Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fun in the Son

Shortly after my wife and I moved back to our hometown, I accepted an appointment to the municipal Park and Recreation Board. Now, thirty years later, I am still doing it. One of the extracurricular duties is to organize the annual Fun Day at the Park. The fundraising event has been held on the Sunday following Labor Day for the past 35 years. It consists of a variety of children’s games, food, music and whatever else we can come up with!

In its heyday, Fun Day filled the park with people of all ages. We had volleyball games, horseshoes, fireman’s waterball, three-legged races, tug o’ war, basketball games, obstacle courses, water balloon tosses, egg tosses . . . you name the game, we probably tried it. We had cake walks, white elephant sales, bands, elephant ears, sno-cones, hot dogs, brats, soups, pies, and six-flavors of ice cream. It was all done in typical small town fashion with volunteers and cooperation from local businesses and civic groups.

As often happens in small towns, the same small groups of people get stuck doing the same jobs year after year. Organizers get older and the younger generation seems too busy to get involved. A lovely woman who was the life blood of Fun Day at the Park, died rather unexpectedly a few years back. Others tried to fill her shoes, but Fun Day was never quite the same.

About the same time, Pop Warner Football came to our community. Kids as young as five years old now play organized football, and on Sundays to boot! Parents who don’t have a son playing football probably have a daughter on the cheerleading squad. Much of our former Fun Day clientele spends their Sundays at the football field now. As a result, much of the festive atmosphere surrounding Fun Day has disappeared. Without participants, we no longer have as many games and contests. What was originally an all-afternoon affair, now barely goes for three hours. Revenues are down, and frankly, Fun Day isn’t much fun anymore.

We still have a few volunteers who help us set up for the event, but at the end of day, few remain to help clean up. Much of it is heavy work, dumping garbage cans, rearranging heavy tables, and cleaning up the mess. One other park board member, who injured his back the night before, remained to help me this year. Several hours of heavy labor needed to be done before dark and the two of us were facing it alone.

As we surveyed the park landscape, I began to wonder whether all this work we had put in over the past month, and especially the past two days, was really worth the effort. In my moment of despair, a woman who is also a board member approached me with a young man in tow. He was required to do some community service and wanted to know if we would allow him to work. This could be a God-send, I thought. As it turned out, I was right!

We accepted his help and I told him he could begin by smashing a large pile of cardboard boxes and taking them to a nearby dumpster. He replied with, “Sir, yes sir”, much like one would hear in the military. I would find out later that he was serving time in a boot camp-like facility for some infraction, the nature of which I still do not know. He was very respectful and soon began offering suggestions of how we could make our jobs easier. The young man liked to talk and we had quite a conversation as we worked side-by-side for the next three hours.

He told me he was really trying to turn his life around and was determined not to go back to prison after his incarceration ends in October. At one point, he said, “I’m Catholic.” My ears perked up. I told him I am Catholic also, and the other two Park Board members he met today are also Catholic. As he continued to talk, I realized he was not quite Catholic yet. He explained that a deacon comes to the prison every Tuesday evening for studies, and he was preparing for baptism and his first communion. As if to show off some of his new found knowledge, he told me Peter was the first Pope! I agreed and we began exchanging a few bible verses.

On what had become a very long, tiring and somewhat disappointing day, I suddenly felt rejuvenated. As our work drew to a close, I gave the young man my name and phone number, offering to stay in contact if he needed any assistance in his journey to the Catholic Church after his prison time ends. We shared some leftover Fun Day ice cream and I drove him to the home of his mother’s boyfriend. He thanked me for the opportunity to work off some of his required community service time, shook my hand and we parted company.

As the events of the day replayed in my head that evening, I began to wonder about the circumstances that brought us together. My fellow board member who brought him to me is a very spiritual Catholic woman. Where did she find him at a time when we were in dire need of help? How did he know where to find her on a late Sunday afternoon where an annual event just happened to have ended? Why did he suddenly blurt out “I’m Catholic” to a stranger who just happens to love sharing his Catholic faith? Was all of this circumstantial or did the Holy Spirit have a hand in it? It may be so. I do know he was a God-send.