By Lori Keppler
Special to The Witness
ELKADER — How does a barn fit into the Emmaus journey? You can read the Scripture over and over, and you won’t find any reference. That is until you hear about the Walk the Walk mission that took place at the Emmaus Pastorate in northeast Iowa.
Tucked away in Clayton County, you’ll find between the hills a “post and beam” barn over 100 years old. It was completely renovated by Rick and Julie Dengler from Elkader to maintain its rustic environment and offer a place to gather. In mid-July, a core group of adults welcomed over 23 high school students to the Walk the Walk mission in which this beautiful barn served as home for three days and two nights.
This annual mission started about six years ago with an idea and the determination of Jamie Wingert of Elkader. She gathered a team and put together time for students to get dirty … get sweaty … get full. As the pastorate has grown so has the mission. This opportunity began as an event for St. Joseph Church in Elkader, but with the Emmaus pastorate growing, this year it was opened up to all five parishes.
Dick and Dianne Fette, veterans of the mission, welcomed old and new volunteers to help organize this year. Upon entering the beautiful barn, you may think of this as a place to get together to pray, reflect and enjoy some solitude as you would on a retreat. Dick points out, this is a mission, not a retreat. Students are expected to help with chores and the projects arranged ahead of time. Everyone pitches in because many hands make light work, and the idea is to help as many people and make the biggest impact in the short amount of time we have.
The impact isn’t just in the projects being done but in doing them together. As the pastorate continues to grow, parishioners need to look for areas to come together, get to know one another and find ways to work together to do God’s work. The impact also takes place with the students. Each year there are students that are hesitant and probably more encouraged by their parents than willing participants. By the end of the mission, the change in attitude is incredible. There were students that did not want to come that are already talking about coming back next year. While the leaders have much to do with that, it is only by the grace of God that their hearts are opened.
This year, the mission began with Mass as St. Mark Church in Edgewood on Sunday morning. The leaders and students were blessed and sent on their way to do God’s work. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” James 2:26. The first stop was pizza at St. Mary Church to get to know everyone and go over expectations for the mission. Once that was completed, the work began. The students were split into groups, and they headed out to different projects. One group headed to the Volga area to help someone with a cleanup and mulching project. The other group stayed back at St. Mary Church to paint in the RE center, wash windows and clean the church hall.
Everyone met up at the barn for supper. Food is always a concern for growing and working teenagers, but the generosity of the five parishes gave them an abundance to choose from. The extra generosity did not go to waste; it was shared with Mary Martha Meals and the local food pantries.
Day two was no less intense for participants. After 7 a.m. prayer on the porch and breakfast, everyone headed out to their projects. One group went to St. Joseph Church in Elkader to clean and serve as hospitality for a fellow classmate’s visitation service. The other group went to Founders Park in Elkader where they helped weed and clean the community area. They then headed to St. Joseph Cemetery to help with trimming.
One of the main events of the mission is the community meal. Upon registering, students are encouraged to look in their area to find someone that may like some company, need a friend or is going through a difficult time. They invite them to the community meal that is prepared by the students. This is no ordinary meal. Students learn how to make homemade rolls and grill the meat. After the meal, everyone cleans up so they can enjoy some downtime conversing with friends or playing games.
The third and final day began again with prayer on the porch at 7 a.m. Students were split up to go to St. Mark Cemetery to trim gravestones; others headed to St. Patrick Church for another painting project; and a small group headed to St. Olaf to volunteer for the food pantry. The day and the mission ended at St. Mark Church for a meal before sending everyone on their way.
While this may not sound like the typical journey to Emmaus, students found God in a different way during this time, and as they continue their own journey, this mission will serve as a reminder of how to recognize Jesus in the everyday tasks that you do to help others.
Keppler is a member of the Emmaus Pastorate, which includes parishes in Elkader, Edgewood, Strawberry Point, Colesburg and Volga.
High school students who were part of the latest Walk the Walk program socialize in the restored barn owned by Rick and Julie Dengler. (Contributed photos)