President Dan May reflects on his father’s orphan experience, and the faith that saw him through all trials
When everything else fails or falls away, the church can become a powerful, strengthening force. Perhaps no one knew this fact better than Henry May, father of LCMS Indiana District president Dan May. Orphaned at age seven, Henry spent many years in transition, including six months eking out a “boxcar children” existence with his three older siblings in their hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana.
A stint at his godparents’ farm in Michigan didn’t last long, either—this was the Great Depression, after all—and soon Henry found himself living at the Evangelical Lutheran Orphan Home in Indianapolis, Indiana. Here, although his basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing were met, Henry spent many lonely days and nights, missing a family that couldn’t afford the long trip for many visits. “My dad was a tough kid,” says Rev. May. “Nobody babied him or pampered him in any way.”
What he lacked in a stable, loving home life, Henry made up for in discipline and education. He was able to return to Mishawaka for his high school years, where he excelled as an honor student, with aspirations of becoming an engineer. Even this didn’t last, however. Family hardship forced him to leave school after his junior year. He worked two jobs and spent more than one night sleeping in a barn or a warehouse. “Nothing was consistent,” says Rev. May.
Nothing, that is, but Henry’s faith. “When he and mom got married,” says Rev. May, “they lived a very modest life. Here was an orphan who never graduated from high school marrying a young girl from a broken home. Clearly, there wasn’t much likelihood of this working out very well.” Except that Christ reigned supreme in the May household.
“When I became president of the Indiana District,” says Rev. May, “I was asked to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Lutheran Child and Family Services. In my devotion, I shared that I had a strong connection to this place. This was where my father grew up. This is where he was confirmed. In other words, this is where the seed of his faith was planted, and that faith became the core of his life.” Faith is still the core of the May family today, with four children, nine grandchildren, and several great grandchildren—all still active in the church.
“When we care for others in ministry,” says Rev. May, “we oftentimes don’t realize or don’t see the impact of how God may use that ministry in the future. In my dad’s case, it was pretty evident that not only was God watching over him, but that the church was watching over him as well. He used to say that his baptismal certificate was the only thing that ever happened to him that was forever.”
It was a legacy Henry May shared not just with his family, but also with friends and strangers alike. “When we were growing up,” remembers Rev. May, “my dad was always looking for the person who was alone. He treated people to coffee, invited them home for Sunday dinner, and was the permanent greeter at church. From the time we were little kids, Dad was always on the lookout for people who were needy.”
Henry May left such a legacy that, upon his death, over 1,000 people came to the visitation. “Everybody knew your dad,” said the funeral director. “So many of them, none of us knew,” says Rev. May. “Your dad helped me out; your dad bought me a coat; your dad fed my children when we were out of work.” These were the comments Rev. May and his siblings heard over and over again.
In the midst of loneliness and hardship, Henry May never shook his fist at God. He grew up and raised a family. He saved enough to buy a small farm and worked extra jobs to make ends meet. But his faith never wavered. “Throughout his life,” says Rev. May, “the only thing that was consistent was my father’s faith. I still have his baptismal certificate. It was a treasure to him. In fact, it was his legacy, and he knew it.”