GALLUP, N.M. — Father Matthew Keller has always been kind of a car guy.
“Actually, a lot of a car guy,” he told CNA, laughing.
He went to technical school as a teenager — “vocational school, funny enough,” he said — and has worked on cars with his dad and brother-in-law since he was young.
But when he decided to enter the seminary, he sold his “hot rod,” thinking he would have to leave that passion behind him.
Now a priest and the vocations director for the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., Father Keller was looking for a community-building project for seminarians, when some friends suggested he rediscover his old hobby and restore a car with them.
“The idea sort of got floated around that this would be a fraternity-building, human-formation kind of project, and then the idea came to me — I have a marketing background — and I was like, ‘Wow, this would be a great fundraiser for the vocations office,’” he said.
That’s when the idea for the project, “V8s for Vocations,” was born: Father Keller and the Gallup seminarians would restore a car together and raffle it off, with all of the money from each $25 ticket going towards the funding of seminarian education in the diocese.
The priest started asking around and, within a week, a high-school buddy of his had located a car that fit the bill.
“It was a ’72 Chevelle, kind of like a muscle car,” Father Keller said. “We found a donor right away that bought it and gave it to us to start working on.”
With the help of donated equipment, the three-car garage at the back of Sacred Heart Cathedral quickly converted into a functioning mechanics shop, where seminarians and car enthusiasts, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, started popping by to help revamp the Chevelle.
“There’s some men that would come to the garage on the back side of the church that wouldn’t necessarily come through the front doors, and they’re spending hours and hours with these men,” Father Keller said. “And it’s their way of contributing and being a part of something for God.”
“It’s that whole thing that Pope Francis is asking of us — to go to the periphery,” he added.
He has even been approached for confession in the shop.
“It became this really surprising rallying point for evangelization, and I just didn’t see that coming,” the vocations director added.
The project started over a year ago, in June 2014, and the crew is starting to feel the pressure of the fast-approaching deadline for the raffle, which is Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The date coincides with a lot of important things: This year is the 75th anniversary of the Diocese of Gallup, the 60th anniversary of Sacred Heart Cathedral and the day of diaconate ordinations.
One important part of the raffle is the winner will not have to pay the taxes on the new car.
“We raffled a new car at a former parish of mine for World Youth Day, and the people that won it couldn’t afford to keep it because they couldn’t pay the taxes on it,” Father Keller said.
“It was really disappointing for me to see that happen, so there’s a way to do it in New Mexico where the person doing the raffle can pay the taxes, so the winners walk away with the prize for $25,” he said.
They’re close to being done with the car and are getting ready to put on the finishing touches: namely, the very fitting black-and-white paint.
The seminarians also worked hard to make sure that putting the body back on the frame of the car coincided with a vocations retreat at the seminary, so that the visiting young men considering the priesthood would have a chance to work on the car with them.
Working on projects together, like building a car, is something that speaks to young people, Father Keller said.
“I think they’re looking to be engaged in a way that helps them to be fully alive,” he said, “and they’re deprived of some of that by a culture that overemphasizes individualism.”
“When they get to be part of something collective, even the retreat itself, a coming together for the purpose of giving God glory and praying for vocations, it awakens something in them that might not be being fed,” he added.
The fundraiser also contained an important personal lesson for Father.
“I went to seminary, thinking those interests were things that I had to put behind me,” he said. “But nevertheless, there was a reason for those interests, and God knew that.”
“He knew that years down the road that we’d be using cars to build the kingdom,” he added. That was a huge lesson, just for me personally: not to forget that God takes all of our gifts and our talents and our interests and puts them to use.”