The Gift of Brotherly Love
Greg Hatteberg and Stephen Bramer have been best friends for over twenty-five years. Their paths crossed at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1997. Greg became a student in 1984 and worked in Admissions, later moving to his current role as the executive director of Alumni Services. Stephen first came to DTS in 1992 for PhD studies, and after some time ministering in Canada, he returned in 1997 as a professor of Bible exposition. Over the years of serving together at DTS, Greg and Stephen built a friendship that became a brotherhood. Their work together expanded beyond the campus when Stephen invited Greg to co-lead tours to the Holy Land, since Greg had already been there numerous times and had written The Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (co-authored with Dr. Charles Dyer; current edition, 2014). These two brothers prayed each other through difficult times, including the years Greg cared for his wife, Lisa, as she endured multiple sclerosis, passing away in 2018. It’s also been a brotherhood filled with laughter, Bible study, and mutual care for their students and colleagues.
But it was a conversation during lunch one day in early 2022 that began a remarkable demonstration of brotherly love, an act that would resonate outward from these two friends and model the kind of love Jesus talked about with his disciples: “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). At lunch that day, Greg looked across at his friend and said, “You’re not looking so good. Is everything okay?”
“Well, no, not really,” said Stephen. “My kidney levels are off, and if they keep going down, I’m going to need a new kidney.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Greg replied, “I’ll give you my kidney!”
A FAMILY’S LOVE THROUGH A MEDICAL HISTORY
Though Greg wasn’t aware of Stephen’s current difficulties, he knew the story up to that point. In 1984, Stephen went to a doctor because he wasn’t feeling well. The diagnosis: immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy, or Berger’s disease. IgA nephropathy is a kidney disease in which the buildup of the IgA protein damages the blood vessels in the kidneys that filter waste from the blood. When this damage progresses to a dangerous level, the result is end-stage kidney disease; the only options are dialysis (blood-filtering treatments) or a kidney transplant. It may be genetic—though this doesn’t seem to be the case for Stephen’s family—or it could be an immune system’s response to respiratory or intestinal infections. Males in their teens to late thirties are at greatest risk; Stephen was thirty-seven at the time of his diagnosis.
After receiving the diagnosis, Stephen called his mother and told her he would need a kidney. “I don’t want to ask my siblings and put them on the spot,” he said to her. She replied, “They’re all coming over for a family meal tonight. I’ll ask them.” Later that night, Stephen’s father called and told him that all six of Stephen’s brothers and sisters—all believers in Jesus Christ—volunteered to give him a kidney. Initial screening showed that four of them were eligible, and the doctor chose Stephen’s sister Eleanor.
TRUSTING GOD’S HELP AND TIMING
The first live-donor kidney transplant took place in 1954. By the end of the 1960s, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, had become a major center for kidney transplants; more than ten percent of kidney transplants worldwide were performed there. When Stephen received his diagnosis in 1984, he was living in Caronport, Saskatchewan, within driving distance of the transplant hospital. His transplant wouldn’t take place until five years later, when his kidney function had declined to six percent. “Those five years were rough,” Stephen remembers. They were years that included physical discomforts such as fatigue and swelling. “I wouldn’t say it was worrisome, but it was very sobering,” he says. During that time, Stephen asked two questions. The first was an examination of his spiritual life: God, is there any unconfessed sin in my life that you might be addressing through this situation? Through prayer and counsel, nothing became apparent, and so he knew that this was not God’s way of getting his attention about sinfulness. His other question was about his family. His three children were then under five years old, and Stephen asked, Will I live long enough to see my children get married? He trusted God, whatever the outcome.
TRUSTING GOD AGAIN
When Stephen received his sister’s kidney, doctors expected it to last ten to fifteen years, since anti-rejection medications were still being developed. Remarkably, Stephen’s kept working for thirty-two years! When he and Greg began building their friendship in 1997, the kidney was going strong—as was Stephen! “I knew that he’d had a kidney transplant,” Greg says, “but he had more energy than anybody.” Greg remembers one of their early Israel tours together: “People asked me, ‘What was Israel like?’ And I just have this image in my mind of the back of Bramer, because that’s all I saw of him. He was always ahead of me!” But in 2021, the transplanted kidney was failing, and Stephen knew he would need a second transplant. When he and Greg had lunch, Greg felt confident that he would be the donor.
