Enlisting the Help of Friends

Posted: 4/11/2017

By Molly Williamson

It was a matter of pride.

Terry Ruth, a lifelong resident of Grainger County, Tenn., was trying to honor his sister’s final wishes. She had died just days before, and while Terry had a burial plot for her in the family tract, he did not have the money for a proper funeral. His sister had already been embalmed, and every day her body stayed at the morgue, it accrued fees that Terry could not pay.

Terry has worked all his life. As a young boy, he labored in the fields, hanging and stripping tobacco. He continued to farm through adulthood, and now raises cross-bred horses.

Terry is resourceful. Growing up high on the hill, his house was so cold that water froze in a bucket. He lived without indoor plumbing for more than 15 years. Yet, he got by, and he never wanted for much.

But, he always had a partner — his sister, Marie. Nicknamed after a newspaper comic, Marie was known throughout the community as “Cricket.” She handled Terry’s finances and was his main confidant. She saw him through their parents’ deaths and now, for the first time, Terry was left to face a major life change without Marie.

He was overwhelmed and wanted to make her proud.

Building a Friendship

So, he called Father Steve Pawelk, pastor of Glenmary’s Saint John Paul II Mission in Rutledge, Tenn. Terry connected with Glenmary Home Missioners several years ago when a parishioner of Saint John Paul II met Terry and Marie while taking the U.S. Census. She thought that the siblings might benefit from the church’s outreach services and mentioned it to Father Steve.

undefinedA self-professed organizer, Father Steve enjoys connecting people in the community to resources and programs.

“I am like an orchestra director, I am an organizer and a motivator,” Father Steve said. “I find projects and find people to do them. Then, I get out of the way.”

He dispatched Brother Craig Digmann, then an outreach minister in Union and Grainger counties, to begin visiting the Ruth siblings. During one of his visits, Brother Craig noticed that the Ruths had no running water or indoor plumbing. Father Steve asked Brother Joe Steen, a former member of the Brothers Building Crew and new to the Grainger and Union county mission, to fix the Ruths’ pipes.

Father Steve then had the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program begin calling regularly on the Ruth family, helping to reinforce the walls of the Ruths’ home, to repair their roof, to deliver food to their home and to bring them firewood in the winter.

The Ruths became familiar with nearly every representative of Glenmary’s east Tennessee missions. So when Terry asked Glenmary for help with Marie’s funeral, he was not just calling a church or a charity, he was enlisting the help of friends.

“Terry is what we call a ‘friend of the mountain,’” Father Steve said. “We have a lot of connections to him because of the parish ministry.

“He has what I call ‘mountain faith,’” Father Steve said. “He went to church when he was younger, but he does not gather to pray now. He believes in Jesus. He prays whenever he wants, and he is good to his neighbors.”

Managing the Details

undefinedFather Steve coordinated Marie’s burial service with the funeral home, helping to plan all of the logistics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe built Marie’s casket in less than 12 hours and delivered it to the funeral home.

“He worked all day,” Father Steve said.

Brother Joe has made several caskets, and said there was nothing unique about this one. It’s pine. It’s sturdy. It fits the specifications. The main thing, he said, is you want to make sure the bottom doesn’t fall out.

But to Terry, it was everything.

“This means the world to me, because no one else in the county would help me,” Terry said.

Still, he faced another hurdle. He had the casket and plot, but he needed the grave dug. On top of the funeral cost, the cemetery would charge him $500 to bring in a backhoe and dig the grave. Terry could not dig the hole alone.

“I tried,” Terry said. “I called a bunch of people. I will be 57 next year, and I was born on this mountain, and I could not find one person to help me.”

No one, that is, except the volunteers at Toppa Joppa, site of Glenmary’s Group Volunteer Program.

Living the Five Ministries

Joe Grosek, the volunteer director at Toppa Joppa, was closing out a week with a group of 12 students from Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York. During their stay, the students worked at a children’s home, nursing home, food pantry and on site building a frame to better insulate the tiny homes that will eventually provide more housing for short- and long-term volunteers.

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On Friday morning, Terry and his friend, Clyde Liford, showed up at Toppa Joppa. Terry had tried to secure credit for the funeral expenses, but was unable. He knew that asking the Glenmary volunteers was his final resort, but he was desperate.

Joe, who has worked for Glenmary since 2001, had never been asked to dig a grave. But he was willing and asked the Fordham group for volunteers.

“The five ministries of Glenmary are social justice, evangelization, ecumenism, nurturing the Catholic community and serving the greater Catholic Church,” Joe said. “This is evangelization. No one else is going to do this for him.

“I believe in the five ministries; it is why I have been with Glenmary for so many years,” Joe said. “It is why I see my role as more of a ministry than a job. Glenmary is rural and serves the lost and forgotten. Through our outreach, we are serving the greater Catholic Church.”

It also was a corporal work of mercy, Mountain Manager Gina Maslanka reminded the Fordham students. Burying the dead is an important Christian and Catholic teaching, offering comfort to the bereft, respect for life and hope for the resurrection of the body.

After watching a YouTube video about grave digging and getting the dimensions from the funeral home, the volunteers cut wood to outline the hole. They loaded up their van with pick axes and shovels and set to work.

Laying Her to Rest

Laboring for hours, Joe and three volunteers hacked into the wet, hard red clay soil only to learn they needed to shift the hole slightly to the left so there would still be room for another grave to the right. It was not what the students had signed up for, but as Fordham senior Justin Santanasto said, “I’m just going to live in the moment.”

As the group dug, community members stopped by, some to offer their condolences or food, some to monitor the progress of the dig and to offer unsolicited advice. By the end of the day, the grave was ready for Marie’s burial on Sunday, and the relief was evident from Terry. At least two community members eventually helped Joe finish digging the grave, and later helped fill it in.

“They are helping someone, helping someone who would have been put in the ground without a casket,” Terry said. “This really means the world to me.”

Planning for the Future

The communal effort capped off on Sunday with all of Terry’s friends in attendance. Brother Craig sang “Amazing Grace.” Glenmary Group Volunteer Program Mountain Managers brought flowers to the grave. Father Steve guided Terry through the service and took him to view the body.

With the help of Glenmary donors, Glenmary will cover the portion of the funeral expenses that Terry cannot afford, and Brother Joe and parishioners will help Terry set up a system where he can begin paying his monthly bills, which Marie used to handle.

“In outreach ministry, it’s all about the connection to the connection to the connection with other people,” Brother Craig said. “It’s about building trust and being as present as you can. It’s really about letting God work through you.”  

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Glenmary Challenge.