I still wear the t-shirt to the gym, although it’s looking a bit ragged. If you want a “free” t-shirt you should accompany a youth group on a mission trip somewhere. It’s the only ministry that I have participated in where a mandatory part of the deal is a t-shirt.
This particular shirt is from a work camp experience in eastern Nebraska back in 2014. About 350 teenagers from five different states descended on the small town of Fremont, Nebraska, just outside Omaha. They were divided up into work groups of five or six, and after morning Mass these work groups were sent out into the community to help locals with chores around their property. In the evening, after supper, there was a various faith-focused entertainment of the young and mostly loud variety.
On the first morning, because I was unknown to the camp leaders, they assigned me to be the responsible adult leader of five teens. We rounded up work supplies and headed to the home of an elderly couple who had a long list of chores that they just weren’t capable of doing anymore. My group proved to be hard workers.
The camp was five days and we spent four and a half of those days painting the entire exterior of the house; we mowed the lawn; trimmed the hedges, and weeded the flower beds. I have to admit that the kids did a great job at every task they tackled.
Every day, our hosts invited us to sit in the shade and they served us lemonade and sandwiches. We sat and talked with them and heard all about how they and their five children had made a home in that house for forty years. Each day they opened up to more and more as they shared the stories of their lives with us.
As we munched our sandwiches on the final day we had exhausted the chore list and had even taken care of a few additional odds and ends. I looked at my watch: 12:15 and the bus wasn’t supposed to pick us up for nearly five more hours. Hmmm. I placed a call to the camp leaders. “Yes”, they said, “We can send a bus out there to take you to Ray’s house. He has a clogged gutter.”
And so the bus dropped us off at Ray’s house and pulled away. I knocked on the front door. An elderly man, cracked open the door cautiously. “Can I help you?” “I am Deacon Dan Wagnitz and this is my work crew from Catholic Heart Work Camp. We’re here to help you with a clogged gutter.” The door opened wider. He pointed straight up over the door. Clogged gutter is right there. Ladder is in the garage; it’s not locked.” The door closed.
The camp didn’t allow minors on ladders, so one of the boys fetched the ladder. I climbed up and observed that the gutter was indeed filled with water. But it was also full of leaves from last fall. I literally grabbed one handful of leaves that clogged the down spout and the rainwater gushed out. Ten minutes later we had all of the leaves also cleaned out of the gutter and bagged up. Our main job has taken just ten minutes and bus wouldn’t be back for four hours. Hmmm.
I knocked on the door. Ray opened the door. “Do you have anything else? I asked. “We have the gutter all cleaned out.” “No, not really.” One of the boys noted that the lawn was a bit long, and after some hesitation, Ray offered that there was a mower in the garage. One set to work on the small lawn. I figured it wouldn’t take him more than 30 minutes. A couple of the girls set about weeding the front flowers. The other two boys raked up the grass clippings. They were all too efficient and we gathered in the driveway a little before 2:00. I was scratching my head with how we were going to use the remaining two hours. Ray opened the side door wide. “Come on in, I have something for you guys.” He waved us in emphatically. Now it was our turn to be a bit timid, but he herded us all inside and sat us around his kitchen table. There was a pitcher of lemonade on the table with glasses; I assumed that was what he invited us in for. “I have something for you”, he repeated and he headed down the hall.
He came back in a few minutes. “I made these for you.” Ray held out both hands; hand-tied cord rosaries were looped around his outstretched hands. “I hoped that they would be able to send somebody. They said I signed up kinda late, and they weren’t sure you would get to me. But I tied these for you anyway – just in case.” “You made these?” one of the kids questioned. “You made these for us?” “Cool”.
It was cool. Ray handed each of us a rosary. He had brought out a spool of cord and he showed the kids how to tie some of the knots. After a glass of lemonade, we moved into the living room. He went to each picture on the wall and introduced us. First, there was Ruth, his wife who had died ten years ago from cancer. Then he introduced us to his three children, two now long grown, married and moved to other states. The youngest had died at just three from pneumonia. He brought out albums of black and white pictures of the early years and walked us through all of the picnics, family vacations, weddings and funerals. He even brought out the picture of his platoon fresh from boot camp during WWII. Ray pointed out the ones who didn’t make it home with a tear in the corner of his eye.
The next thing I knew the bus was parked out front, honking its horn. I glanced at my watch: 4:20. I couldn’t believe how fast that two hours went by. We each thanked Ray again for the rosaries, and we each gave him a hug good-bye. As we boarded the bus and looked out the window we saw Ray smiling and waving from the front picture window. We all waved back as we pulled away.
As we were headed back to base I told them how proud I was of the jobs that they had done. They accomplished a ton of work. But the most important work they did was not working at all. It was that last two hours they spent with Ray. I could tell by their smiles that in their hearts they already knew that.