Hundreds of people packed Riverbend Baptist Church Tuesday morning to mourn the passing of Richard Kowalske, a Gainesville-based missionary who died of malaria after returning from a trip to Uganda.
Several of his children described the 58-year-old co-founder of Helping Hands Foreign Missions as a man who loved construction projects, going to the movies, martial arts and anything Disney.
His many trips abroad to nations across the globe provided for some humor during the hourlong service at the Cleveland Highway church. "Was he a missionary or a spy?" said his son, Rich Kowalske.
Family members praised him, above all, as a man who loved God and wanted to share his Christian faith with others.
"He was a modern-day disciple," said his son, Rusty Kowalske, adding that those who he had met on the mission fields where he worked "will be talking about him for years."
The service also featured a message by the Rev. Kevin Ross, staff pastor at Blackshear Place Baptist Church in South Hall. Stan Bell, Helping Hands' secretary-treasurer, led the audience in praise songs.
Kowalske died Saturday at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
He had just returned from a trip to Uganda, where Helping Hands sponsors a project, "Village of Eden." The organization plans to build an orphanage that will house and educate 2,000 children left homeless by the AIDS epidemic.
A native of Wyandotte, Mich., Kowalske had worked as a chiropractor for some 25 years. He and his wife, Brenda, an internal medicine physician, set up Helping Hands in 2003.
The Kowalskes began mission work through their church in 1999, traveling to Guatemala, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uganda.
On Aug. 16, 2002, during a medical mission trip to Bolivia, "we had made the commitment to sell everything and follow Jesus," Kowalske said on the organization's website. "We knew God would lead us where he wanted us. Our part would be to step out in faith."
The organization had already planned the Legacy Banquet, a fundraiser Saturday at the Gainesville Civic Center.
As part of his eulogy, Rich Kowalske quipped that he "wouldn't be father's son" if he didn't plug the benefit, drawing laughter across the church sanctuary.
"And I'd really be true to my dad if I was setting up a table and selling tickets," he said.
Throughout his life, Richard Kowalske "pursued dreams that others thought were too large," said his daughter, Lisa McCarthy, who lives in North Carolina. " ... In all of this, I believe that God was preparing Dad for the biggest challenge of his life - becoming a missionary."
She then told the story in the Gospels of the rich man who refused to sell all of his possessions and follow Jesus. Jesus then turned to his disciples and said, "It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
The needle's eye actually refers to a narrow gate that was in a wall around a city.
"My dad not only made it through the eye of the needle - he busted that gate down," McCarthy said.