FED up with his Catholic upbringing and feeling restricted by the faith of his devout parents, Luke Schaefer ran away from home when he was 17 years old.
But he didn’t get far. He made it just outside his little neighbourhood area before someone came along, and “showed me Jesus and witnessed to me in a strong way”.
It was his older brother.
“He didn’t try to stop me but he said, ‘Before you run off, I just want to chat with you for a few minutes and say a quick prayer with you’,” Mr Schaefer said.
“We chatted and he prayed with me and, yeah, for the first time it showed me this sense of peace I was missing in my life.
“… I didn’t realise it was just a dependence on God that I was missing.”
It was no Pauline conversion, but it opened the door and eventually led Mr Schaefer to join NET (National Evangelisation Teams) Ministries.
He toured the United States for nine months, squished together with a dozen Catholic evangelists to run retreats for parishes across the country.
Mr Schaefer said he learned the key to evangelisation on NET.
“I learned during my first year of NET that it wasn’t about preaching these big words, it wasn’t about being a theologian, it wasn’t about having the whole Bible memorised – it was just about living out what I believed and sharing how Jesus made an impact in me,” he said.
After that first year, Mr Schaefer thought he might settle down.
“I thought I got the crazy out of my system after NET USA,” he said, “but God had other plans.”
Again and again, in conversation and in prayer, a single word kept coming up in his head – Ireland.
He said he knew nothing about Ireland, he had no Irish blood and he resisted the idea of going away again.
“I was throwing up a whole bunch of road blocks and trying to kind of ignore the thing I was feeling God working in my heart, but I could only ignore it for so long.”
It was his dad who, unwittingly, revealed why God kept steering him that way.
“(My dad) asked me just randomly … ‘I know you’re not feeling like you’re supposed to do a second year of NET USA, but have you ever considered doing something like NET Ireland?’,” Mr Schaefer said.
“Out of all the things for him to say … it seemed kind of crazy.”
But after a second stint with NET, stationed in County Clare, Ireland, it didn’t seem so crazy anymore and he was ready for the next time God called.
It did not take long.
“God kept bringing up this small little school in the middle of Florence, Italy, that was focused on art – not just any art, but it was sacred art,” Mr Schaefer said.
“I could feel the same feeling I had whenever God was calling me to Ireland.”
Mr Schaefer put up much less resistance, but it was far scarier this time, he said.
He did not speak the language and he didn’t know anyone there.
“It was like looking at a raging ocean and you see all the reasons to be afraid but for some reason I really wasn’t,” Mr Schaefer said.
It was God’s grace, he said.
His whole year studying in Italy kept him “wrapped up” in God’s grace.
Art had always been a gift of his that he kept for himself.
“I’ve always loved to paint and draw and just have fun with art, but I never thought of it as a way that really could evangelise people,” Mr Schaefer said.
“My eyes were really opened to seeing how art was one of those things that doesn’t necessarily have a language … like English or Italian.
“Where my Italian was really slow because I didn’t speak it … art was something that it didn’t matter what language you spoke, didn’t matter where you came from, you could see God inside of it.”
Over this time, Mr Schaefer used his NET skills to grow an international student community of like-minded Catholic friends too.
It started with four close friends but, over the year, it grew to a “solid group of about 15 to 20 people every Sunday going to Mass together, all of them university students and all of them from different countries”.
Once he was comfortable in Italy, with study and friends, God came calling again – or more specifically, sent an email.
Mr Schaefer saw an email from the NET Ireland director saying a NET team needed another man in a place called Brisbane.
Again, he felt like it was speaking to him so he called his mum for advice.
She had been expecting him to return home and was excited to see him.
“And the response was so simple and easy; she said if God’s calling you there, who am I to tell you no,” he said.
“I think it’s a hard thing for a mother to be happy or at peace with their son or daughter in an instant to just decide to go to the other side of the world.”
But within a week of his NET Ministries interview, he was in Brisbane and he said it was the right decision.
So far he has spent a month ministering at the University of Queensland as part of its chaplaincy program where the other NET members have embraced him as family.
He said all his travels have been a lesson in listening to God’s voice.
“Some people hear God in the silence, some people hear God when they’re working or reading – a lot of people use scripture to hear God’s voice; God’s alive in scripture – He can speak to us in so many different ways,” Mr Schaefer said.
“But then, it’s more than just listening, it’s finding the way God speaks to you and then, removing yourself from your situation and letting him work.”