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Following the Spirit Down the (Yellow?) Brick Road

About this article

This inspirational story from Clare vanBrandwijk will speak to any teacher or campus minister who has been called on to do some type of service experience for an agency in the community. Clare outlines the project itself (landscaping for a house that cares for AIDS patients) with implementation strategies and the occasional reference to the prophet Jeremiah. This is an inspirational and bright story that is guaranteed to resonate with those involved with service programs.

The road is really a five-foot wide path. The bricks are more dappled browns than yellow. But the journey does have a wizard and feisty little black terrier. And along the way we found our hearts, our minds, and our courage. When the call came, the mid-August back-to-school reality check was upon me full force. My morning (at O'Gorman High School, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) had been consumed with confirming various pieces of our senior before-school gathering, as well as polishing the prayer pieces I was asked to do for upcoming in-service days. Phone calls and checklists provided the warp over which I struggled to weave an occasional strand of lesson planning for one of the three courses (four sections) I would begin teaching in two weeks. Shuttling back and forth through the warp and woof of this tapestry was my role as campus minister.

In the wake of a longtime faculty member's departure, each member of our religion department had taken on added responsibilities for the fall. The implications were growing clearer by the moment. Heightening the usual apprehension that accompanies a new school year was a late-season administrative change. So when the unexpected call came, I was more reluctant than Jeremiah (1:6) to consider it. I had neither the courage nor the energy to take on one more thing.

The caller identified herself as Sister Esther, director and primary care provider of the Berakhah House, a home in our diocese for people with AIDS. Berakhah House opened 15 May 1995. Since then thirty-two people living with AIDS have made it their home. Some have moved on, returning to independent living situations. Thirteen of the residents have died. The home accommodates eight residents at a time. Berakhah means blessing.

In a simple, clear voice, Sister Esther asked if I would organize some students for a landscaping project at the house. AIDS patients experience peripheral neuropathy, she explained, and with this loss of feeling in their limbs, they could not negotiate the existing pathway from the house to its gardens. Could I find some students who would install a more-gently sloping path? Could I find funding? . . . materials? . . . know-how? She called, she said, because she had received a mailing from Make a Difference Day organizers, and she felt certain that a grant for the project could be obtained.

As with all reluctant prophets, God supplied my words. While every fiber of my being screamed, "Look, I'm really sorry, but I can't imagine how a bunch of high school students and I can do what you are asking," my mouth said, "Give me a week or two to get things rolling at school. Then I'll come by and take a look at the project." In the days that followed, I was jarred from my reluctance by a memory. I remembered the warm summer days five years before when I had supervised the jack-hammering demolition of the front walkway to our home. To me, the walkway had always had the aesthetic appeal of a landing strip. Since the South Dakota winters had buckled and cracked the concrete, I felt mandated to replace the walkway with a brick path, adding the informality of a few curves and the warmth of perennials. Once the concrete was removed and the area graded by heavier machinery, I filled in the sand bed and laid the brickwork myself. "I can do what Sister Esther is asking," I said to myself, "and God knows it."

After our first meeting, I knew it wasn't a matter of "if." Esther is a small, energetic Benedictine sister with the hallmark hospitality of the Benedictines shining across her, ear-to-ear. Yet, all the while that she was asking this somewhat Herculean task of me, she was as unassuming as a baby's adoring gaze. The effect was completely disarming. Sioux Falls isn't Oz, but Sister Esther is a wizard!

We would move the existing perennial plot to another edge of the patio in order to access the easier slope to the larger garden. Then we would lay a fifty-five-by-five-foot brick path (meeting wheelchair specifications), and install a ten-foot diameter landing on the other end. Simple!

Fr. Howard Carroll, a retired diocesan priest who volunteers at the house and was instrumental in its inception, was also at that first meeting. He provided the theological rationale for the project. Gazing up through the birdhouse-adorned branches of the tree that overlooked the planned landing, he remarked, "It is vitally important to the journey of these individuals, who are sick or dying with AIDS, to be able to encounter the healing presence of God in nature."

Mobilizing the Students

During the first weeks of the school year, we assemble our Campus Ministry Team. Two guides drive this process: a particular vision and the Spirit. The vision is one that another department member and I received from the Saint Mary's Press workshop "The Catholic High School as Faith Community." In a nutshell, as we go about building faith community, we are committed to involving each of the many subgroups that make up our high school community. At the same time the vision looks at each undertaking from the trifocal lens of theology, spirituality, and service, seeing that all we do is imbued with each of these.

The Spirit animates our efforts. In the two years that we have worked with the Saint Mary's Press vision, we have chosen to be more open and less structured with our campus ministry efforts, relying on the Spirit of John 3:8 to "blow where it will." Rather than use a programmed approach to selecting and training students, we accept any student who will write a brief essay about what faith community means to him or her.

Students then attend an afternoon retreat. First, we somewhat playfully indoctrinate them with the vision of faith community. Students reflect what they have heard from us in skits, works of art, or song. A favorite from this year's retreat was set to the tune "525,600 Minutes," and lots of finger snapping.

Next, we move to brainstorming, where the students determine areas of interest for the coming year. These areas include specific projects, as well as more-general focus groups. An example of the latter is the spiritual focus group that enlivens faith community with morning prayer, spiritual sayings posted throughout the building, and more.

