Olathe & Southwest Joco

Serving others brings St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church together

While most sit and eat, George Dunmore stands off to the side of the Center for Grace’s cafeteria hall.

From where he’s standing, he can see all 18 tables and keep a watchful eye for any empty plates. As soon as he spots one, he swoops down to the table, offering to fix another plate or refill an empty glass.

As he watches, he explains that serving others is at the core of what brings him and other parishioners of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church together.

“It just got contagious,” Dunmore said.

After it was nearly shut down in the early 2000s, this Olathe church with fewer than 75 active families has rallied around a central mission of serving its community to regain its stability and thrive as a mission-centric Episcopal parish.

Part of its more than 12 regular outreach ministries, volunteers from St. Aidan’s gather in the afternoon to cook a community meal at Grace United Methodist Church’s Center for Grace in Olathe on the last Thursday of every month. The community dinner program typically serves anywhere from 250 to 300 plates.

“They never repeat the same recipe; it’s always a new adventure every month,” said Burphie Brand, a facilitator at Johnson County Food Ministry.

In about an hour on this summer Thursday, the dozen St. Aidan’s volunteers served up 295 plates of pulled pork, baked beans, waffle fries and coleslaw.

Dunmore smiles as he looked on at the other volunteers, all waiting eagerly to serve someone, just as he was. He’s been with the church for a decade and is involved in several other St. Aidan’s ministries, and he knows reaching beyond its own walls is how the church has made itself stronger within them.

“I call it the little church with a big heart,” Dunmore said.

‘System of service’

Ten years ago, St. Aidan’s was in turmoil.

The small Olathe church had gone through a series of part-time priests, and the bishop at the time was considering shuttering the parish for good.

St. Aidan’s had been in Olathe for nearly 150 years, but the church community was fractured and unhappy, and its future looked bleak.

“There wasn’t a lot of stability, I think,” Deacon Fran Wheeler said. “It was to the point where our doors were going to close.”

But then, in 2005, St. Aidan’s hired the Rev. Julianne Sifers to be its full-time priest.

Sifers was ordained to the priesthood in 1996 in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri. Over the course of the next nine years, she would serve at more than half a dozen other churches before finally landing in Olathe.

Once at St. Aidan’s, Sifers, whom parishioners affectionately refer to as Mother Juli, recognized that the parish lacked a focus, Wheeler said.

“We had a congregation here, but it wasn’t doing ministry,” Wheeler said. “People were just coming and attending church; there wasn’t a lot of activity.”

The parish needed a spark, something to reinvigorate the community and bring its splintered members together. The answer, Sifers bet, was in community service.

Over the next year, she worked to help bring stability back to the church, her husband, Russ Sifers, said.

“When she got to St. Aidan’s, the joy just exploded out of her,” he said. “She was doing what God had called her to do, and it radiated.”

That affected the congregation, too. When it became clear to parishioners she would stay at the church, unlike the high turnover of the priests before her, the St. Aidan’s community could heal and move forward.

Her commitment to stay at St. Aidan’s — and her vision of service — gave the church a foundation on which to rebuild itself.

“Our mission, in fact, started to be clear in that it was in serving others,” Wheeler said.

Also in 2005, Wheeler joined St. Aidan’s and began working with longtime parishioner Paul Reed and Sifers to expand the church’s mission work.

Sitting in the church office, Sifers and Wheeler would bounce ideas off of one another for new service programs and how to get St. Aidan’s members involved.

As the list of programs grew, the two created a stewardship committee to help organize and coordinate its volunteer efforts. Wheeler stepped up to take its helm as outreach ministries director.

Over the years, the parish developed more than a dozen regular ministries outside the church and even more within, in large part by the work by Sifers, Wheeler and Reed.

Volunteers are heavily involved in ministries backed by Episcopal Community Services, like the Harvesters BackSnack program, where volunteers help pack backpacks filled with food for children during the school year.

Each month they host the community dinner at the Center for Grace through the Johnson County Food Ministry, and every week a group of volunteers helps staff the St. Paul’s food pantry in Kansas City, Kan.

“If you belong to St. Aidan’s, you’re going to be involved in the service,” parishioner Neal Schmutzler said. “Almost all of us are involved.”

Of the 125 to 130 active members of the church, Wheeler said about 75 percent are regularly involved in at least one of the church’s ministries, either within the church or out in the community, and many of those are involved in several.

In the past few years, the church has won countless awards for its service and volunteering from groups all over the area, from the city of Olathe to the Olathe School District to the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.

“Once we got the church going and the people going, we looked at St. Aidan’s as the little church that could,” Russ Sifers said. “Eventually that little church became known to others as the little church that can and does. So the people got excited about doing what we’re called to do.”

Today, the church is in transition again. In March, Sifers died after her fourth bout with cancer. The loss shocked many parishioners, but the community rallied again around its focus on service and continued its regular outreach programs.

“The church that is today St. Aidan’s was built on that system of service,” Schmutzler said.

‘A ton of good’

At 9:30 on a Wednesday morning in June, Reed pulled up to St. Aidan’s front door in his red Chevy pickup truck to meet parishioners Don Seifert and Kathie Kleeman.

These three are among the core group of volunteers who go every Wednesday to the Neighborhood Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Kan.

This morning, the volunteers are making a stop at Harvesters to pick up the more than 1,000 pounds of food the pantry has ordered there. Every few weeks the group makes this trip, sometimes with Reed’s pickup and others with another parishioner’s trailer, to help stock the pantry with non-perishables and fresh produce.

