By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — As summer’s heat kicks in, the thought of flowing water brings welcome thoughts of refreshment. But to the high school and college-age members of Annunciation Parish in Kearney the notion of flowing water is more than cooling, it’s part of their faith: the River of God.
Members of the parish youth group participate in two service mission trips each year — one out of state, and the other in the Kansas City area. Elizabeth Madeo, Annunciation Parish’s Children and Youth Minister, described the local mission trip as “helping people in need in our own back yard.”
For five days, May 30-June 3, 25 young people, along with their chaperones, volunteered at Emmanuel’s Community Center and St. James food pantry in Midtown, Synergy Services in the Northland and Our Lady of Guadalupe School on the Westside. They talked to people who help others on a daily basis, including Lynda Callon, CEO/Executive Director of the Westside Community Action Network. The young people also planted a garden at Emmanuel’s Community Center and participated in community clean up efforts in various locations. By day they worked and prayed together, by night they slept in the parish hall/gym across the street from Sacred Heart-Guadalupe Church.
They totally immersed themselves in prayer and service during the week: no cell phones, no iPods or Ipads, no shaving or makeup. All dressed alike in shorts and T-shirts. As Madeo said, “The idea is for these kids to develop and nurture servant hearts all year long, not just for five days.”
For mission trip director Sara Page, a sophomore at Colorado State University, this was her 10th mission trip with Annunciation’s youth group. She served as assistant director last year. She explained the River of God theme of this year’s mission trip.
“The River of God is an analogy for faith; it refers back to baptismal waters,” Sara said. “We never dry off from our baptism. Each day of this trip we pray together in water — first ankle-deep, then knee-deep, waist-high and finally, all-in. These stand for where we are in our faith.”
She wrote a devotional handbook/journal to help the volunteers focus on prayer and building a relationship with God. In it she observed, “Water is an element of great complexity. It gives us the opportunity to experience something we never have before. As much fun as water can be, it must also be handled with a great deal of caution. The same element that contributes to our survival can also kill us. This reality provides many reasons for fear and distrust. Our relationship with God can be the same way. He is beyond our understanding, and can perform miracles outside of our wildest dreams. The Lord has a perfect plan for us if we are willing to let Him lay it out. This week God has a fantastic plan for you. Are you going to let Him have control, or do you have your own expectations?”
Sara said, “The water’s current affects your path. God will take you on His path, the one He has for us, if you trust Him enough to pick up your feet.”
The service days were ordered: 8 a.m., silent prayer taken from Sara’s “devos” book; 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., service and lunch; 3 – 5 p.m., showers and free time; 5 – 7 p.m., dinner; 7 – 9 p.m., activities that included a walk in Loose Park, a church tour or going to the Nelson-Atkins Museum Reflecting Pool; 9 -11 p.m., processing the day’s activities, youth group meeting and sharing time and 11 p.m., bed.
“There’s lots of singing, praying and community building,” Madeo said.
Wednesday of their week of service in Kansas City: Four young people were busy in the Emmanuel’s Community Center food pantry, unloading boxes and organizing shelves. They were part of the senior crew, high school seniors and recent graduates who participate in the youth group’s service mission trips.
“The shelves were all jumbled up,” said Paul Nurse, 18. “We sorted and organized the shelves so it would be more accessible to the people who come here for food.”
Paul has been a member of the youth group since middle school. He said he remains an active member because of the feeling it gives him.
“It leaves you on fire for God,” he said. “The mission trips are eye opening, especially when the need is so close to home.”
Sara chimed in, “Experiencing Christ like this, it stays with us. He’s in the people we meet and serve, and that affects our daily choices.”
As the teenagers broke down boxes to take to a recycling center, they discussed what they would do if they were suddenly gifted with $1 million. Sara’s younger sister Katie, 18, looked around and said, “I’d give it to the person who owns this community center.”
Paul: “I would give it to people on the street.”
Emily Beasley, 18, thought for a moment. “I’d keep enough to pay for college and give the rest of it away.”
One of the first activities of the mission trip was a poverty simulation. Young people were randomly divided into rich, poor and in between. The “rich” ate pizza on a cloth covered table served by a chaperone in a tie and an apron. The “poor” ate rice on the floor. But there were more differences. The “poor” were not allowed showers for the first few days. And they could not trade places with a “rich” person.
Kat Barrow, 18, said, “You see, there’s a connection, a solidarity. We see a lot of similarities between the people we serve and ourselves.”
Paul added, “This service is not for us so we feel good about ourselves. It’s for the people we serve. And the bottom line is that sometimes we get more out of it than the people we serve do.”
Sara said, “It’s all about accountability. When you find yourself around Christ-like people, you find yourself being more like them.”
Both Annunciation in Kearney and Kansas City’s Sacred Heart-Guadalupe parishes are under the pastoral and administrative direction of the Society of the Precious Blood. Father Aloys Ebach, CPPS, pastor of Sacred Heart –Guadalupe Parish, was involved in the planning part of the mission trip, Madeo said. Several of their meals were provided by women of Sacred Heart Parish.
The Annunciation youth group was joined at Emmanuel’s Community Center by Sean Fitzgerald, a Precious Blood volunteer. He and other young adults in the volunteer program are involved in a 6-month commitment of service and immersion in the life of Kansas City’s West Side. The program is geared toward lay men and women interested in combining living in community, sharing their Catholic faith and participating in community service.
By the end of the week, the young people had experienced the River of God in several forms. They had prayed standing in a bucket of water. They had shared thoughts and ideas of faith and how a chance meeting with someone could strengthen that faith. And that sometimes little things, like somebody bringing a donation to a food pantry, can change an attitude.
Sara wrote in the “devos” booklet, “… the River of God is graduated. The Lord knows what we can handle and what we cannot, and does not force us to jump into a rushing river. He spends time teaching us, and allowing us to adjust. When the water rises above our head however, we must trust that God has prepared us. When we are forced to swim, we are no longer under our own control. We no longer have an influence on the river, but it has a great influence on us. If you were to fight against this kind of river, you would exhaust yourself, or possibly even drown. Your best bet is to yield to the strength of the river and travel where it leads.”
She suggested the volunteers read Ezekiel 47:9. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. “Why is it so scary to be a part of a river that brings such incredible life? Though the river of God may overwhelm you at times, but it will always surround, uphold, carry, and transport and refresh you. Everywhere this river goes it brings life.”
Annunciation Parish’s Youth Ministry mission trips have a benefit besides the service provided to people in need, Madeo said. “You look at people, at yourself and the world differently after a mission trip, whether it’s across the world or across town,” she said. “My hope is that the lens through which young people see themselves and others changes. God is the only one who can change hearts, but you know, once your eyes are open, you are forever changed. It’s always there, always in you, if you have the courage and strength to act on it.”