By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Ah, summer — school’s out! Time for lazy days and cool swimming pools. Unless you’re one of six seminarians who are continuing their education learning about poverty this summer. The young men, seminarians for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, are working at Bishop Sullivan Center, learning to preach the love of Christ to the poor by doing, not speaking.
Each week, they will mow lawns for the elderly and handicapped poor, install air conditioners, sack groceries in the food pantries at Bishop Sullivan Center and St. James Place, serve dinners at St. James Place Community Kitchen, work with people looking for work, build ramps for the handicapped and do it all with a smile. The money they earn will help pay their tuition in the fall.
Oh, there’s classroom work also. The seminarians are all being tutored in Spanish four hours a day, depending on their work schedules and their knowledge of the language. Made possible by a grant from the Catherin B. Merrill Foundation, the Spanish classes are geared toward enabling the seminarians to better serve the increasing number of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the diocese after ordination.
Levi Cochenour, who hails from the Hannibal, Mo., area, is in his second year of pre-theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. This is his second summer working for Bishop Sullivan Center. Last year he did more food pantry work and installed air conditioners for the center’s Project Elder Cool.
“I’m doing primarily yard and food pantry work this summer,” he said. Levi said the work is much more than physical labor. “For me, this is human formation. Yeah, it’s physical labor and right now it’s hot, but the experience of dealing with different people with different needs let’s you figure out where you need to improve yourself.”
He works as part of a three-man crew, mowing grass, trimming bushes and around trees, and using leaf blowers to clean up the clippings.
“We have to be conscious of both aesthetics and safety for the elderly and infirm,” he said. “If we left clippings on the steps or walkway, and they got wet, they could be slippery.”
That morning, the crew had been assigned a property in old Northeast Kansas City, and just as they were finishing up, the homeowner next door asked if they could do her yard also. Of course!
“This is like the Benedictine motto, ora et labora, pray and work,” Levi said. “Praise God in the simplest tasks. You don’t really see the spiritual side when you’re working like this and sweating, but it’s there.”
Meanwhile, Eric Schneider, Sam Geringer and Jonathan Davis have been tutored in Spanish back at Bishop Sullivan Center. A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands on the table in front on the seminarians, and their instructor, Ivette D La Paz, explains the symbolism of the flowers on her cloak and gown, asks questions and discusses the seminarians’ responses in brisk Spanish.
Eric, a member of Christ the King parish in Kansas City, will be studying Theology III at Josephinium Pontifical College in Columbus, Ohio, this fall.
“This summer I’ve been installing air conditioners, and working in the food pantries,” he said during a break from the Spanish class. “I will also be serving dinners at St. James Place several nights.”
Jonathan will begin his second year of pre-theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary this fall. The St. Therese north parishioner has been working on his Spanish and taking philosophy courses online. A Cistercian monk from Vietnam who has been studying English at Holy Apostles is spending the summer with Jonathan and his family in Parkville. Jonathan drives him around, and learns something about life in Vietnam. He focuses on Spanish now, however, and hopes to increase his language skills.
“I want to be able to help more people after I become a priest,” he said. “And Father Joe Cisetti, pastor of St. Therese, said often that ‘you won’t have to hunt for Hispanic ministries, it’ll find you.’”
Eric agreed, “There’s a big need in this diocese for priests who can speak Spanish,” he said, “especially Hispanic immigrants who have just arrived.”
Sam Geringer has installed air conditioners, done several stints at the front desk at St. James Place, as well as sacked groceries and other food pantry work at St. James and at Bishop Sullivan Center. The St. George, Odessa, parishioner will enter his fourth year at Conception Seminary College this fall.
He is glad of the experiences he has had and will have with Bishop Sullivan Center. “The experience of working with the poor and with people who serve the poor — seeing that side of what the Catholic Church does … incredible.”
David Chunn calls himself “the old man” of the seminarian group. The St. Rose of Lima, Savannah, parishioner, is a junior at Conception Seminary College. Having served many years in the Marines following a brief time at Conception, and spent a year with the Redemptorist Fathers before deciding to re-enroll at Conception, the 37 year old seminarian enjoys helping others this summer.
Wearing a t-shirt that announced he’s an “Air Conditioning Guy,” David Chunn prepared to load a window unit into the back of a van parked near the center’s side entrance. The outdoor temperature was already nearing 100 degrees, and it was still just mid-morning.
David and Vincent, a Bishop Sullivan Center staff member who installs Project Elder Cool air conditioners, hustled the window unit into the van and drove to the home of an older woman whose air conditioner wasn’t working. She had been sleeping in the living room where two fans were running. Despite the fans, the room’s temperature was creeping toward uncomfortable.
The Air Conditioning Guys installed the new unit quickly, duct taping foam strips around the edges of the window to help keep the heat outside, and turned it on. By the time they left to go to the next appointment, the front rooms of the house were already noticeably cooler.
The thanks the Guys received from the grateful homeowner were warm, however.
Their next appointment took David and Vincent to an apartment where a woman had moved in two weeks earlier. A fan was her sole piece of furniture. The existing air conditioner was broken. It took some muscle to loosen a security bolt that kept the window sash from being raised, but between the two men, they succeeded. Again they quickly removed the old unit, installed the new one and sealed it with foam and duct tape.
As they were leaving, David thought aloud about what he was doing. “Anytime you’re out there doing something for others,” he said, “you’re being Catholic. That’s really what Catholicism is. Being a missionary, whether it’s around the world or here at home is important.
Reaching outside our comfortable bubbles only improves who we are.”
Leonard Gicheru, a native of Kenya who will begin his third year of Theology at Holy Apostles Seminary this fall, wanted an opportunity to experience serving the poor and underserved.
“Last year I was working as a nurse’s aide in a retirement home and I wanted something more. I requested an experience with Bishop Sullivan Center and worked for about three weeks in the food pantry,” Leonard said. “When the opportunity opened again this summer,
I requested to do it again.” This summer is crowded with mowing lawns, working in the food panties at Bishop Sullivan Center and St. James Place, serving meals at St. James Community Kitchen and installing air conditioners for Project Elder Cool.
Leonard has spent the past three summers living in North Kansas City, and enjoys learning new neighborhoods and meeting new people.
“I think the priesthood is service, service to God and his people, and that means giving time to others, rather than to myself. It exercises the best of me, to serve other people.”
He was working that morning with Jared Samson, who this fall will enter St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb., where he plans to spend the next eight years studying Philosophy and Theology, and working towards his ordination.
Jared said he felt the call to the priesthood at an early age, and is looking forward to the years of study and formation. This summer he is working at Bishop Sullivan Center installing air conditioners, working in the food pantries and community kitchen, mowing lawns and studying Spanish.
“It’s good to meet different people and see their needs,” he said. “I think an important part of being a priest is to be open to serving others and getting the job done. You have to make time for others, set aside time to listen and talk to them. It’s part of growing up.”
With that, he and Leonard got in the van and drove away to install another air conditioner.