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It only feels like the birth of a nation

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The seminary student was a year or two away from becoming an ordained Lutheran minister when she learned she was pregnant with _ good God! _ quintuplets.

No problem! thought Gayle Nelson-Folkersen, who has always had a way of overcoming the unlikely. She had a pastoral internship lined up for September, and was determined to fulfill it even though she and her husband would be feeding bottles to the Von Trapp family.

After much prayer, Nelson-Folkersen decided to postpone the internship. Yes, she felt called to the ministry. But she knew that the squalling was going to be louder than the calling.

"Maybe I'll graduate (from seminary) in the year 2000. Maybe I'll graduate in the year 2005," she says. "But the calling I have is very real, and becoming a pastor is still, I believe, what I'm supposed to do."

The mega-pregnancy of Gayle Nelson-Folkersen is so inherently interesting that it has become a kind of public event. Last week, newspaper and TV people crowded into Nelson-Folkersen's private room at Bayfront Medical Center to ask how far along she is (27 weeks today), how much she's eating (4,000 calories a day), and how she is feeling (like a hotel).

If all goes well _ and all is going extremely well so far _ the quintuplets will be delivered by Caesarean section between April 5 and 19, which is sure to make more news.

The pregnancy clearly is a remarkable medical story, but it is also much more than that. For Nelson-Folkersen, giving life to five human beings is just another part of a fascinating and unusual spiritual journey, one that began, she says, when she heard the voice of God telling her to become a pastor.

Her route to the pulpit has been anything but direct. Nelson-Folkersen was born 40 years ago in Jacksonville. She grew up mostly in Tampa _ she graduated from Brandon High _ but it was in Key West that she received her calling. She was 16, and she and her mother were sitting together, talking.

"People are going to think I'm nuts," she says, then goes on. "I heard God say, "You are to be a pastor.' I thought, "I'm hearing things.' "

When Nelson-Folkersen (her name was just Nelson then) told her mother what had happened, her mother said she could not become a pastor because the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did not ordain women. Neither woman knew it at the time, but the church had just changed that policy.

Nelson-Folkersen resisted the idea of going into the ministry. After high school, she enrolled in the two-year Georgia Military College, where her then-boyfriend was in school. She was among the first women to attend. Some of the men did not conceal their resentment for her, she says. At one point, she was accused, and then cleared, of masterminding a plan to cheat on exams. She says her spiritual life "was probably the only thing that got me through without being real bitter."

Despite the hardships, Georgia Military College "built character," she says, and prepared her for a career in the military. Nelson-Folkersen joined the Army, where she was assigned to the military police. When she wasn't investigating crimes, she spent a lot of time with chaplains, to whom she felt a natural affinity. She eventually got a bachelor's degree in criminology.

She left the service in 1986 and joined the Pompano Beach Police Department as a patrol officer in the city's poor neighborhoods. Civilian police work wasn't for her.

"The problem was that my heart never got hardened," she says. "I remember driving down the worst street in the city and seeing all these homeless people, and I stopped and said, "Why God, why? Why do you allow this to happen?' "

She had a growing desire to help others, and a growing sense that she was supposed to do so. Finally, she decided to "take God up on his command" to become a minister. Soon after she decided to attend seminary, she met Jeff Folkersen, the man who would become her husband. It happened, fittingly, in church _ specifically, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Boca Raton. The couple began dating in April 1992 and married later that year. They both use the hyphenated surname Nelson-Folkersen.

In 1993, the couple moved to Columbia, S.C., and Nelson-Folkersen entered Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. She expected to find a "close-knit community of faith," but instead encountered the same cliques and jealousies that exist in any group. That was Lesson One in her pastoral training.

"Pastors are people too, and pastors are human," she says. "That was something I needed to learn."

She finished two of the three years of study required for ordination, then took an internship in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She worked there for a year, bringing the Gospel to 1,500 people in a bitter-cold, 400-square-mile area. When it was over, she decided she needed to do another internship, this time in a traditional church setting. She was going to begin one this September at a Lutheran church in Tampa Bay; she had several to choose from but had not decided which one.

"But those were my plans, and God's plans are frequently different," she says.

Are they ever. The Nelson-Folkersens had been trying to start a family. Because Gayle was nearing 40, her doctor recommended in-vitro fertilization. She had no moral or ethical qualms about using medical technology to conceive, she says.

"The gifts that these physicians have come from God. The medical technology that we have comes from God," she says. "If people want to say that doing in-vitro fertilization is playing God, they can say that. But if that in fact is the case, then any use of medical technology is playing God."

Nelson-Folkersen prayed for a child, and the prayer was answered.

And answered. And answered. And answered. And answered. Three girls, two boys.

She was terrified at first. "I asked myself, "Why is it that I am having five babies? Why did God do this to me?' Nothing in my wildest imagination has ever prepared me for this," she says.

But in the weeks after she became pregnant, Nelson-Folkersen came to believe that she was meant to be both a mother and a minister _ with an emphasis on the former, for now. There is a lesson in everything, she says, and the lesson in her pregnancy is that "You cannot be all things to all people. You cannot do it all. You cannot be Superman or Superwoman. Nor does God expect us to be."

The Nelson-Folkersens, who live in Lutz, attend Grace Lutheran Church in Carrollwood, a congregation of 1,000 that has recently seen the birth of a set of triplets and two sets of twins. "I don't know if it's the Communion wine or what," associate pastor Gerhard Kraus says.

Kraus says the church will be providing baby supplies and probably will give a shower for the couple. The Nelson-Folkersens are planning to move into a larger house in the area, though they don't know where. Jeff, a recruiter in the computer industry, is looking.

The couple has turned to the Old Testament for the names of their babies. One girl _ who is developing more slowly than the rest _ will be called Arielle.

"She's our tiny, tiny little girl, who is about three weeks behind the rest of them. And Arielle means "lioness of God,' " Nelson-Folkersen says. "And she definitely is fighting."

Nelson-Folkersen must complete another year at seminary before she is ordained. How will she balance the demands on a pastor with the almost unimaginable demands on the parent of quintuplets? (To say nothing of how her husband will meet his obligations.)

She hasn't the foggiest. But she isn't worried about it.

"I don't think God would have given me these children, and the fire and the passion in my heart to be a minister, without the resources to be able to handle it all," she says. "God will sometimes give you more than you think you can handle. But the wonderful thing is that God will always be there to show you how to take care of it."

How you can help

People who would like to give diapers, baby clothes and other items to the Nelson-Folkersen family may drop them off at:

+ All Saints Lutheran Church, 5315 Van Dyke Rd., Tampa. Dropoff hours are 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday. Donors may call 963-0969 to make other arrangements.

+ Apostles Lutheran Church, 200 N Kingsway Road, Brandon. Dropoff hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Other arrangements can be made by calling 689-2571.

+ The St. Petersburg Parents of Twins & Supertwins is also accepting items on behalf of the family. To arrange dropoff times, please call 381-6706 or 894-3035.

Those who wish to donate money to the family may send checks to the Lutheran Brotherhood, P.O. Box 3103, Brandon, FL, 33509.