honest conversations are the driving force behind a podcast Kevin does once a month with Monsignor Gilles called “Coffee with Kevin.” “We talk about evangelization and building the domestic church. As Catholics, we try so hard to know everything to cram it down everyone else’s throats, but I’ve stopped doing that for years. I won’t argue with someone over their sexuality if they’ve never felt loved by God. I ask about their story and background. I may find out they were Catholic, but not anymore because somebody hurt them. If they can’t let go of that hurt, this hurt person will erect walls and hold on to anything they can,” Kevin says passionately. “When I meet men whom the Church has hurt for whatever reason, I start by saying, ‘I’m really sorry that the Church hurt you.’ People open up when they feel heard, leading to real and powerful conversations.”
Together, the Deckers also present the “Openness to Life” talks in their deanery for couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage. They’ve been practicing Natural Family Planning since day one of their own marriage and remain open to life and the prospect of adding to their family. Elizabeth says, “We trust in God’s will, even though it’s hard sometimes. Every child is a blessing. We’re grateful for all our children and excited to see what God has in store for our family. We are joyously open to whatever that plan is.” Now, as a full-time mom, Elizabeth still makes time to lead a women’s Catholic study at the Cathedral that focuses primarily on building up the community of women in the La Crosse area. “We are discussing the ‘Abiding Together’ podcast about the four identities of a woman: daughter, sister, mother and bride. We are growing as sisters in Christ, learning more about ourselves and God.”
Kevin and Elizabeth also recognize that people often think what they do in their church and ministry is unique to them because it’s simply their gift. But the couple wants people to understand that everyone can have a great, solid family life and also a great family life through God by getting out there and being the light of Christ for others in their own parishes.
Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine