The small agricultural town of Yuma, Colo. — 140 miles northeast of Denver — is home to a parish known for its enthusiastic priest, its diverse community and a fire truck.
Yuma’s St. John the Evangelist was also one of the stops for Totus Tuus, a summer catechetical program taught by college-age men and women.
“Totus Tuus is modeled after vacation Bible school; the difference is Totus Tuus is vacation Bible school with a very strong Catholic flavor,” said Daniel Ciucci, coordinator of the program on behalf of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, which is named for the saint of parish priests, whose feast day is Aug. 4.
Totus Tuus — the Latin translation of “Totally Yours” and St. John Paul II’s apostolic motto — is a weeklong program designed to help children and youth get to know Jesus on a personal level.
The program emphasizes experiential learning for every part of the Catholic faith, from the correct way to make the Sign of the Cross to “trying on” religious life by wearing habits. Activities include classroom instruction, role-playing, skits, songs and crafts, along with Mass, adoration, confession and praying the Rosary.
“We play hard, and we pray hard,” said Ciucci.
The Denver-based Totus Tuus is a spin-off of the original program, which was founded in Wichita, Kan. When the Denver program began in the summer of 2000, two teams served five parishes each. This year, seven teams served seven parishes each in Colorado, with additional teams traveling internationally to parishes in Japan and England and pilot teams headed to the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Yakima, Wash.
For Charlie Marks and Morgan Dowling, both 19 years old, Totus Tuus is more than just another summer job. The two chose to spend their time off from college volunteering as Totus Tuus teachers.
“Totus Tuus really changed my life,” said Dowling, a sophomore at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. “It had a profound impact on my relationship with Jesus. I realized it was a relationship, not just something you did on Sundays. I wanted to come and serve as I was served before.”
Dowling and Marks are two of the 30 young adults serving in the program this summer. All of the teachers went through an application and training process before being sent out in teams of two men and two women to different parishes around Colorado.
“To give my whole summer to something, to give it up for Christ, is pretty cool,” said Marks, a sophomore at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. “This is one of the first times I’ve been immersed in a community of solid, faithful Catholic people. We go to Mass together; we pray together. I want more of that in my life.”
Marks and Dowling spent their first week as Totus Tuus teachers at St. John the Evangelist in Yuma, which sits near the Kansas-Nebraska-Colorado border and is known for the highest corn yield in Colorado.
Farming is a way of life, including for many of the town’s immigrant families. Of the 3,600 people who live in Yuma, 24% were born outside of the United States, and 30% speak a language other than English in the home.
“Few of us spoke Spanish,” said Dowling. “But the Hispanic community here was so welcoming. They let us step into their lives and participate in their culture.”
Every year, the Totus Tuus team members become a part of the parish community in Yuma. They live with host families and participate in community events.
“We got to see the families and the other parts of parish life,” said Marks. “They learned about us, and we learned a lot about them.”
Nine years ago, Juan Carlos and Lety Cortes moved to Yuma from Mexico City for better work opportunities. Their son Juan Carlos is an altar server at the parish, a ministry he joined after his first summer as a Totus Tuus participant.
“He grows a lot in faith during Totus Tuus,” said Lety Cortes. “He wants to be a priest.”
At the end of the week, the kids celebrate with the team members, and a water fight ensues. The water fight in Yuma, however, is unlike at any other parish — because the Yuma Fire Department is involved.
Father Jonathan Dellinger, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, first invited the town firefighters to participate seven years ago.
Now for this yearly tradition, the Yuma firefighters bring a truck and set up multiple hoses to kick off the water fight. Families and community members arrive to watch not only the kids and team members, but also Father Dellinger, chase after each other with buckets of water and water balloons.
“That’s how small communities work — they are so tightly knit,” said Father Dellinger. “This community is a family.”
Added Ciucci, “God is filling these teachers with grace to be able to overflow on the parishes.”
Autumn Jones visited
to file this story.
She writes from Denver.
Photo by Emilie Bierschenk.