There's a lot of overlap between medicine and ministry for Deacon Michael Freeman, a family physician who practices and preaches in Delaware County.
After Mass, parishioners call him "Doc" and ask him to call in prescriptions. At his office, patients ask for a blessing after he's checked their blood pressure. He keeps his alb, stole, communion kit, doctor's bag and white coat in his car at all times.
Juggling roles is "amplified in a small town," Deacon Freeman explained. "The parishioners are your patients and also your friends."
Since his May ordination, the new deacon has been serving his home parish of St. John the Baptist in Walton, as well as its mission church, Holy Family in Downsville, and the linked St. Peter's parish in Delhi.
He considers his diaconate role a continuation of his medical one.
"I'm a healer," he said. "The whole discernment [of becoming a deacon] has been to somehow extend a ministry of healing that I already started. I've seen faith tied to healing so many times that it's impossible not to consider it as a role."
There have been many twists and turns along the road. A Long Island native, Deacon Freeman was raised Jewish and attended Hebrew school, but was exposed to Christianity at an early age when his mother married a Catholic.
While preparing to become a doctor, he turned to God often as he worked at an inner-city hospital, at homeless shelters, at a rape crisis center and with HIV/AIDS populations.
"When I felt especially sad or had to draw on strength, I felt a lot of comfort in chapels and temples at hospitals," Deacon Freeman said. The rooms' denomination didn't matter to him.
A college scholarship he received required that he serve three years in a medically underserved, rural area upon graduation. He and his wife, Denise, whom he met in medical school, started practicing at both a health center and Delaware Valley Hospital in Walton in 1998.
"I'm still here after 16 years," he concluded. "To this day, it's hard to find doctors to stay." But in rural health care, he and his wife "got to do what we like to do, which isn't anesthesiology or radiology - it's to take care of people."
Mrs. Freeman is Catholic. The couple attended pre-Cana marriage preparation classes and got married in a Catholic church before a messianic rabbi and a priest.
Deacon Freeman wanted to find a place to worship for his family, which grew to include two children. "When we went to the Catholic church in Walton, it's like bells and whistles went off for me," he said. "It was revelatory."
The Mass reminded him of conservative Judaism, from its inclusion of Old Testament readings to reverence of the Eucharist, like Judaism's reverence for the Torah and the Ark of the Covenant.
"There are tremendous parallels and overlaps," he said. "It's more than just saying there's a comfort zone. I saw a huge continuity. [The concept of Almighty God] becomes an absolute extension to including Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity was very accessible."
He joined the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at St. John the Baptist for people interested in joining the Catholic Church, and received the sacraments in 2005.
Soon after becoming a Catholic, Deacon Freeman experienced God in the emergency room after he prayed he'd have enough time to intubate a young car accident victim before the medevac helicopter landed. He felt eucharistic adoration calling him that night.
"I lay prostrate and said, 'God, thank you for letting me play that role. I will do whatever you say,'" he recalled.
Signs that the diaconate was his path began popping up everywhere. He followed them and started studying to become a deacon in 2006.
So far, being a deacon has been exactly what Deacon Freeman expected: He loves serving at up to five Masses each weekend, leading vigil services for the deceased and helping at funerals when he can, celebrating baptisms, visiting the sick and homebound and helping with youth ministry and RCIA. He prays the Liturgy of the Hours daily and spends about three hours a week preparing homilies.
"People say I genuinely look joyful and enjoy what I do," Deacon Freeman said. "It's not something you can fake. People have connected with the relevance of the homilies. I try to bring in stories from real life. I feel God has a way of speaking through us."
He said a deacon's most important role is just "showing up. People do well if they have a go-to person. It's possible for the priest to be busy and sometimes less approachable."
His goals for the parish include launching a Sunday night "last chance" Mass for college students and empowering parishioners to visit the sick and homebound more.
In his free time, Deacon Freeman enjoys long-distance cycling, road trips and tennis. He and his family recently completed el Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the 500-mile "Walk of St. James" pilgrimage in Spain.
Family and friends back home have always accepted his conversion and vocation: "I never felt like people thought I turned my back on Judaism," he said. He still practices customs like the Passover seder meal and says "there's a true beauty and synergy" in the overlap of Jewish and Christian holidays.
Deacon Freeman said he wouldn't have made it through formation without his wife and children's support: "Having them behind you, that's kind of like everything."