It was a chilly April morning, but the blue sky held promise of the day warming before noon. Paul Davidson, a Habitat for Humanity construction supervisor, gathered his work crew in the muddy yard of a half-built one-story home in an old, midtown neighborhood in St. Joseph, Mo.
“I want all of you to grab a hard hat, a nail apron and a hammer,” he said to the 10 college-age men around him.
Their mission that day was to finish nailing foam insulation panels to the exterior of the house, close in a gable at the back, install the last of the roof sheets and staple down the roofing felt.
“Depending on how everything goes, maybe we’ll shingle,” he told the young men. “We’re working up high so be careful — hammers and shingles slip out of hands.”
Eagerly, the volunteers went to work, and soon the sound of pounding hammers echoed across the neighborhood. As they grew warm, the men removed their hoodies and jackets to reveal dark-gray t-shirts proclaiming: Knights of Columbus.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity is a worldwide ecumenical Christian housing ministry that has built or repaired just over half a million homes for more than 3 million people. In providing assistance, Habitat does not simply give away houses; future homeowners contribute “sweat equity” by working with volunteer builders, in addition to making monthly mortgage payments.
The goals and values of Habitat correlate nicely with the Knights of Columbus, whose first principle is charity. In 2011, K of C councils donated 1,310,640 hours of service and $1,728,808 to local Habitat affiliates worldwide, according to the Supreme Council’s Annual Survey of Fraternal Activity.
The young men in St. Joseph on April 13 were members of Benedictine College Council 4708 in Atchison, Kan. Usually their service projects keep them close to campus, but this time they wanted to go farther afield, according to Grand Knight Michael Pesely.
“A lot of the focus [of our council activities] has been on the school community, which is great, but our campus isn’t very big, and a lot of groups focus on the campus,” said Pesely, 21, a junior from Washington, Ill. “We wanted to reach out to the broader community, which is what our guys will do when they graduate.”
The idea to do something for Habitat in St. Joseph, which is about 23 miles northeast of Atchison, came from Knights James Nistler, 19, a freshman from Helena, Mont., and Justin Langfield, 23, who serves Benedictine College as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary.
“I wanted to work on a project not only to make myself more invested in the Knights of Columbus, but also to get other men in the council excited about something,” said Langfield, who is from Arvada, Colo. In particular, Langfield added, he wanted to help some of the younger members get more involved.
The build proved to be a good project for the Benedictine Knights, who had no problem lifting sheets of plywood to complete the gable on the high side of the house or lugging 80-pound bundles of shingles up the ladder. Most of them had some experience using tools and building, and they enjoyed the physical effort.
“I’m really excited to be here today,” said Deputy Grand Knight David Walter, 22, from St. Louis, adding that he has been inspired by the witness of Pope Francis.
“During one of his first homilies, [the pope] said that without the cross, you’re not living the Christian life,” said Walter. “I think today is an opportunity for us to pick up our crosses as Knights. It can be strenuous work out here on the job, but that just turns into a greater glory for God and his kingdom.”
CHARITY AND NEED
Volunteer labor is an important factor in making Habitat homes affordable, said Melissa Koch, executive director of St. Joseph Habitat for Humanity.
“I could say [the Benedictine Knights] easily saved us $3,000 to $4,000,” she said.
Although volunteer support helps reduce the cost of Habitat-built houses, it’s hard to overstate how valuable these humble homes are to their new owners. The three-bedroom house in St. Joseph, for example, is for a single mother with two young children who had never owned a home before.
“She has lived with various family,” said Koch. “Most of the places she could afford to rent are not safe and are pretty dirty and run down. This will give her an opportunity to live in a home for less than the average rent she could find.”
Habitat for Humanity homeowners are the working poor, and many are single mothers, said Koch. They struggle to find adequate, affordable housing to rent or buy.
In the United States, 10.5 million people are among the working poor, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Single mothers are more likely than their male counterparts to fall into this category. The working poor usually spend more than half of their income on housing.
“The single mothers say, ‘I want to give my children some stability and a safe place to live,’” explained Koch. Before moving into a Habitat-built home, she said, families often move frequently, which forces the children to change schools and lack consistency in their lives.
Natasha Berry, for whom this house in St. Joseph is being built, said her children are eager to move into their new home.
“My little girl is so excited,” she said. “She goes to school down the street from the house, so we have to drive by every day so she can see it.”
And what is Berry’s daughter looking forward to the most in their new house?
“A puppy dog,” said Berry. “That was the first thing that came out of my little girl’s mouth. Everywhere we’ve lived, we couldn’t have animals.”
A GLOBAL VILLAGE
In Lloydminster, Canada, a city that straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Knights of Columbus are working with Habitat for Humanity to address a division caused not by the provincial border, but by economic disparity.
“In Lloydminster, there’s a fairly good need, because housing is expensive,” said Mark Witzaney, a member of Father Dobson Council 3553. “The oil [industry] is huge, and the wages are really good, but service-sector jobs are just a little bit above minimum wage. When housing gets expensive, people on the lower end really struggle.”
For their most recent project, the Lloydminster Knights installed insulation in a six-townhouse development. Their helping hands not only helped build homes, but also a stronger community.
“Charity is giving back and helping someone else — not just giving to them, but actually helping them,” said Witzaney. “What we’re doing is helping them get into affordable housing and also become homeowners. They become part of the community that way.”
By no means are the Knights in Kansas or Alberta isolated examples. K of C units and members throughout the Order’s 62 North American jurisdictions are active in Habitat, as can be seen by the impressive totals of funds and volunteer hours donated.
For example, the Knights of Columbus Archdiocese of San Antonio Chapter in Texas co-sponsors the annual Bishop Thomas J. Flanagan Habitat for Humanity Golf Classic. Profits from the event are used to build Habitat homes. In addition to participating in the fund-raiser each year, members of Good Shepherd Council 6358 in Schertz also volunteer annually at several Habitat projects on their own.
“The families we’ve dealt with are very appreciative and excited about getting their first home,” said Jeff Heim, the council’s community director. “It’s like their first step to the American Dream, and they take great pride in it.”
Through their work with Habitat, the Knights give a highly visible witness to the power of charity.
“Going out and helping people, that’s charity,” said Heim. “We’re always looking to help organizations that are non-profit and provide service to people. That’s pretty much what the Knights like to do.”
As for the Benedictine Knights, they ended their work in the mid-afternoon with a significant portion of the roof shingled. After the hard hats, nail aprons and hammers had been put away, the experience left them with a deep sense of satisfaction — and a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a Knight.
JOE BOLLIG is a senior reporter for The Leaven, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan.