Last week, I had the chance to travel to Wichita, KS with the youth group from Notre Dame in Clarendon Hills for a week of mission work with 350 high school students and chaperones from across the United States through a program called Catholic Heart Workcamp. The week was incredible on so many levels, in so many ways, for so many reasons. Catholic Heart is not only mission work, but also consists of daily Mass, spiritual formation, talks, skits, and other activities that serve to bring the high school students who participate face to face with Jesus Christ, whom they are ultimately serving in the poor and needy people and organizations they encounter.
The state motto of Kansas, as seen above in this mosaic of Our Lady of Kansas, is “Ad Astra Per Aspera”: To the stars through difficulty. So here’s to the stars and the difficulties that get us there.
Here are a few of the most memorable moments and situations:
In March when I was told the group would be going to Wichita, I was immediately interested but for a primarily selfish reason: I wanted to visit some seminarian brothers of mine who study with me at Mundelein. I’ve been on mission trips before but, as many of you might imagine, I’m not exactly “Mr. Fix-it.” I was originally assigned to serve on the Associate Staff at the camp, which was housed at Kapaun-Mount Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita. At the last minute, however, I was asked to supervise one of the work teams for the first day of work only. At the last minute on Monday morning, another adult leader joined me and 6 teens. We were working on a deck at a transitional housing facility in downtown Wichita. From the first day, I knew this is where God was asking me to spend the rest of the week. The team had a great bond and we all grew together; I had some of the most meaningful, edifying conversations in those 4 days of work that I have ever had. I pray that God will continue to bless these young men and women in all that they do that they might grow deeper in their love for and knowledge of Him. Here’s to you Nora, Peter, Matt, Gage, Hannah, Emily, and Elizabeth.
Drums Across Kansas
Most of you know that I am a die-hard fan of Drum Corps, Marching Music’s Major League. I usually try to get to one competition every summer and when I saw that the mission trip to Wichita was the same time that Drums Across Kansas was scheduled to happen, I called up my friend Deacon Clay Kimbro and made arrangements to go. He had never been before, so I tried not to take too much offense when he kept referring to the event as “nerd fest 2016.” I’m proud to say that he’s now a convert to DCI and, for reasons still unclear to me, has decided to become a Bluecoats fan. Beautiful weather, beautiful music, and a great friend all made for a terrific evening.
Check out the highlights from Drums Across Kansas 2016:
Shortly before the mission trip began, the Catholic community in the Diocese of Wichita experienced a profound and tragic loss. On Saturday, July 9 Wichita seminarian Brian Bergkamp was kayaking on the Arkansas River in Wichita which had swelled due to recent heavy rains. Someone in his group began struggling and Brian left his kayak to help the woman to safety. Though she made it safety, Brian was swept under by the heavy currents and his body still has not been recovered. I consider it a profound grace to have been able to travel to Wichita and be present to my brother seminarians in this time of loss.
On Monday, July 18 the Diocese decided to hold a memorial Mass in the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in order to bring some kind of closure. I had planned to attend this Mass until two days before the trip when I found out that I was assigned to a work site. Then, when the other adult leader came I thought maybe I could go to the Mass after all. I decided to just let it go, since I had been reminding myself over and over again that whatever would happen was God’s will for this trip. Besides, I figured that my worksite would be pretty far away from the cathedral. To my surprise, I was working only about five blocks from the cathedral and drove past it every day on our way to the work site. Obviously, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion and still had to lead the group so I reluctantly resigned myself to the fact I would not be going to the Mass. When we arrived at our site for the first day, I found out that the group we were working for, Interfaith Ministries, is the home of the Lord’s Diner, where Brian had been working all this summer. I had been trying to honor Brian, his family, and his brother seminarians from afar with my prayers and now I could honor him in this concrete and unexpected way by serving, as he did, the poor and marginalized who no doubt were so close to his heart. This was an incredible moment of grace and clarity for me.
So, This is Kansas
I also had the chance to hang out with some great friends of mine from Mundelein throughout the week. I’m grateful for their hospitality and their taking time to hang out and show me around their city. I had not given two hoots about Kansas until this past school year when these men transferred to Mundelein.
I could tell many stories of the ways I encountered the true spirit of generosity and hospitality of the people of Kansas. Here’s just one: I needed to get to the cathedral on Thursday night for a holy hour and then to visit with some friends, but didn’t have a ride. I had become pretty well acquainted with the president of the high school where were staying, so I stopped by his office to ask whether I could trust Uber in Wichita. Instead, he simply asked, “Why don’t I drive you?” “Wooowwww,” I thought, “Todo, we’re not in the suburbs anymore.”
He is Greater
The overall theme of the week was clear: God is in charge! He is provident, He is humble, and He is madly in love with us. St. Paul was, of course, dead on when he wrote that “God works for the good of those who love him.”
Our God is greater! Our God is stronger! Our God is higher than any other! He is healer, he is awesome in power. Our God, Our God…
Thank you, Jesus, for this week; Thanks, God, for these people, these experiences, these graces; Thanks, Father, for your love. Let it fill me and change me and give me the courage to bring it to the world. AMEN.