Walt M. Hooker didn’t get the job as lead pastor of Bellevue Christian Center (BCC).
But the Nebraska man is getting so much more than he expected.
He’s gaining a second chance to live a healthier life, with a kidney donation from a seemingly unlikely candidate — the man who got the job.
Hooker and his wife, Melba, surrendered their lives to God in the early 1980s and sensed God’s call to ministry a few years later. Hooker served as a major in the U.S. Air Force. When he retired from the military in 1994 after 15 years, he became a staff pastor at BCC. Bellevue is a city of 64,176 south of Omaha.
After lead pastor Gary L. Hoyt announced plans to retire in 2019, Hooker submitted his name for the position.
“For many people in the church, it was assumed that I was going to be the next pastor, because I was the senior associate,” Hooker says.
At the same time, Andy J. Kaup and his wife, Michelle, prayed and sensed God leading him to submit his name.
Kaup was 5 years old when his family began attending BCC, which now has 830 regular attendees. He served in youth ministry, then became a staff pastor in 2017, working with young adults and small groups. In the fall of 2019, the church board recommended that Kaup be selected as the person the congregation voted on to as the new lead pastor.
“The first person to call to congratulate me was Pastor Hooker to tell me he was with me and I wasn’t alone in this,” Kaup says.
Hooker recounts his congratulatory call.
“He needed to know that I was for him as my pastor,” Hooker says. Although Hooker had spent a quarter century as a pastor, he determined to work wherever God placed him.
“My service isn’t based on a position or a title,” Hooker says.
Not everyone thought the same way. Rifts developed in the church because some thought Hooker deserved the position due to seniority. He’s 64, Kaup is 35. In addition to the generational challenges, Hooker is Black and Kaup is white.
“It really divided our church,” Hooker says. “Several people who attended did not want to serve under a leadership they felt was racially biased or that wanted to promote young people and not the senior person.”
Several discouraged church members, including some of Hooker’s family, left.
“It was a hard, hard time in ministry,” Hooker says. “It was the roughest time in my life, not because of the position, but because of what it did to my church and my family.”
Then in December 2020, Hooker — who had a preexisting condition — contracted COVID-19. Anti-inflammatory medicine Hooker took for a hip problem in the military had left him with between 60 to 70% kidney function.
“COVID latched onto my kidneys and I went down to about 10% kidney function,” Hooker says. He went into a hospital for two weeks and started dialysis.
Although he recovered from the coronavirus, doctors stopped dialysis to see if his kidneys would recover.
However, by April 2021 his kidneys began deteriorating again. He applied for a kidney transplant that June and began at-home dialysis in July.
That month, Kaup asked about becoming a donor. The pastors realized both had O-positive type blood.
“It was so unlikely that my boss was going to be my match, but in our hearts we hoped it was true,” Hooker says.
The Kaups processed questions about possible long-term risks associated with kidney donation and learned he had little risk as a donor. They considered the possibility that one of their children — Micah, 10; Ariana, 8; or Isabella, 6 — might later need a kidney.
“But we could almost live our whole life with the ‘what if’ game,” Kaup says. “And what if they don’t need it?”
Instead, what if God called Kaup to be obedient and donate a kidney to Hooker?
Kaup says he knows if he’s faithful to God’s call, then God — who already sees the future — will take care of what’s to come.
Two months ago, Kaup learned he and Hooker were a match.
Most donors and recipients don’t know each other, but in this rare case Kaup was allowed to tell Hooker that he’d been approved as the donor. Their surgeries are set for Aug. 2 at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
“I was speechless,” Hooker says. “We cried and looked at each other and could not believe what God had done.”
They first shared the good news with family and personal friends. Two Sundays later, they told the church and later posted a video.
“The room was full of tears and people crying,” Hooker says. “That God would give me a donor and that donor would be pastor Andy, it was really healing for our church, given what we’d gone through the last two years.”
Hooker says God knew he wouldn’t leave the church and that the man hired for the top job would end up saving his life.
Kaup commends Hooker.
“Part of this miracle is a testament to his character that he chose to stay and support the church and support me,” Kaup says.
Looking toward the future, Hooker cites the God-inspired words of member Chelena Perkins, who said the kidney donation will provide reconciliation of younger and older people, as well as Black and white, with trust replacing mistrust.
“God wanted to show the people of the church and our city something bigger, that racially we could be one,” Hooker says.
Kaup also points to God as the author of the story.
“We couldn’t have dreamt this up, even if the two of us wanted to,” Kaup says. “If we wanted to force this to happen, we couldn’t have.”
Kaup cites the long odds against them having the same blood and tissue types and other components of a great donor match.
“That’s something only God could have done, especially to have two people in the same location,” Kaup says. “It just doesn’t happen.”