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The Lord's Ranch: Youth see strong faith in poor

By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
August 5, 2004

This summer 17 high school students and five adults from the Diocese of Sioux City were on a mission - a mission trip to serve others and grow closer to God.

The group, representing 11 parishes in the diocese from the communities of Sanborn, Primghar, Hartley, Hospers, Milford, Spirit Lake, Estherville, Wall Lake, Cherokee, Boone and Laurens - departed on June 25, traveling by Larger image available van to The Lord's Ranch, located about 15 miles from El Paso, Texas in New Mexico.

Kelly O'Brien, youth minister at the cluster parishes of Sanborn, Primghar, Hartley and Sutherland, organized the trip. Each day the group would cross the border at El Paso to work in Juarez, Mexico. Part of their work in the Mexican border city consisted of moving a glass pile - remnants of a former dump - from an area where a mission consisting of a school, daycare and clinic is to be expanded.

"It was impressive. The kids got a lot out of it," said Kelly. "We all definitely appreciate what we have here more."

He pointed out that they worked hard, but their days and ministry revolved around prayer.

Randy Ricklefs, youth minister at St. Mary's in Spirit Lake, said, "We encountered many very poor people, some of which were struggling to find food and water. Many of these people had a very deep personal faith and trust in God."

He said that he came away from the whole experience realizing that "they, who have so little, have everything and we, who have so much, have very little."

Angela Pohlen, a high school student from Hospers, described the service trip as a very unique experience.

"Not only do you get to experience God in everything you do, but you are also helping the poor people at the same time," she said. "It blew me away to see how people really live. You hear about it on television but you don't really experience it until you are actually there."

Justin McCarthy, a parishioner at Hartley who will be a senior, said he wanted to go on the trip to help out the poor.

He was impressed that despite the fact that these people lived in substandard homes made of bricks, plywood and cardboard they appeared to be happier than half of the people who live in the United States.

"One of the people told me that they take everything as a blessing from God," said McCarthy. Even though most of the people didn't have any food, they made it some how and always trusted that they would be okay. "They offered their food to us even though they had so little. It was really awesome."

Through the experience, he acquired a sense of gratitude and appreciation for all of the blessings in his life.

Erin Schrunk, a parishioner at St. Mary's in Spirit Lake who will be a high school senior this year, mentioned that this was her first service trip.

"The people down there had nothing except their belief in God," she noted.

She found it interesting that dogs were allowed to go into the churches and walk around during the services.

One other experience that stood out for Erin was when they visited a woman's house. The students were there to clean, but the lady asked that they talk with her rather than clean because she preferred the conversation. Through an interpreter, members of the Iowa group spoke with her for about three hours.

Her sister Gineal Schrunk, who will be a junior this year, also took part in the mission trip.

She wanted to serve others in order to get closer to God. Gineal felt that she could feel God's presence and see him in the people.

"Everyone is so devout," she said. "At Mass, the people are so into it. After Communion, sometimes we just have three minutes and then we are back up - but they would be praying for a half-hour. And then about an hour and a half before Mass they have singing and praise music. People would be dancing in the aisles. That opened us up to some new things."

At The Lord's Ranch, she mentioned, workers there would drain and then refill a concrete swimming pool on a weekly basis. Each time, the priest would bless the water.

"So basically, we got to swim in a pool of holy water and that was really fun," said Gineal.

In addition to the new prayer experiences and meeting the God-filled people, she noted that the drive to Texas and back home to Iowa offered opportunities as well.

"We took three vans with kids coming together from different parishes. Every four hours we would switch people. You got to meet so many people on the way down and then on the way back, we were so close, we just kept talking and talking," she said.

Their mother, Sharon Schrunk, was one of the adult chaperones.

"It was an incredible experience. It touched the very root of your soul," she described. "We played hard. We prayed hard. We worked hard."

As a parent, she mentioned that she found the trip to be of value to her teenage daughters because service should be a part of their formation.

"We were doing the corporal works of mercy," said Sharon. "We prayed over the sick. We fed the poor."

The Spirit Lake woman mentioned that she was impressed by the people who work in the ministry at The Lord's Ranch as well as the overall mission of the organization.

The ranch was founded by Father Rick Thomas who was moved on Christmas Day of 1972 to bring food to the poor people of Juarez. His inspiration came from Scripture, Luke 14:13, "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind."

The priest reported that he and a couple dozen others brought enough food for about 160 people, but in the end they served more than 300 people where they frequently scavenged out a living - at the local dump - with ample for take-home bags and still more for children at two orphanages.

The priest's ongoing commitment started with food and clothing distribution and grew from there. Eventually the dump was moved and a mission sprung up at the site. The ranch serves as a residence for a few community members, a summer camp for poor children from El Paso and a retreat center for visitors from all over the world. Groups who stay there offer a donation.

"Father (Thomas) never takes an offering up at his Masses and he never does fund-raising. They have never gotten a loan and never been in debt," noted Sharon. "They give out $6,000 worth of food a week and they have a lot of ministries."

Another task that the Iowa parishioners completed while at the ranch was separating 100-pound bags of foods down into two-pound packages to take to the poor of Juarez where 1.5 million of the 2 million people live in poverty and the minimum wage is $4.50 per week.

"For the people that couldn't come in, we would take food out to shut-ins - elderly people and those that were too sick to get out of their houses if you could call them that. When we would go there, we were asked to not just give them the food but to go in and pray with them and bless their house with holy water," noted Kelly. "When we would get there, the people would want to tell us about God and their faith. It was incredible, because we thought that is what we were there for and it was the other way around."

When they brought food to one woman who was wheelchair-bound, he recalled how she had insisted that they take Chiclets gum, which she sold for a living. They kept trying to refuse the gum because that is the only way she made any money.

"She explained that the way God works is that you have to give to receive. She said you have to take them because she didn't have the opportunity to give them to anyone else. That was her way of teaching us," said Kelly.

The high school students, he added, also said they learned a lot about the difference between being hungry and starving. One day they didn't get a lot to eat while in Mexico, so when they were back across the border one of the teenagers asked the driver if they could stop to eat somewhere because they were starving.

"The driver said, 'You aren't starving. Starving is what is going on over there. You are hungry'," said Kelly.

Through the mission trip, he added that the youth and adults alike were taught a great deal about the poor, their faith and trust in God. They also learned a great deal about thankfulness.

"These people thanked God for everything - for the sunshine, for the leaky roof because it means that it rained. They thank God for the poor and for their sickness because in their suffering they would grow closer to God," said Kelly.