Ora et labora — that old concept, long associated with the Benedictines, of the correspondent value of work and prayer. One without the other certainly has great worth, but when the two are combined, it is possible for the Christian to change the world.

Advent may be right around the corner, but service experiences from this summer still resonate with teens and youth ministers from all over the archdiocese. Their destinations were varied — impoverished communities both in Wisconsin and far away, in rural mountain villages and in urban neighborhoods alike — and so was the work, trimming hedges, mopping floors, tutoring students.

But the goal was the same: serve others, yes, but with a service model that is rooted in the love of Christ, and consist of long days of manual labor that begin with Mass in the morning or conclude with prayer in the evening.

“There is a big difference between just offering our service and that intentionality that occurs when there’s a faith aspect,” said Emily Schaefer, youth minister at St. Robert and Holy Family parishes. “Especially when we start with Mass in the morning, it just sets a tone to be able to go out and be Christ’s hands and feet. The service [we give] has a different element.”

For Schaefer and the 37 teens who accompanied her (along with eight other adult chaperones) to Kansas City for a week in July, that service took on a few different forms. The trip was organized through Catholic Heart Workcamp, which gathered more than 200 individuals from all around the Midwest to pitch in on a variety of work sites throughout the city.

Some teens were assigned to home improvement jobs on residential homes, while others spent the week carpeting an entire convent. There were also work sites at urban day care centers assisting with reading programs.
As most mission experiences are, this trip was an exercise in living beyond personal comfort zones, said Schaefer.

“The first couple of days, it can be hard,” she said. “But then it’s like a switch goes off and the tide turns, and you fall in love with the student you’re helping, or you have an interaction with the resident whose house you’re fixing. Through that encounter, you’re able to recognize Christ in that person. There is something about these trips that forces you to be vulnerable, that brings out that relational ministry.”

“The mission trip itself allows for movement in faith life,” said Meaghan Turner, director of young adult and youth ministry at St. Eugene and St. Monica parishes. “We can’t give anything if we don’t have it to begin with. These communities need our prayers even more than they need our work.”

For Turner’s 14 teens, the three days in June spent serving at the St. Francis Solanus Mission in northern Wisconsin were all about “doing little things with great love.”

“We adopted St. Therese of Lisieux and really focused on her way of life,” she said. The work was far from glamorous: yard maintenance, the renovation of a playground, repairing a broken sign and cleaning out of an incinerator. But it was all done in service to the two School Sisters of St. Francis who run the mission and minister to the families on a local Native American reservation.

Because they had close to 30 extra hands for those few days, the sisters were able to be more efficient in their ministry — including preparing their free school for the fall semester and comforting the family of a stillborn baby.

“The work wasn’t glorious. It’s not physically enduring, it’s not major construction. That’s where the faith comes in, because we really have to focus on the needs of the sisters,” said Turner. “How can we free them up so that they can be more available to the families they serve?”

“Mother Teresa has a quote that says, don’t wash the dish because it’s your dish, or because it’s dirty. Wash it because you love the person who will use it next,” said Angela Sengenberger, associate director of student and young adult ministries at St. Charles Parish in Hartland. “It’s not about us personally getting to have a feeling of ‘I did something great.’ It’s about the person who gets to benefit from our work offered up selflessly for them.”

Sengenberger and colleague Andrew Schueller, director of student and young adult ministries at St. Charles, spent a week in St. Louis with 26 teenagers in July. The work was with Habitat for Humanity, assisting in operations at the city’s ReStore facility. Accompanied by St. Charles associate pastor Fr. Patrick Behling, the group was able to hear Mass every morning and partake in Eucharistic adoration and Confession.

In addition, said Schueller, nightly programs prepared by Sengenberger and Fr. Behling that helped with making the connection between the work that was done that day and the Catholic faith.

“Our topics for the week entered into the importance of worship, so that when they went to Mass every morning, they understood that they’re being sent out to be Christ’s hands and feet,” he said. “I think it’s essential to a Catholic mission trip experience to start every morning with Mass — you’re receiving Christ, and being sent out to be Christ in the community.”