By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
LEE’S SUMMIT — For the last 18 years, Our Lady of the Presentation School has hosted a Respect Life Education Day for seventh and eighth graders from Presentation, Nativity of Mary in Independence, St. John LaLande in Blue Springs and St. John Francis Regis schools.
At the very beginning of the morning-long program, the students were given a taste of what it means to respect life. In his opening prayer, Father Tom Holder, pastor, said that “the crucifixion reminds us to give our lives to others” in service, in respecting the dignity of life.
Master of Ceremonies Matt Wheeler introduced the first speaker, Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Berta Sailer, co-founder and assistant director of Operation Breakthrough. Operation Breakthrough, founded by Sisters Berta and Corita Bussanmas in 1991, offers day care and education to children of the working poor. It is a nationally accredited, not-for -profit corporation in midtown Kansas City.
She explained that the lives of the children at Operation Breakthrough are very different from the lives of the students listening to her. She showed a video of the children, who are cared for, taught the love of reading and art, provided with health and dental care, in a warm, loving environment.
She pointed out that some of the children, and their mother or parents, are homeless, living in the woods near the Kansas City Zoo or sleeping in a bus stop near the Power and Light District, because the police cruise by regularly and they feel safe.
“Our families try very hard,” Sister Berta said. She told of a single mom, living without heat or electricity cooked every night, rain or shine, on an outdoor grill. The hard part, the mom told Sister Berta, was heating bathwater for her children on the grill.
Sister Berta told the students that to really respect life, changes are necessary. “The right to life extends to having food to eat every night.” As a society, people don’t care, she said, but individually they do.
She added that to be eligible for food stamps, a person must be working. However, even making only minimum wage means they earn too much for be eligible for food stamps.
If a puppy is homeless, a loving home is quickly found, Sister Berta said. But a homeless child often stays homeless.
She concluded by telling the students that she is a foster parent for a three-year old boy, who had watched his father kick his sister in the head. She said she’ll never forget driving by a fire station with the boy in his car seat and hearing him say, “’If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.’ If I grow up, not when I grow up.”
The group of students then broke into groups to attend other presentations.
In a nearby room, Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, waited for students to arrive.
Culp, who worked with Missouri Right to Life for almost two decades, served as former president of MRL and later as associate director of education fort the Kansas Catholic Conference, before joining Kansans for Life in 2000.
For many people, the subject of respecting life means the lives of unborn children. Culp spoke on the issue of euthanasia at the other end of the life spectrum, old age or disability.
Euthanasia doesn’t mean death with dignity. Euthanasia does not respect life, Culp said. It is a means to get rid of people. She spoke briefly about Nancy Cruzan, a young woman left in a vegetative state following a car accident in 1983. The case was the centerpiece in a bitter debate on a family’s right to withdraw food and water and the feeding tube that kept her alive to bring about the death of an incapacitated family member. In 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the family had that right. It took 12 days for Cruzan to die. Her father committed suicide six months later.
The Christian world view is so important, especially today, Culp said. “The message of the crucifix is redemptive — sometimes you have to do things that are hard in order to save others.” Like caring for family members who can’t care for themselves.
In the gymnasium, several groups and organizations had set up posters and displays to draw student attention, and when they gathered at a display, talk about their service or program. As each new group arrived, they found representatives of Rachel House, Alexandra’s House, Birthright, Mothers Refuge, Spiritual Adoption, Harvesters, United Way, Bishop Sullivan Center, Sisters in Jesus the Lord, Western Missourians Against the Death Penalty, Catholic Charities TurnAround Program, World Apostolate of Fatima and others. There were also cookies and snacks available.
In another room students listened closely to Sara Faught and Angela Zhaner Shipley from Cahtolic Charities working in services for young families and adoption. Faught, a Family Development Specialist works with families wanting to place an infant for adoption or adopt an infant. Shipley has her masters in Social Work and serves as Catholic Charities Birthparent Coordinator for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. She works with moms and families who have decided to parent their child.
The two gave a brief history of adoption in the diocese, dating back to the Orphan Trains in the 1870s and Father Bernard Donnelly’s orphanage in 1879.
Stories of adoptions, both open and closed, were told. They made it very clear, “a child is not given up for adoption, he or she is placed in a better situation. And that takes love.”
There are two parts to every adoption, the women said. The head says it would be best for the baby. When the baby is born the heart takes over, then it becomes a hard decision.
In the church, Khristie Stamper of Catholic Charites TurnAround Program spoke to the students about the program that helps former prison inmates reintegrate into society. She has been a case manager and now works as a community outreach specialist. With TurnAround, former inmates get a hand up with food and clothing assistance, housing and employment.
At the end of the morning, the seventh and eighth graders gathered again in the church. Father Richard Rocha, Director of Vocations for the diocese, talked to them about vocations.
Vocation means call, he said. All Christian vocations are a call to holiness, whether it’s to the priesthood or religious life, to marriage and family or to the consecrated single life.
He asked the kids what were their aspirations and he received a lot of different answers — engineer, doctor, graphic designer, NBA player, surgeon, professional athlete and baker. He told them he had wanted to play football and coach it, and he served 10 years as a high school football coach and four years as a college level coach. But something was missing. He found it as a priest.
Priests, he said have wonderful opportunities to be with families at the most important times of their lives. “A priest can be with a mom and dad bringing their newborn for baptism; later that day talk to a couple about planning their wedding; later that day hear a group confession; later that day be with a family whose teenager has been in a bad car wreck; and later that day be at grandma’s bedside watching her die. It’s awesome being a priest: We can go through in one day what most people go through in a lifetime.”
How is a vocation to the priesthood a way of respecting life? In order to respect life in all its stages, he said, we have to maintain connections to God. He’s the one who shows us how to love. Priests are one connection to God.
Respect Life Education Day concluded with a 10 minute adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As students exited the church you could see a jumble of thoughts going through their heads, about stages of life, about respect for all those stages and, about the upcoming weekend.