July 27, 2012

Teenagers ‘see God at work’ during Homeland Mission project

High school students on the archdiocese’s Homeland Mission project on June 24-29 help clear debris left by the tornadoes that devastated the southern Indiana community of Henryville on March 2. (Submitted photo)

High school students on the archdiocese’s Homeland Mission project on June 24-29 help clear debris left by the tornadoes that devastated the southern Indiana community of Henryville on March 2. (Submitted photo) Click for a larger version.

By John Shaughnessy

The special moments started to stack up, leading the teenagers back to the challenge that a priest had given them at the beginning of their journey.

At 19, Steven Meuleman recalls the older woman who cried when the teenagers helped at her home during the archdiocesan Homeland Mission effort on June 24-29.

On one of those scorching summer days, the teenagers lined the side of a hill, forming a “bucket brigade” that passed bucket after bucket of water up the hill to the woman’s home in Henryville, one of the southern Indiana communities that had been devastated by tornadoes on March 2.

The water was needed to nourish the tree saplings that had been planted to replace the towering trees near the woman’s home which had been flicked away like toothpicks by the tornadoes.

“She literally broke down in tears when we helped her,” says Meuleman, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis. “It meant the world to her.”

At 14, Matthew Fajt recalls the unexpected reaction he received from Alzheimer’s patients at a New Albany nursing home—and the surprising feeling he experienced, too.

“We played games with them,” says Matthew, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle. “They were so grateful for us coming in. They don’t seem to get that often. It made their day—and mine.”

Looking for God

The two teenagers were part of a 50-member group from cities and towns across the archdiocese—Bloomington, Greencastle, Greenwood, Indianapolis and Terre Haute—who dedicated a week of their summer vacation to do mission work at home as part of the archdiocesan Homeland Mission effort that focused on southern Indiana this year.

The archdiocesan effort followed a week after 40 high school students from the New Albany Deanery also helped in the area devastated by tornadoes.

“It was very meaningful for them to serve in their community,” says Leah Cissell, coordinator of programming for the Catholic youth ministry office of the New Albany Deanery. “They saw they didn’t need to go far to help people in need. They also learned that when things don’t work out as planned that having a joyful attitude can really enhance their experience and let them see God at work.”

A similar message was shared with the archdiocesan Homeland Mission group during the Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Indianapolis, where their six-day journey began on June 24. Msgr. Paul Koetter, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish, challenged the teenagers to look for God in the situations they would face during their trip.

That theme resonated throughout their experiences for the teenagers and adult leaders on the trip.

“One morning, we went to a site to haul away debris,” recalls Beth Fajt, Matthew’s mother and also a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle. “The homeowners’ son asked the kids to pray with him before we started working. His mom and dad’s house was completely demolished. We saw a lot of that in Henryville and Marysville. It was shocking for all of us. But it was more frightening when we helped at a soup kitchen, and they saw little kids in line.”

The soup kitchen provided another surprise for Matthew.

“The people were extremely grateful to us for getting them food,” he says. “It was a treat for them. They thought they were lucky to get food. And I don’t even think about it. I take for granted what I have.”

Matthew’s reaction was common among the teenagers who took part in the Homeland Mission project, says Kay Scoville, archdiocesan director of youth ministry.

“Everyone kept telling the teens ‘thank you’ and ‘bless you,’ ” Scoville says. “It was very humbling to them. Humbling is the key word for the trip. We all learned a huge lesson in humility, especially living in a culture where we have so much and some people have so little, and they still say ‘thank you’ and ‘bless you.’ ”

‘It was an inspiration to see them’

The teenagers seemed to grow in their faith with each day and each experience, Scoville says.

It grew as they helped repair the roof of a house owned by an elderly woman who had no insurance. It grew as they sorted donations at the community center in Henryville. It grew as they focused on their experiences during morning and evening prayers, and daily Mass.

“Seeing the destruction and listening to people’s stories of survival and faith had a great impact on the teenagers,” Scoville says. “Our theme for the week was ‘Rebuild My Church.’ Our patron saint for the week was St. Francis of Assisi. And our quote for the week was from him—‘Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’ ”

That quote was written on the back of T-shirts that the teenagers wore during their week of service. That quote was also imprinted in their hearts.

“I liked the trip a lot more than I thought I would,” Matthew says. “You really learn to appreciate what you have. And I saw how the volunteers really represented God by what they did.”

Meuleman saw that same change in many of the teenagers.

“They saw they were serving Christ’s people,” says Meuleman, one of the youth group leaders during the trip. “That was a message I kept getting from them.”

That message is a promise for the present and the future of the Church, according to Scoville.

“It gave me a huge sense of hope about what the young people are capable of doing,” she says. “As the St. Francis quote goes, they did what is necessary and they accomplished so much. It was an inspiration to see them living their faith.” †

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