‘Preparing Him room’ in the Heartland

by Anita McSorley 

Photographers are a strange breed.

They’re the sort of folks who happily crawl under, lean over and, on occasion, suspend above all sorts of things to get the perfect shot.

They will drive any distance, brave any weather, and talk their way through any obstacle short of the TSA, all to lay their lens on just one indelible image.

For this issue, I asked them to do all three.

My e-mail went out only a few weeks ago: “The Leaven has decided to undertake something we’ve discussed for years — a special issue featuring a day in the life of the archdiocesan church as documented in photographs.

“It will mean round-the-clock hours, tons of driving (with no mileage comp) and a shot list as long as your arm.

“Are you in?”

The responses were quick and overwhelmingly positive.

“Sounds really fun.”

“I am ready and willing.”

“I would love to participate.”

And, my personal favorite: “Thank you for asking me.”

I told you they were a strange breed.

Logistical nightmare

The job of trying to create shot lists for 10 photographers trying to document an entire church in the course of a single day (12:01 a.m. to midnight, Dec. 15) was a gargantuan one. So, being the good manager that I am, I quickly delegated the task to production manager Todd Habiger.

Photographing church activities is by no means an unusual activity for any of the 10, most of whom have covered scads of church events in the past. But to photograph THE church — not a liturgy or a dedication, but the living, breathing, round-the-clock-kingdom-building work that we each hopefully engage in each day — was a different animal altogether.

The first challenge was the light — or lack thereof. From those keeping company with Jesus in the middle of the night, to Father Shawn Tunink’s candlelit morning Mass in Topeka (surprise!), it was at first the lighting that found the photographers stretching the limits of their expertise and ingenuity.

Home-field advantage

The second challenge was the distances. Some photographers had it easier than others. Todd had mapped out the shoots by geographical regions: While some photogs drove from town to town to catch events at parishes throughout their region, Don Wolf wound up covering his hometown.

Despite having the longest shot list — Don hit a record 15 locations and logged a surprising 73 miles without every leaving Kansas City, Kan. — he discovered he had personal ties to literally every single one of the churches or agencies he photographed. Don said he never realized how proud he was to be a ’Dotte (a born- and-bred Wyandotte Countian) and a KCK Catholic.

JD Benning, photographer for St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, also did not have far to go for his shoot. Although he had to psych himself up to brave the midnight cold, once out there JD was impressed by how instrumental the church was in the life of the community — “both in times of prayer, such as morning and evening prayer at the abbey and Mount,” and in practical service, like at Project Concern, a soup kitchen-type of program sponsored by the church.

Holy ground

Leaven senior reporter Joe Bollig, on the other hand, was traveling territory less familiar to him in Wamego and Paxico, then on to Emporia. With a shot list shorter than the professional photogs, Joe had time to follow up his visit to a farm family saying grace before its mid- day meal with a trip out with one of the sons to move the cattle.

How does moving cattle constitute an act of faith, you might ask?

Joe, a recent graduate of the Maryvale Institute catechesis program, said the answer is simple.

The activities documented in this issue, he insisted, “aren’t photographic trivia, but the very substance of holy lives — the places where Christ’s will is incarnated daily in his body — the church — which is the People of God.”

Not all of the members of The Leaven staff were waxing catechetical over their assignments. Todd, who had a little more time to spare than the other photographers (whom he had failed to schedule for even so much as a lunch break) decided to take a moment to explore a low-maintenance road that was more grass than dirt.

“Fittingly enough it led nowhere,” said Todd, “which seemed perfect to me.”

The 250-plus miles he logged in the Southern Region of the archdiocese reminded him of just what a vast amount of territory the archdiocese covers. Impressed by the “rolling hills and vast pastures” he drove through, Todd concluded that “there is such a quiet peacefulness in our rural areas that is beautiful — and sacred.”

Teamwork

Being married to the assignment edi- tor didn’t buy photographer Lori Wood

Herbivore any special breaks, since her first shoot was of Father John Schmeidler, OFM Cap., as he prepared to start his daily run at some ridiculous hour in the morning. Although she brought back some beautiful images from that and other shoots, it is the one that got away that haunts her.

When the freezing rain in the early evening cause her to slide through a stop sign in Topeka, Lori decided she’d better head home instead of to her last assignment.  Naturally, it was the one she was most looking forward to: the children of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church performing “Las Posadas,” a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a birthplace for Jesus.

The Leaven’s two primary photographers — Susan McSpadden and Elaina Cochran — found Dec. 15 a delightful change from the many, more formal, church activities they usually cover for us.

“As a photographer,” said Susan, “I’m always amazed and humbled by how willing people are to let you into their lives.”

But what she particularly loved about this project was the opportunity to show more “personal and human” moments in the life of the church.

Elaina, on the other hand, said she particularly enjoyed being part of a team; even though the photographers shot alone, the phone calls, e-mails, and texts between them flew, especially in the early hours. One of Elaina’s most memorable shoots, she said, was of the relative who now fills the shoes of the previous “Shoe Santa.”

Fernando Ugarte’s day job as a surgeon in Marysville doesn’t leave him much time to shoot for The Leaven. But on Dec. 15 he drove more than 200 miles to cover eight events and described it as “the best Christmas present I ever had.”

He does consider it a minor miracle, however, that the patient that suddenly required his urgent attention that day resided in Axtell. You see, when the call came in, he was already there, photographing St. Michael School’s Christmas pageant. Who says doctors don’t make house calls anymore?

Perhaps Leaven writer Jill Ragar Es- feld had the most transformative day, since the self-described “writer by trade and photographer by default” finally cast aside her training wheels and shot her assignments on manual settings. For a fuller account of her day, and this special issue in slide-show format, visit The Leaven Web site at www.theleaven.com.

A remarkable day

We’ll let you, our readers, be the judge of how good a job we did of capturing a single day in the life of the archdiocese.

But we know our own lives have been enriched immeasurably by the opportunity to see all of you, as the Christmas carol goes, “preparing Him room.”

May the Christ child find you home to him in a new way this Christmas season, as we found you home to us.

I think Dr. Ugarte spoke for all of us here at The Leaven — when he’d thawed out enough to type — when he wrote:

“I had a truly remarkable day. “Can we do it again? Soon?”

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