I first heard about the things the SCJs are doing in Mississippi when Lois Harrison, the Volunteer Coordinator for Sacred Heart Southern Missions, came to Chicago to give a First Friday reflection. She talked about Dehon Village, the HIV/AIDs ministry, the food pantry, and of course, the number of parishes that they run. After listening to all of this I asked Br. Duane, my formation director, if I could go to Mississippi and experience some of these things for myself. I knew this would be a place where I would be able to look back and say that I truly learned something from my time there.
Most of my time working at Sacred Heart Southern Missions was spent with Sr. Betteann helping with the HIV/AIDs ministry. We spent a lot of time traveling in Sr. Betteann’s car. We were either going to Memphis to pick up food from the food pantry run by Friends for Life, or we were running to someone’s house to drop something off for them and seeing if they needed anything. We would stay for a little and they would talk with Sr. Betteann about their kids or their job and all the things going on in their lives. I was amazed at how Sr. Betteann was able to talk to each person and you would think they were the only person she works with, she knew each of these people and cared for them. But even more so I was amazed by her energy. Here was this 78-year-old nun who was constantly on the move, and when she wasn’t out of the office she was getting paperwork ready for people to fill out when they came to see her, she was putting food in bags for people, she was always answering her phone or writing an email. It was constant movement but it didn’t seem to faze her at all.
When I wasn’t with Sr. Betteann I was sent by Lois to work on a few projects. The one that sticks out the most in my mind was working at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Riley. The Riley’s had no flooring in their entire house, it was just the concrete from the foundation, and their walls were just drywall. I assisted one of the other volunteers in laying down wood flooring in the kitchen. Unfortunately they had tried to put in a floor before I got there but ran out of flooring and couldn’t find any that matched what was already down. So we had to rip up what was already there, and then try and put down the new stuff. It was hard at first because the boards refused to snap into place, but eventually things got easier as we got more of it laid down.
But we didn’t just lay down flooring while we were there. We talked to the Rileys during lunch and they would come in and see if we needed anything to drink, and during those few days we got to know a little bit about them and their struggles. When we finished the kitchen floor Mrs. Riley said that the kitchen “was now their favorite room in the house” and that just having a floor in that one small part of the house made it feel more like a home than house. Unfortunately I had to leave Mississippi before the rest of the floors in the house were put in; however I did email Lois and she told me that the Rileys now have flooring in every room in the house as well as baseboards around the entire house.
While most of my days were spent working at Sacred Heart Southern Missions, the rest of the time I spent getting to know the SCJ community down there. What amazed me about the SCJ community in Mississippi wasn’t that they took care of six parishes, although that was impressive, it was that they were able to connect with the people in each parish and form relationships with them even though they weren’t the “permanent pastor.” Each of them was able to go and say Mass at any one of the different parishes and at the end of Mass talk to the people as if they were the permanent pastor and didn’t have another Mass at another parish where they would do the exact same thing. They knew people’s names and were able to joke with them and really connect with them.
I truly did learn something from my time in Mississippi; I learned what ministry really is. Ministry isn’t just about going and helping people and then when you’re done, moving on the next project. Ministry is about making connections with people, talking with them, and learning about and from them. It’s about showing people that you truly do care about their situation and you want to be able to help as much as you can, even if it’s just listening. I truly am thankful to all the SCJs, and all the people at Sacred Heart Southern Missions who really made my time down in Mississippi so enjoyable, and I can’t wait until I’m able to go back.
-Justin Krenke, SCJ candidate