To Know, Love and Serve God

This article was posted on: July 9, 2024

God made me to know, love and serve God in this world and the next.

“Class, why did God make you?” Sister Mary Ann cheerfully asked the 30 first graders at St. Mary’s Grade School in Wisconsin Rapids. With innocence and grace, we responded communally, “God made me to know, love and serve God in this world and the next.” Sixty-five years ago, that catechism answer planted the seeds that would grow into my life’s mission. It is my vocation to know, love and serve God in this world and the next, every day. I grew up in a Catholic family. I am the oldest of six, and service was our family ethic in our home, in our neighborhood, in our school, in our community and in our world.

When I was 12, my mother was hospitalized with postpartum depression, and I became an adult with the responsibility of caring for my brothers and sisters. I cooked and cleaned and ironed and sewed, doing what needed to be done to keep our family together. I have been a caregiver ever since.

When my mom came home from the hospital, the community organized a meal plan that fed our family for six weeks. We were literally fed by the community. Now, it is my turn. Life in community demands that we serve others and accept the service of others as a gift. Early on, the experience was clear, and now I have the words, “Service is love made visible.”

In 1986, I was given an opportunity to team teach a course on homelessness. As part of the course responsibilities, we would take our students to Omaha, Neb., to live and work at the Day House Catholic Worker, which served breakfast and lunch for up to 300 persons a day. It was an intense, transformative experience of service for all involved.

In March of 1996, after the class had returned, I stated, “We should start a Catholic Worker House in La Crosse in the next five years.” After class that day, I walked from my office in the Fine Arts Center building to Walgreens and along the way found myself standing in front of the house of Grace Clare Beznous, FSPA. In a moment of spiritual clarity, I heard the words, “place of grace.” I went back to my office and called my friend Joe Kruse, an administrator at Franciscan Skemp Healthcare, and asked about the plans for Sister Grace’s home. He checked into it—the house was scheduled for demolition, but the seed had been planted.

In September of 1996, Joe and I invited 12 people to pray and talk about establishing a Catholic Worker House in our Franciscan neighborhood. On Dec. 24, 1996, we received the keys to the house located at 919 Hood Street. We gathered, broke bread, and blessed the house as a Place of Grace. For the past 27 years, we have continued to pray on Mondays at 7 a.m. We open our food pantry from noon to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays. On Thursdays, we open the pantry from 3 to 5 p.m. and serve a meal from 5 to 6 p.m. for anyone in the community. We are all fed by the community at a common table. We follow one mandate at the Place of Grace: “Welcome each guest as if they were Christ.”

Prayer, service, community and foundational virtues are learned and lived from childhood. “To know, live and serve God in this world and the next” is what I was taught by the words and presence shared with me by the people who loved me. Service is love made visible. I have been blessed for a lifetime. Good work, hard work, noble work, sacred work, our work. It is all gift and grace. I am thankful and blessed. We all are.

Tom Thibodeau, MA, is a distinguished professor of servant leadership at Viterbo University, where he has been teaching for 40 years. He is the founder of the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership degree program at Viterbo, which is the first and only master’s degree of its kind in the nation. Additionally, he is a founding member of the Place of Grace Catholic Worker House, which has been serving meals and promoting human dignity for 26 years. In addition to his professional life, he is a husband, father, grandfather, teacher, active community member and part owner of a country tavern.

Story by Tom Thibodeau, MASL, Distinguished Professor of Servant Leadership
Published in the July/August 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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