At the end of the day, students commit to work on specific tasks in each of the three areas: theology, spirituality, and service. Students also shoulder responsibility for helping faith community grow at O'Gorman by making a personal challenge during the closing prayer service. These challenges are often simple, such as, "I will smile at people in the hall, even if I don't know them well." Sometimes they are more serious, like the student who promised to forgive a hurt that seemed unforgivable. Some seventy-five students joined the Campus Ministry Team this fall, up from forty-three last year.

As we moved into the brainstorming piece of the retreat this fall, the moment arrived to introduce the students to the Berakhah House project. It is fair to say that many of our students have never held a shovel (maybe a snow shovel), planted a plant, or pushed a wheelbarrow. It is also probably fair to say that none of them ever laid a brick. Along with these obstacles was the question of AIDS. Although in the past students had been generous during our food drive, a portion of which was distributed to the Berakhah House, I wondered how they would feel about working an eight-hour day there--a Saturday, not a day off school--and eating lunch there.

The students were amazingly supportive of the project. Some twenty-five of them chose it as their first interest area on their commitment sheets.

Know-How, Materials, Funding

Being disarmed by Sister Esther and receiving the students' approval was one thing. Know-how, materials, and funding were another. We needed money, the advice and equipment that only a landscape architect could supply, and lots of bricks and sand. By now, I was feeling a little like I had been upended by a prairie tornado and plopped down somewhere to figure it out.

But each time my reluctance placed an obstacle in front of the path, God provided. God provided Bill Hartmann. Bill had been in the background of my life since I moved to Sioux Falls twelve years ago. The things I knew about Bill were that he had great faith, he sang in the parish choir, and he ran a landscaping business called Bill's Garden. We had mutual friends, but I don't think Bill and I had ever really had a conversation. So I called him.

Bill is more humble, less reluctant, and uses fewer words than I do. Bill has a way of holding his chin in his right hand and cradling his right elbow in his left hand while he thinks. You don't interrupt him when he does this. It is hard work, and important decisions are being made.

We met at Berakhah House. Zach, the feisty black terrier who lives at Berakhah House, circled our feet. Sister Esther and I explained. Bill held his chin in his right hand. Bill agreed to supply shovels, wheelbarrows, sand, energy, know-how, and a supply list for bricks and edging. The project would take two Saturdays. Make a Difference Day was Saturday, 25 October. We would start on the Saturday before and finish on that day. Sister Esther handed me the grant application for Make a Difference Day. Bill handed me the supply list.

"Surely," I said to myself, "funding will be a huge obstacle." The woman at Wal-Mart was kind, but not encouraging, about the Make a Difference Day grant. There were many applicants already. Consistent with my approach thus far, I was reluctant to apply. The school administration felt the project was worthy, expressed hope that I would get as much outside funding as possible, and agreed to pay the balance.

We ordered the bricks from a local company. They were enthusiastic about the project and waived delivery fees. Two donations from partners in the company covered nearly a fourth of the outstanding costs. Still, the remaining $650 bill had me lying awake at night.

Students who had expressed interest in the project implemented the spirituality and theology pieces--prayer and education. Prayer backed up the effort, and students agreed to lead morning prayer for each of the work dates. It took very little education to build enthusiasm throughout the faith community. Some forty additional volunteers signed up for work shifts, including one parent. The students represented a real cross section of our community.

We had the crew. We had the materials. The woman at Wal-Mart called, wanting to know where my application for the grant was. Somewhat embarrassed, I explained that I had not applied because she had said so many were seeking funding. She encouraged me to get my application in that day, the closing date, because many of the applicants did not qualify. In the end, we received a $250 grant from Wal-Mart.

Strangest of all was a windfall $500 community grant given by Sam's Club at the same time. (Sister Esther and I still don't know for sure how this money came our way.) The project was now completely funded. Another obstacle bites the dust. God is a persistent God.

The Interplay

The two days that we worked at Berakhah House were a perfect interplay of theology, spirituality, and service. Though South Dakota has had an unusually warm late-fall this year, a seasonal cold snap prevailed both Saturdays. We could see our petitions hang in the cold morning air as we began each of the days with prayer. Our hearts were warmed by the words of one student as we huddled in the cold and she prayed for all who were homeless on that frigid morning.

Wheelbarrow loads of sod, bricks, and dirt crisscrossed the yard. The damp earth peeled up with the resistance of cooling wax as we struggled to carve the six-inch trough for the sand bed. One of the residents critiqued and encouraged. Zach circled our feet. The hard work warmed our bodies, as did Sister Esther's hot chocolate. On every work crew--twenty-five the first day, two groups of twenty the second day--there were at least two self-appointed merrymakers who kept the laughter rolling at a steady pitch.

Over a warm lunch inside, Sister Esther educated our minds. Her twenty-five years as an instructor of nursing in a college program were evident as she told us how Berakhah House came to be, why the need for it existed, what we could do to help, and how to prevent AIDS in our lives. The students were spellbound by this small wizard and her words. Zach circled our feet, and I checked mine for ruby slippers.

When the final bricks were laid, the final coat of sand fill swept into place, and the last shovel collected, out came the wheelchairs. Exuberant workers test drove up and down the path, rejoicing in their accomplishment. And I thought of all the obstacles God had overcome, and of all the courage God had provided. And I was grateful.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the young men who helped with the project stopped me in the hall. "How's it going, Mrs. vanB?" he said. "You know, I'm thinking about being a bricklayer this summer."

Clare vanBrandwijk is a member of the Campus Ministry team and a religion teacher at O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she lives with her three children. She has written articles and prayer services for a variety of publications and has illustrated several books. She has a master's degree in pastoral ministry from Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.

Acknowledgments

Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published April 1, 2000.