“It’s not that simple, Greg,” Stephen said. “You have to have the right blood type, the right tissue type, and the right antibodies.”
“I’m sure I am giving you my kidney,” Greg repeated. “What blood type are you?”
Greg completed an online application for living donors, and later test results showed a near-perfect match. He continued to insist that his kidney would be the one, even as more than twenty other people also offered to be Stephen’s donors. “Past and present students from DTS called to offer,” says Stephen. “Eight men from my church offered. And, of course, family members offered.” In February 2022, Greg went in for further tests, and at the end of March, it was official: Greg was chosen to give a kidney to Stephen.
Kidney surgery carries little risk—the hospital staff who worked with Greg and Stephen perform this procedure multiple times every week—and the success rate for the transplanted kidney is 98%; five years after the surgery, 88% of transplanted kidneys are still functioning. But it is an invasive procedure, and for the donor, it’s elective. It is natural that people close to the donor might question this decision. When the date of the surgery drew near, Greg’s kids had a serious talk with him. They were supportive, but they also asked, “Of all the people in the world, why are you giving a kidney to Bramer? Isn’t this something you’d only do for family?”
Greg’s reply: “Wouldn’t you do it for a brother? There are only a few people I would do this for, and Bramer is one of them. I have two kidneys that are healthy, but he is sick. How can I not help?” Even so, there were difficult times. “Spiritually, I had to deal with the fears, the realities. Physically, I had to lose some weight and endure the tests and the surgery itself. Emotionally, I understood that Stephen could lose his life if his body rejected my kidney.” Greg knew that it was God’s grace that strengthened him to walk this path for his friend.
Though Stephen looked forward to the surgery and finally feeling better again, he also depended on God’s will. Having preached through the book of James, he knew that “God doesn’t always give us our desires, though we are to make our desires known to Him. And so I was praying for God’s will to be done—and I sure was praying that it would be a successful kidney transplant.”
DEMONSTRATING BROTHERLY LOVE
That posture of brotherly love radiated outward from Greg and Stephen and exerted its beautiful influence on everyone around them throughout the transplant process. On the morning of July 28, 2022, they went to the hospital for the surgery. The procedures went perfectly. Over the next few days, the joy and love they share were evident to everyone on the recovery floor of the hospital. One time, Greg walked from his room to Stephen’s and said, “Hey, Bramer—I lost a kidney, and I think it’s in here!” Their joking, back-and-forth banter as they recovered together drew the attention of nurses, who would come in from the hallway just to listen. They couldn’t believe all the interaction between these two patients! At one point, Stephen’s wife pulled out her phone to record it.
For Greg, one moment sums up the importance of what he had done. An eleven-year-old boy walked into his hospital room, carrying a small box. “He handed me this box,” Greg says, “and in it was candy, a handwritten card, and a blanket. ‘I wanted to bring you something,’ he said. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Thank you so much for giving me my grandpa back.’”
Greg sees that in donating his kidney to Stephen, he has a part in Stephen’s continuing ministry. “You give money to missionaries, and they go out with the gospel to places you never would,” says Greg. “In giving Bramer my kidney, I could have a part in extending his ministry to so many people. He’s able to go places now because he has energy and health. I feel a joy because of that.”
“M y life verse is now Psalm 71:17–18 (ESV),” Stephen says. “‘O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs’—and I add, ‘with my new kidney!’—‘O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those who come.’”
The story Greg and Stephen have lived now resonates among their students and colleagues at DTS. Students have told them, “We’ve heard our profs tell us the truth of the Bible. Now we see our profs living the truth of the Bible. DTS is not just ‘Teach Truth,’ but it’s also ‘Love Well.’”
“I want people around me to know how great God is,” Stephen says. “God has given me some years, and these are special, extra years that I might not have had. So I’m just very committed to saying ‘Lord, your way is perfect. What do you want me to do? And what can Greg and I do together?’”
To learn about the meaning of "kidneys" in the Bible, read this article by Dr. Stephen Bramer.
About the Contributors
Neil R. Coulter
Neil R. Coulter served as an ethnomusicology and arts consultant for twelve years in Papua New Guinea, with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He is now senior writer and editor at DTS. He and his wife, Joyce, have three sons.