To Tennessee with Love

Glenmary News

To Tennessee with Love

Volunteer Sarah Donaldson poses with two Vacation Bible School students. (Photo by John Fesiter)

It’s summer, so it must be time for Vacation Bible School in the Glenmary mission in Lafayette, Tenn.

Every year Jesus the Good Shepherd parish in Owings, Maryland, packs much of its youth group into a few vans, complete with a week’s food and supplies, and heads down the highway—12 hours—to Lafayette. Every day for the next week, the vans will drive children of all ages from surrounding counties back and forth to a local school for daytime classes and recreation with the Maryland volunteers. It winds up being about more than “Bible class.” This school’s all about the living Bible, the relationship of people together, touched by God.

At week’s end, campers and volunteers share mementos, writing messages on each other’s shirts. (Photo by John Feister)

It all started back in 2001, when Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo was in training in Washington, D.C., spending his diaconal year at Jesus the Good Shepherd nearby. He noticed their lively summer Bible school. Julie Gartrell, the now-retired religious education director, remembers when Father Neil took over his first Glenmary parish, in Arkansas. “I wish we had something like that in our parish,” Father Neil commented to her. That was all that Julie needed to hear.

She started the annual mission trip for her youth group—a week to Arkansas, a completely different environment for the Maryland youth to have a service experience. When Father Neil left Arkansas, Julie brought her program to another Glenmary parish, Holy Family, in Lafayette, Tenn., where Father Vic Subb is pastor.

None of the Marylanders seem to mind the long drive to Tennessee. Deacon Paul Fagan, one of a handful of adult chaperones, says, “Once I saw what this program was, I said, Wow, this is really big stuff! And that’s not just for the kids that we touch here, but for our kids. They’re changed in a lot of good ways.” Deacon Paul has been a key adult leader in recent years, and is now serving as a bridge of sorts between Julie, now retired, and the new youth minister, Casey Esser.

It’s beneficial for more than the children, says Father Vic. “The generosity of the Maryland parish is a good example for us, as a parish, including for our teenagers,” he says. “It allows us a greater outreach, which is something our parishioners want.” And it goes both ways. The parishioners from Jesus the Good Shepherd might even get back more than they give.

“At the end of the week they cry, they don’t want to leave,” Father Vic says. “The teenagers are very good models for our teenagers, and vice versa.”

For the participants though, whether students from Macon County or volunteers from Maryland, it’s about more than having a good time. At the week’s closing liturgy, after five full days of raucous, fun activity combined with faith sharing, Bible study, and relationship building, no one’s quite the same.

“The youth from both places develop relationships over the years,” says Father Vic. “That has more impact than we’ll ever know.”

Glenmary Father Vic Subb delivers his homily during a Mass for Holy Family’s Vacation Bible School. (Photo by John Feister)

This story first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.