By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Some are called to religious ministry even before they are born. Others find their way there later in life.

This is a story of the journey of a man and a woman who grew up in Hays, left their hometown with different goals in mind and now are walking similar paths.

There is a stark contrast to the lives of 39-year-old Gale Hammerschmidt and 19-year-old Beth Folkerts, yet they are strikingly alike.

Called to lead

Beth Folkerts has been doing her own thing her entire life.

Born with a left arm that ended its formation just above the elbow, Folkerts always knew she was different than other little boys and girls. But she didn't let that bother her.

She learned how to tie her shoes with one hand early on, and even taught her parents how to accomplish the same task.

"It wasn't like I couldn't do things," Folkerts said. "I just did them differently."

She was so advanced academically that when the Folkerts family moved to Hays from Michigan in the late 1990s, young Beth skipped second grade and was still at the top of her third-grade class in Hays, a spot she maintained through elementary and middle school.

Folkerts decided to leave the comforts of home at age 14, following her freshman year at Hays High School, to attend Phillips Exeter Academy in Phillips, N.H., a prestigious academic prep school her father had attended.

Even in high school, she thought about possibly entering the Lutheran ministry someday, then Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich., to continue her education even though her parents reminded her that Concordia opposes women serving as a parish pastor.

Overcoming obstacles

"I was aware it could be an issue," Folkerts said of Concordia's views on women in ministry. "I really didn't worry about it."

"Some were supportive, others were not," Folkerts said of her classmates and teachers. "My roommate my freshman year would sit me down every couple weeks and tell me I was not thinking clearly (about her career choice)."

Try telling that to a girl who grew up handling all kinds of issues one-handed. The objections only made Folkerts more determined to follow her own path.

That's part of the reason she has decided entering the seminary is the right thing to do, even though several of her classmates and instructors think otherwise.

"It made me really evaluate it even more," she said. "It's reaffirmed my thinking, even with people disagreeing."

So after her graduation from Concordia on Saturday -- just four days after her 20th birthday -- Folkerts will return to Hays for the summer to spend time with her family and prepare for a couple more major events in her young life.

Folkerts will be married in August to a man she met in college, then hit the road for another move away from home.

This time, it will be a four-year stay in St. Paul, Minn., where she will enter Luther Seminary.

Folkerts will graduate from college with a double major in psychology and social work, and she said she knew attending Luther Seminary was her next goal after an on-campus visit in October.

"We got to sit in on some classes, and they were talking about people with addictions and how to help them," she said. "It's a great community and they have such fascinating faculty. I'm excited."

A way of life

When their first child was born without an arm, Tim and Melanie Folkerts were told "it was not due to amniotic banding, and it's not a genetic issue."

"They said it was a decision that the cell made when it was dividing, long before she was ever born," Melanie Folkerts said.

From the time she was a baby, Folkerts' mother said her daughter was an independent sort.

Rather than relying on others to help her, Folkerts was the one always trying to help others.

Now, she will begin putting a way of life to lifelong use.

"I feel confident that this is the right thing to do," she said. "I'm really excited about school, to begin preparing for ministry."

Changing colors

Gale Hammerschmidt grew up wearing the blue and white of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School in Hays.

He switched to the purple and white of Kansas State University as a collegian, then stayed in Manhattan and donned the red and white of Luckey Junior High as a teacher and coach for nine years.

Although it took a while, Hammerschmidt now knows that the black and white -- signature colors of a Roman Catholic priest -- are the colors he is supposed to be wearing.

Hammerschmidt, born and raised in Hays, will be ordained a deacon in Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Hays on May 21.

He then will return for his seventh and final year at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver in his final step of preparation for his ordination as a priest in May 2012.

Strong foundation

Hammerschmidt was perfectly content with his life as a junior high teacher and coach at Luckey, a Catholic school for grades K-8, and he was dating a woman whose stepfather was studying to be a Protestant pastor.

"He had many questions of me about Catholicism, and in many ways, I thought he was right," Hammerschmidt said. "It was because of my time at TMP and my family and my parents and grandmother and their strong faith I knew I had to look into Catholicism a little deeper than I ever had. I knew there was something to this faith, and I needed to really look at it."

That research ultimately propelled Hammerschmidt onto his path to becoming a priest.

"The investigation (of my Catholic faith) I did during that time," Hammerschmidt said, "I fell more in love with being Catholic than I did (my girlfriend)."

So Hammerschmidt entered seminary at 33 years old, heeding to some advice he received from a mentor.

"The campus minister at K-State told me, 'You don't decide to become a priest and go to the seminary,' " Hammerschmidt said. "He told me, 'You go to the seminary to see if you were called to be a priest.' "

Road sometimes bumpy

Hammerschmidt said "one year in particular (in the seminary) was really hard."

"Marriage and family was in my mind pretty strongly, and I think that's important to go through that in the midst of your time in the seminary," he said. "In choosing one thing, you're sacrificing another, but every decision has that component. Walking the Christian walk is not just about only about glorious times. It's also about the cross and suffering."

Now, Hammerschmidt is looking forward to his upcoming deaconate ordination and returning to Denver. He will be assigned to a parish where he will serve on weekends while finishing his last year of school.

"I'm excited about being able to preach homilies and able to perform baptisms," he said. "I'll be able to baptize my niece or nephew, who will be born this summer in Kansas City."

Talking about that first sacrament of a Catholic reminded him of his own journey that began with his baptism as a baby in 1972.

"Clearly the graces that come through the sacraments, whether we realize it or not, they work. They are just waiting to be tapped into."