August 24, 2012

Surprise gift connects two communities touched by tornadoes

Father Steven Schaftlein, second from left, wanted to share a $100,000 donation for tornado relief that he had received as the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville with the people of Holton, another community devastated by the March 2 storms. So he made the check presentation during a surprise visit at a meeting of the Holton Long Term Recovery Group. He is pictured with, from left, Cynthia Melton, case manager of the group; Norm Knudson, the group’s secretary/treasurer; Father Shaun Whittington, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood; Darin Kroger, the group’s construction manager; and Philip Diewert, the group’s volunteer manager. (Submitted photo)

Father Steven Schaftlein, second from left, wanted to share a $100,000 donation for tornado relief that he had received as the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville with the people of Holton, another community devastated by the March 2 storms. So he made the check presentation during a surprise visit at a meeting of the Holton Long Term Recovery Group. He is pictured with, from left, Cynthia Melton, case manager of the group; Norm Knudson, the group’s secretary/treasurer; Father Shaun Whittington, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood; Darin Kroger, the group’s construction manager; and Philip Diewert, the group’s volunteer manager. (Submitted photo) Click for a larger version.

By John Shaughnessy

Father Steven Schaftlein is rarely surprised anymore by people’s generosity.

Ever since deadly tornadoes roared through southern Indiana on March 2—damaging hundreds of homes and killing 13 people—the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville has witnessed the “overwhelming goodness” of people who have given their time, skills and money to help the survivors of the disaster.

Still, Father Schaftlein acknowledges being surprised when he received a phone call from the Annenberg Foundation in Los Angeles, informing him that the group wanted to donate $100,000 to the relief effort in Henryville.

After receiving the check, Father Schaftlein decided to deliver his own surprise.

The pastor met with the parish council and set out his plan. He told the council members that St. Francis Xavier Parish and the community had been blessed with so much generosity following the tornadoes—because the “lion’s share” of media publicity had spotlighted the devastation in Henryville. At the same time, the small community of Holton, about 60 miles away, had often been overlooked in the coverage of the tornado damage, resulting in less volunteers and donations for the town.

Father Schaftlein proposed to the parish council that the $100,000 check be shared with the Holton recovery effort in a 50-50 split.

“We thought it was very important to show we are in this together,” Father Schaftlein says. “And we need to be there for each other.”

After the parish council agreed, Father Schaftlein shared his plan with Father Shaun Whittington, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood—the closest Catholic community to Holton.

And on July 17, with Father Whittington’s help, Father Schaftlein came to the meeting of the Holton Long Term Recovery Group.

The group’s members had no idea what the visiting priest planned to do. Instead, their main focus was on trying to find more ways and more money to help the residents of Holton rebuild their homes and their lives. In the midst of that atmosphere, Father Schaftlein stood and presented his plan.

“There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the room,” recalls Jane Crady, coordinator of disaster preparedness and response for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese. “It was pretty cool. The people were just so thrilled.

“It built a bridge between Henryville and Holton. Father Steve said he wanted to reach across the distance between the two communities to bring them together. He basically said the Catholic Church just wants you to know that we haven’t forgotten you.”

As case manager of the Holton Long Term Recovery Group, Cynthia Melton says she will never forget that generosity.

“It meant the world to us,” Melton says. “We were short on grant money. When Father Steve gave the check to us, there were tears in our eyes. It was like God was there for us.”

Father Schaftlein gave the $50,000 check to Father Whittington.

“One of the things we were able to do right away because of the money is purchase a 16-foot tool trailer,” Father Whittington says. “It’s something the Long Term Recovery Group needed yet struggled to find the money. Now, it’s being used to go from site to site to help rebuild houses.”

The generous gesture still touches Father Whittington and the people in Holton and the surrounding area.

“They were very much moved by it—to know that a community that has received a lot more press and attention thought of another community that was also suffering,” he says. “It was a great witness of Christian charity. The incredible generosity that Father Steve and his parish have given to us is very touching to me.”

For his part, Father Schaftlein strives to keep the check from the Annenberg Foundation and his parish’s sharing of it in perspective. He views the series of actions as a way of “paying it forward”—a way of extending the same generosity that he has witnessed by so many other people.

“Ever since the tornadoes, this whole experience has been an intense experience of living the Gospel,” Father Schaftlein says. “Most of the time, we water down the Gospel. We make compromises. This donation to Holton is just one of the hundreds of examples of how people have lived the Gospel. We need to keep paying it forward.”
 

(There is a great need for volunteer skilled workers in Holton. Expertise in plumbing, drywall and electrical work is needed to help people return to their homes. Volunteers can register to help at www.archindy.org/cc/disaster. Volunteers can also offer their assistance by contacting Jane Crady at jacc1@tds.net.)

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