God was a part of Andy Prokop's life long before he realized and accepted it.
Looking back on his life, he said it is God who guided him away from an abusive and alcoholic mother whose only concern in life was getting another drink. He said it was a higher power that enabled him to experience 800 hours of flight combat as a crew chief gunner during the Vietnam War and return home without a scratch.
Before the crowd at the 37th annual Greater Lodi Leadership Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, Prokop discussed his faith, fellowship and understanding of God's message.
"Jesus had to have been sitting next to me," said Prokop, the keynote speaker and president and CEO of the United Way of San Joaquin, about his tour in Vietnam before the crowd at Woodbridge Country Club.
Prokop told the audience about his time in foster care as a child and how he preferred it to being with his mother because there was never love or acceptance from her. He shared stories about how he entered the Vietnam War nine days before the Tet Offensive and flew with the 117th Assault Helicopter Company.
"Eight friends, counting myself went to Vietnam," he said. "Two returned."
Although not affiliated with any religion at that point, Prokop said he didn't know how to pray but found himself praying during difficult moments.
Upon returning home, Prokop said he needed to find a new line of work.
"They weren't hiring gunners," he said.
He began working at a Straw Hat Pizza for $1.65 an hour. He eventually worked his way up the company. Within a few years he was overseeing 150 pizzerias in California, Nevada and Arizona. A niece of Carl Karcher, founder of Carl's Jr., worked at one of the restaurants and he eventually developed a friendship with the fast food icon.
Although he didn't realize it at the time, Prokop said he now credits God for the opportunity.
"God put me in an environment I could thrive in," he said.
Prokop admired Karcher's faith and devotion to God, he said, but felt he let Karcher down at times because he didn't have the same relationship with God.
"I think I hurt him everyday," he said.
Shortly after 9/11, Prokop and his wife were baptized at First Baptist Church in Stockton.
"Once you start, you never want to stop," said Prokop.
He received a standing ovation from the audience after his speech.
The event also featured speakers Don Milliken and Christopher Maricle. Milliken shared the story of creation while Maricle discussed verses in the New Testament. Since it was the 37th annual prayer breakfast, Maricle picked a 37th verse from selected chapters of each of the four gospels and related them to the audience.
The Greater Lodi Leadership Prayer Breakfast dates back to 1965 and is patterned after the Annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Speakers talked about spreading God's message and the importance incorporating faith into daily interactions.
"Do what you can with what you have while you still have time," said chair Lew Van Buskirk. "That's all God asks."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.