By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
LEE’S SUMMIT — For almost 20 years, middle school students from Nativity of Mary, St. John LaLande, and St. John Francis Regis schools have spent a morning at Our Lady of the Presentation School learning about ministries and local people who Respect Life with speakers and exhibits of various ministries dedicated to respecting life.
Held this year on Feb. 19, Respect Life Education Day speakers included David Armstrong and Dave Freeman of Harvesters, prison minister Rodrigo Gonzales, Peer Mentoring students from Archbishop O’Hara High School, Sidewalk counselor Judy Duggendorf and Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Bishop James V. Johnston. Students also had the opportunity to learn about other life ministries by visiting exhibits in the school gymnasium.
Before breaking into groups to hear the speakers, the students gathered in the church for a welcoming by Master of Ceremonies Matt Wheeler and a prayer with Father Tom Holder, pastor of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish.
Wheeler’s brief talk focused on the Corporal Works of Mercy in this Jubilee Year of Mercy: Feed the Hungry; Give Drink to the Thirsty; Clothe the Naked; Welcome the Stranger; Visit the Sick; Visit the Imprisoned, and Bury the Dead.
He suggested seeing the Big Dipper constellation a little differently. Think of it as an image of Jesus, pouring himself out for us, he said.
Harvesters volunteer David Armstrong explained what the region’s only food bank does and whom it serves.
Founded in 1979, Harvesters serves a 26-county area in northwestern Missouri and northeastern Kansas, including Kansas City and Topeka. In the Kansas City area, he said, Harvesters moves more than 4 million pounds of food a month or about 40 million meals annually to feed the hungry. Harvesters transports and distributes food and related household products, including cleaning supplies, to more than 620 not-for-profit agencies including emergency food pantries, community kitchens, homeless shelters and children’s homes.
Almost half of the people served by Harvesters are seniors and children. Armstrong said that 1 in 5 children nationwide are food insecure, in other words they don’t know when their next meal will be or where it will come from.
Harvesters, a Feeding America affiliate, was recognized as Food Bank of the Year in 2011. Including the students with a wave of his arm, Armstrong said, “Together, we can solve hunger!”
Dave Freeman, who came to Harvesters from AmeriCorps, said, “Hey, it’s pretty cool. It’s a lot of fun, helping others!”
Sidewalk Counseling near Planned Parenthood clinics, is a diocesan program to “try and get the girls, women, and whoever is with them, to stop, talk and listen to alternatives” to abortion, according to Judy Duggendorf.
Duggendorf has been involved in pro-life ministries for many years. After homeschooling her five children through eighth grade, she wanted a new ministry. Several years ago she became interested in training for sidewalk counseling. In the past two years, she has participated in “three known saves,” and stays in contact with the mothers.
She shared “the weird microcosm” of standing on the sidewalk from 6:30 – 8:30 a.m., Saturday mornings outside Planned Parenthood, given specific places to stand, and being yelled at by passersby and security staff. Duggendorf explained that she and other sidewalk counselors try to give the girls and women a more compassionate view than some might give; figure out an alternative choice, give them a rose, which perhaps had not happened before, and give them a smile, which maybe no one else had. She talked about some of her activities: counseling and prayer vigils; organizing and hosting baby showers for parents who choose life; starting parish prayer ministries for the unborn, their parents, for the conversion of abortion providers and for sidewalk volunteers, not to mention donating funds, clothes, furniture and other items for newborns and their parents.
“It is truly LIFE,” she said. “Even if no one stops, or listens, I’m standing there for Christ.”
Rodrigo Gonzales came to the U.S. as a teenager from Colombia, and now has been married for 26 years with three children and three dogs. He attended public schools, but grew in his faith after his 2010 Confirmation. Being pro-life has given Gonzales many new experiences, including introducing him to Prison Ministry and Father Ernie Gauthier. Gonzales has been visiting inmates regularly at the Jackson County Jail and sharing his faith with them for three years.
“To visit a prison is a Corporal Work of Mercy,” he began. “But it’s not like in the movies. Prisoners are there for a number of reasons, and anybody could find themselves in a similar situation. In a prisoner we see the Face of Jesus, as we talk to them about the love of God. We celebrate Mass, prayer and communion; it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to seek forgiveness.”
Celtic Center Options is a Peer Mentoring program for Archbishop O’Hara High School’s juniors and seniors. Students mentor and provide positive role models to students with special needs, including Autism, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder and various Learning Disabilities. Seven peer mentors described programs they’ve begun, such as the Celtic Café, a coffee bar and business Math class that teaches students real life experiences, including figuring purchases and making change. Currently, the Café has a balance of $75. Bishop Sullivan Center has received a donation of $50 from the Café, and the students plan to donate another $50 to the Center later this year.
Two seniors designed a Driver’s Ed course for students with special needs who might not have the opportunity to learn to drive. They raised $4,000 for a golf cart, and teach driving; give students the experience of driving, at 10 miles per hour in the school’s parking lot.
Peer mentoring helps teach patience, shows what love really is and, as one senior said, “When you judge someone on the basis of a diagnosis, you miss out on their abilities, beauties and love.”
In the gym, groups and organizations had set up displays to draw student attention, and talked 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, the World Apostolate of Fatima and others. Cookies and snacks were available.
Bishop Johnston gave the closing remarks. After telling a bit about himself, he asked them, “Do you love God?” To a resounding “YES!” he said, “OK, how do you show your love for God?” Hands waved in the air. “Follow in his footsteps.” “Obey his commandments.”
Then the bishop asked, “What is the fifth commandment?” He answered his own question: Thou shalt not kill, which also means thou shall respect life at all times.
He shared a memory about a classmate whose family had moved to Knoxville from another country and looked and spoke differently from the others. As a result he was bullied.
Middle schoolers can be involved in respecting life, he said, by protecting vulnerable students from bullying. The strong protect the weak.
“God will never go out of existence,” Bishop Johnston said, “we are made in the image and likeness of God with an immortal soul, so we also will never go out of existence. Our bodies will someday die, but at the end of the world we will rise again. Remember, to respect life means the strong protect the weak.”
Lots for the middle school students to consider over the weekend.