Outreach Work Sparkles under Midnight Sun
SADDLE RIVER-In a far-away land famous for its cold weather, glaciers and "midnight sun," youth group members and their chaperones from St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish received a warm welcome. And then they went to work.
The 18 members of Friends of Christ United in Service (FOCUS) traveled to Nome, Alaska, July 2-10 as a faith-based outreach mission to help with basic maintenance work and other programs at St. Joseph Parish, which has no resident priest.
While in Nome, the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Newark ran a threeday Bible camp for parish youngsters, marched in the town's Independence Day Parade, were interviewed on the local radio station, soaked in some local culture, enjoyed local cuisine including Alaskan King Crab and even managed some sightseeing.
Reaching out to help those in need far beyond the confines of Bergen County is nothing new for the Saint Gabriel youth group. Last year they traveled to South Dakota and the year before that Ghana, Africa.
The excursion was another example of the spirit and dedication demonstrated by youth and young adults in the Archdiocese of Newark (see special report in this edition, pages 17-20).
Saying this trip was the "smoothest" of the three that have been taken so far, Father Stephen Fichter, parochial vicar at St. Gabriel's Parish, noted that this was the largest contingent of young people that have gone on the FOCUS expeditions to help others. Msgr. Robert J. Fuhrman serves as the pastor of the parish.
A "wonderful, positive experience" is how St. Joseph Parish administrator Maureen Koezuna described the visit of the young people from Saddle River, during a long-distance telephone interview with The Catholic Advocate on Sept 5. The New Jersey native-who has lived in Alaska for the last 25 years following a trip there as a Jesuit volunteer out of college-said emphatically that "everyone is still talking every day" about the FOCUS young people and their chaperones.
Koezuna said the work done by the FOCUS visitors gave the 450 families of her parish "more of a sense of ownership. They did exactly what we wanted and needed," she said.
St. Joseph Parish was founded in the early 1900s. The current church building there was built a dozen years ago. (A photo of the church, along with text on its history, is available on the Internet: www. cbna.info/churches/nome.html.)
For 15-year-old Justine Schnell, making her first FOCUS trip was an opportunity to "get closer" to her friends and a "fun way" to become more involved with the mission of the Church. Schnell said youth group members repaired the St. Joseph Parish rectory, painted a building for the Little Sisters of Jesus, pulled weeds and installed fencing around and underneath the church building. She was especially moved by seeing the youngsters learning and enjoying themselves at the Bible camp. Equally memorable for her was how the natives welcomed them as if "we had lived there forever."
Jonathan Kalchbrenner made the journey to Alaska due to a strong conviction that offering such needed help was a "necessary" thing to do. Going to Nome, he added, was "completely different" from anything he has experienced so far and got him out of the "Bergen County bubble." The affect on Kalchbrenner's faith, he explained, was the realization that "religion brings people together."
Brittany Scott, a founding member of FOCUS, said the trip to Nome was a chance to help people in need. Scott worked with youngsters at the Bible camp and was inspired by the way everyone functioned as a team. The experience, she went on, "brought me closer to God and gave me a better outlook on life."
The act of "giving back" was the impetus for chaperone Janet Scott to make the trip with daughter Brittany and the rest of the FOCUS youngsters. Describing herself as someone who "loves to travel," Janet Scott said her motivation was to be able to help people who "have so little."
Marveling at what the group accomplished working at St. Joseph's Parish, Scott said the parishioners were "tickled pink" about what had been done for them. She remembers fondly having dinner with local families who were "so happy" to accommodate the visitors from New Jersey.
"We were able to complete every task we had planned for each day," Michael Fogari said, recalling the youth group's various assignments. "The boys began ripping up the patio that connected two sheds located next to the church building while the girls repainted the Little Sisters' building. During the day we learned so much about how the people of Nome live each day and how different their lives are from ours."
Fogari enjoyed being interviewed by KNOM radio station in Nome. "Knowing it was going to be heard throughout Alaska, surprisingly, made us a little nervous," he confessed.
The Sunday Mass of the trip, celebrated by Father Fichter, was, Fogari pointed out, "the first time in months they were able to attend Mass led by a priest. The best part of the trip, he said, was "learning how close a small town like Nome could be and how much they appreciated us."
Stressing that everyone worked hard during their stay in Alaska, Father Fichter was appreciative of the hospitality extended by the people of Nome. "We felt like part of the family," he explained. Father Fichter took particular notice of the laid-back lifestyle of the Alaskans as compared to the hectic pace of people living in northern New Jersey.
Father Fichter noted that, while the FOCUS group was in Nome, it was the time of year when that region receives sunlight 23 hours a day-living up to its name as "the land of the midnight sun." It was an exotic, disorienting experience, he said, explaining that during the evening hours people typically put cardboard in their bedroom windows to block out the sun so they could sleep and maintain their internal "biological" clocks.
All those who attended the trip "grew in their spiritual life," he said, adding the trip demonstrated that "the best way to keep the faith is to spread the faith."