Reed has been volunteering at the pantry for six or seven years. In that time, he’s seen it grow from a few elderly women handing out prearranged bags of food to a full-fledged pantry that gave out more than half a million dollars worth of groceries last year.

For more than 20 years Reed has been a member of St. Aidan’s, and he’s served the church in a variety of roles, from lay parish leader to grill master at church dinners. (He and Seifert are part of the group that grills for these dinners, called the “Holy Smokers.”) He’s seen the parish grow and knows the work it’s taken to raise the church up from its troubles.

Alongside Sifers, Reed led by example by getting involved with several ministries, from BackSnacks to the community dinner to winter clothes drives to his regular visits to the food pantry. Over the years, he’s slowly invited more and more parishioners to join him.

On the shop floor at Harvesters, the three volunteers pack up boxes of bread and zucchini. There isn’t much to choose from on this particular day — some days the floor is loaded with fresh produce and yogurt and other perishable foods — but they have a good sense of what the pantry needs from the current selection.

“The pantry always needs bread,” Seifert said, balancing boxes filled with loaves of Oroweat bread on either arm.

Earlier in the summer, with a long tow-behind trailer, the St. Aidan’s volunteers delivered literally a ton of food. On this Wednesday, the crew drove off with 1,300 pounds.

“You can get a ton of food for 15 cents a pound,” Seifert said. “That can do a ton of good.”

Seifert and Kleeman have also been volunteering for several years, at the food pantry and with other St. Aidan’s ministries, like the BackSnack program. On the road from Harvesters to the pantry, all three reflected on how service has brought the church community together.

“I think it’s given the whole parish more energy and more of a focus,” Seifert said. “If you just focus inside your walls, you’re just a club.”

Kleeman is relatively new to St. Aidan’s — she’s only been a member for about a year. She retired in 2009, and when she started looking for a new church to attend last year, she was drawn to Aidan’s because of its many opportunities to volunteer her time.

“I hate to miss, you know?” she said. “It just becomes a part of your life.”

For these three volunteers, serving regularly has brought them closer to one another, to their religious mission and to the communities in Johnson County.

Put simply: Everybody feels good about doing something for somebody, Reed said.

Today, the example they set with their regular work at the food pantry has spread like wildfire throughout the St. Aidan’s community. People find a sense of fulfillment in helping others, Wheeler said.

Parishioners constantly pitch potential new ministries to Wheeler. What can we do? What can we do more of? Sometimes, Wheeler said, being a leader even means reining in her eager volunteers.

“It’s kind of a tradition at St. Aidan’s now,” Reed said. “It’s an inherent part of who we are now and we’re proud of that, and we want to continue to do that.”

‘Continuing her legacy’

In a letter written on March 12, the week before she passed away, Sifers bade goodbye to her church and its members.

“We have learned to work as a ministry team,” she wrote. “I know that St. Aidan’s has the ability to not only continue the ministries begun, but to follow God’s call to places yet to be experienced We cannot exactly see the pathway ahead, but we may find that God is all ready, waiting for us to follow.”

She wasn’t encouraging, and she wasn’t asking, Russ Sifers said. Instead the letter was a call, a challenge.

“It wasn’t her hope that we would just continue,” Russ Sifers said. “She was challenging us to continue to serve and to find new ministries.”

Since March, the church continued that service while it searched for a new priest. In the interim, Wheeler took on the administrative responsibilities of leading the church in addition to her outreach leadership.

Although St. Aidan’s leaders didn’t know what kind of applicants would apply, they knew one thing for certain: The next priest at St. Aidan’s must have a passion for service that matches the church’s.

Throughout its interviews with potential new priests, the vestry — the group of church leaders that includes Wheeler and Reed — asked each applicant about service and ministry.

After several interviews, both in person and on the phone, the leaders settled on their choice and offered the job to the Rev. Shawn Streepy.

Streepy accepted, and last Thursday he moved into his new office in the church’s building at 143rd Street and Blackbob Road.

“I’m just very blessed to be back here,” he said.

In spring 2009, he spent three months interning with Sifers at St. Aidan’s as a transitional deacon on the last step before becoming ordained.

As a priest, Streepy has worked at a small parish in Chanute, Kan., and was most recently the assistant rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Shawnee. When he learned that St. Aidan’s had begun its search for a new priest, he reached out to the church to apply.

He admired the amount of service the small parish did and was inspired by Sifers’ commitment to its members.

“It’s kind of that perfect storm of great priest, great deacon and great people,” he said.

A few weeks ago, Reed called Streepy to offer him the position. As rector, Streepy will be a priest at St. Aidan’s for two years, at the end of which St. Aidan’s can choose to keep him on as a permanent priest or to conduct another, full-fledged search.

It’s like a lease with an option to buy, Streepy joked. And he hopes St. Aidan’s buys his commitment to serving the parish and fostering the spirit of volunteering created by Mother Juli.

“I just hope to keep building on what everybody’s done,” he said. “They’re very energetic and eager in serving people.”

St. Aidan’s used to be looked down upon. Just 10 years ago it was in danger of having its doors shut for good, and now it’s being lauded as an example of what’s possible.

“We proved that we could do it,” Wheeler said. “The bishop kept our doors open, and we are thriving now.”

That focus on volunteering and service has grown from seeds planted by Sifers almost nine years ago. Now, service is the cornerstone of the St. Aidan’s community.

“It is continuing her legacy,” Wheeler said. “Yes, it absolutely is.”