By Mark Haney
The Catholic Weekly
SAGINAW — From start to finish, the annual Bishop’s Charity Ball was about service.
From the silent auction that funneled the proceeds to various service agencies and projects, through a mealtime video about work being done for those in need through the diocese to the giving of the Bishop Murphy Award to Edna Kujawski of St. Agatha Parish in Gagetown, the theme on Friday, April 27, was all about service.
Even the parting gift — a small box of chocolates — bore a tag with a message from Matthew’s Gospel: “And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me’” — was in keeping with the theme.
Ah, but there was more. The emcee was Tom Conklin, executive director of Catholic Family Services. The prayer before the meal was given by Fr. Ron Wagner, who told about the work for the poor done by the Ezekiel Project, an ecumenical church-based group that works to fight the systemic causes of poverty and crime in Saginaw County and the city of Saginaw, of which he is a member.
There even was a song performed by the children from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Midland — sporting “A Future Full of Hope” (the parish planning process under way in the diocese) yellow t-shirts — that highlighted that everything is possible with God.
“I deeply believe we will all be judged, as a Church and as individuals, on our concern for and support for the poor and vulnerable in our midst,” Bishop Joseph R. Cistone told the crowd gathered at the Horizons Conference Center. “Charity is not an option for those who wish to follow Jesus Christ. Concern for those in need is integral to evangelization and fundamental to what it means to be Christian. We are not just asked to give from our excess. We are called to give from what is ours in a way that allows us, in some way, to experience the need of a another.”
That was why he chose Robert and Catherine Looby to be the host couple of this year’s ball, because of the work they have done through the Catholic Federal Credit Union and volunteer work with organizations and foundations to raise funds for the needy.
“Fourteen years ago I had a heart attack,” Robert Looby told the crowd. “There is a commercial being shown on TV where an older gentleman — I guess I would now be in that category; older, not elderly — said ‘I beat the widow maker!’ I can also say that. I believe the Lord said, ‘That Looby boy, he just can’t do that much time in Purgatory. So he needs to stay alive on earth and keep volunteering. He needs all of the credits he can get.’”
His volunteering began 30 years ago, when he met teacher-principal Barb Geary.
“She taught me the meaning of the three T’s: time, talent and treasure, and the importance of each one,” he said. “She said, ‘Bobby, you need to know this.’ That is why we, as human beings and especially as Catholics, have a duty and an obligation, to help those less fortunate than ourselves. However, it should be viewed as a privilege to do so.”
Terri Grierson, head of the Office of Christian Service, showed there are a lot of those people around.
“This video merely touches on the many good works being done,” she said. “In my work at the Office of Christian Service, I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of unsung heroes who are dedicated and committed to serving God’s people. Men and women who go about their work largely unnoticed, and prefer it that way. I’ve been humbled by the generosity of donors whose support make this outreach possible. Often they are people who have very little themselves but are eager to share what they have with others. Most importantly, I have been touched by the stories of individuals and families in need, who come to us in faith, who lift us with their faith and their strength.”
One of those volunteers is Kujawski, whose service roots are also deep. As young teacher in 1968, she spent 15 months teaching, without pay, in West Africa. When she retired from teaching and moved back to her native parish in Gagetown, she started the “Little Dresses” project that sews simple but colorful dresses for girls in impoverished countries around the globe. She collects cots, hats, gloves and scarves for local children, coordinates the local “Walk for Warmth,” coordinates the parish’s food pantry, has worked with the Tuscola County Homeless Coalition and puts together food baskets for those in need. This earned her this year’s Bishop Murphy Award, an honor named for the diocese’s first bishop, Bishop William F. Murphy, and given annually since 2007 to a person who, through the example of their life, fulfills Jesus’ Great Commission to promote and pas on the faith.
In accepting the honor, Kujawski turned the spotlight on those she sees give at her parish.
“I am blessed to be surrounded by people with similar values and beliefs,” she said. “And these are the people who deserve credit for this award. Who are these people? They are the women who shop for coats given to children, who make the hats, scarves and mittens distributed to the local school and in our pantry. They are the men who come out to help with food delivery, where one to three pickup trucks are filled to capacity. They do the loading and unloading in all kinds of weather.
“There are others at church, who load the cart and get the cases of food to the shelves and storage area. There are the women who take the inventory as it is placed on the shelves. On pantry days, there are both men and women who come to serve the people. They load the pantry shelves, they replenish items as needed, they see that the coffee is hot and ready and one lady brings a crock of soup, which the patrons especially appreciate. Stories are exchanged, recipes are offered and all done with a smile, a kind word and compassion.
“The ladies who work on the little dresses do so with such joy and love. There are those who donate supplies that are needed. On work days, a great deal of laughter is heard. The sharing of their lives takes place and many prayers are prayed for their needs.
“Those who come out on a cold winter’s morn for the Walk for Warmth, which takes place in February, are generous with their financial support as well as their time as they walk Gagetown to demonstrate their concern for those needing help in keeping their homes warm during our Michigan winters. In them one sees the Holy Spirit inspiring these people to take Jesus’ admonition to help those less fortunate brothers. In the summer months, there are those who plant more in their garden so as to be able to share their produce not only from their garden but also from their orchard. I like to do garden work and I like to work in my orchard, but by myself I could never supply enough food for all of those who come to our pantry. These members of St. Agatha are involved in this ministry have the hearts of servants because they truly understand Jesus’ teaching to care for His children and to love one another.”
Before she sat down, though, she thanked her husband, Jordan, for all of his support and help through the years.
The bishop said the night was for people like Kujawski, but more importantly for those who’ve never heard of her.
“Unfortunately, even the average Catholic is unaware of the many and varied initiatives in place at both the parish and diocesan level,” he said. “This evening we have seen a small sampling of the great work being done by the people of our diocese to promote the life, dignity and rights of the human person through collaborative outreach. I continue to be amazed at the generosity of our good people, particularly in these difficult economic times. I am grateful to all of you for your ongoing support. We are not alone in our efforts to promote the life and dignity of our neighbors. We are privileged to work with and be supported by so many wonderful organizations that are within and outside the diocese.
“Our diocese will make every effort to increase our capacity for outreach to the poor. We will work with parishes and local entities to raise awareness of the effects of poverty on individuals, families and the broader society. My friends, please know how grateful I am for the good work you do and for all those who give so generously of their time and treasure to help our neighbors in need. It is my hope that this year’s charity ball will inspire others to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need and that it will raise awareness of the many good things being done in the name of the Church in our parishes and in our local communities.
“May our efforts be a sign of our commitment to a future full of hope and may our friends in need, through our acts of charity and justice, know they are loved and not alone.”