Hands-on learning about Catholic social teaching


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Gerhard Luebers gently pushed a litter of stray kittens off his lap, grabbed his cane and got up to peek outside through the front door of his camper. The morning sun gleamed off the Des Moines River as heavy drops of rain began to fall. He looked at the five high school-aged boys who had just arrived to chop down brush and pick up debris from where his double-wide trailer home once stood.

Lindsay Steele
Gerhard Luebers, a member of St. Boniface-Farmington, watches Catholics in Action participants Joseph Hummel, Wyatt Hellman and Josh Barr clear brush and debris June 26 from the area in which his double-wide trailer once stood. The 84-year old widower’s trailer recently burned to the ground and he has been living in his camper since then.

“Don’t get wet,” said the 84-year-old widower, who has been living in the camper ever since his trailer burned to the ground in a house fire. “No use getting wet and sick!”

“It wasn’t supposed to rain until 1 p.m.,” commented site manager Mike Linnenbrink, youth minister for a cluster of parishes in southeast Iowa.


One of the boys, Joseph Hummel, asked if anyone had a plastic bag. He promptly twisted it around his head to make a waterproof turban as he and the other youths swiftly got to work.

The rain may have been unpleasant, but the boys figured it was worth sparing a few hours to make daily life more comfortable for Luebers, a member of St. Boniface in nearby Farmington.
“It’s not my first mission trip having a little rough weather,” said Joseph, a member of St. Mary Parish in West Point. “We knew it was for a good cause, so it was all worth it.”

At Catholics in Action (CIA) June 24-27, 21 high school-aged youths and 10 adults headed to the Keokuk Deanery in the southeastern tip of the state to participate in the Diocese of Davenport’s annual service learning program. For four days, the youths and adults spent time doing service work, growing in faith and fellowship, and learning more about Catholic social teaching.

Participants took part in a variety of projects. For their first service endeavor, the group went to Fort Madison’s River View Park to clean up the driftwood that constantly washes up and clutters the shoreline. “There were some huge logs,” teen Emma Harrington of Grinnell said with a laugh. Moving some of the larger logs took teamwork, both in labor and in problem-solving. She recalled the group’s determination in removing a particularly large, partially submerged log. Spiritual director Father Thom Hennen ascended a rock near the log and offered encouragement — and comic relief — by pretending to part the water, Red Sea-style. Emma and a few other girls decided to “sacrifice their shoes” by getting into the water to help push out the log. “We had a few scratches, but once we got it out it was triumph!”

The next two days saw the youths and adults break into small groups to serve in a variety of locations, from cemeteries to animal shelters to a Habitat for Humanity home build for CIA prayer director Trevor Pullinger.

Holy Trinity Junior/Senior High School in Fort Madison served as home base, with Fr. Hennen providing daily Mass and Pullinger leading prayers and offering lessons on consolation and desolation. Each night, guest speakers spoke on different aspects of mental health and emotional well-being. A personal witness story on eating disorders hit home for a number of students. “I appreciate someone sharing their story with us,” said teen Skyla Phillips of St. Mary in Oskaloosa. “It was very emotional and could not have been easy to share that part of her life with us.” Talks on conflict management, positive self-image and mental health at the state level also resonated with the youths, as did a tour of the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.

The teens relished the opportunity to experience CIA as a group and make new friends along the way. “These are other people, like you, who want to help people,” Emma Harrington said. “It shows that you aren’t alone.”

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