In 1990, Dick and Eileen Bartelt sat in a church dedication service in Wisconsin, hearing all about how a group of retirees, called Laborers For Christ from Lutheran Church Extension Fund, had come together to build an addition to the church property.
They were inspired.
“Right from then,” shared Eileen, “we decided that we wanted to be laborers after we retired. We prayed nightly, knowing that you have to have a source of energy and money to do this work, and then I started emptying out our house, attic, basement, all of it. Our kids didn’t think we were going to do it, but we just moved right along so that when it came time to retire and sell our house, we could buy a fifth wheel and be with the laborers.”
That’s just what the Bartelts did. In 1995, they started their adventure with Laborers For Christ, first heading to Williamsburg, Va., for their first project, and then off to five other projects around the country, from Nebraska, to Virginia again, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona.
The Bartelts would have gladly continued journeying with Laborers For Christ, but in 2001 they found out that Dick had lung cancer, mesothelioma, and wouldn’t be able to continue indefinitely. He passed away in 2004. The time they did have with Laborers For Christ was precious to them.
“The years we served with Laborers for Christ was the most fulfilling time of our lives,” explained Eileen. “My feeling has always been that the congregations we served said they were blessed to have us, however, I felt that the laborers were the ones who were truly blessed.”
For starters, Eileen said, serving with Laborers For Christ helped to strengthen her faith – and for Dick, it gave him an outlet for his faithful service to God and neighbors through the church.
“We thought [our faith] was strong before,” she recalled, “but when we heard stories about what other people had experienced, it was encouraging. I had a renewed desire to help others, especially seeing the joy others had in helping, and that impacted my life. It made me more generous with my time and money. Dick, on the other hand, his whole life was service to his church, choir, and the Walther League. He was a trustee at church. That was his life.
“Sometimes he got carried away with it,” added Eileen, laughing, “but he saw Laborers For Christ as a continuation of his service to God. People would ask him, ‘How many projects are you on?’ He’d answer, ‘Not enough!’”
Even though the Bartelts worked hard, they played hard, too. Eileen could share many stories of fun and adventure that they had throughout their time with Laborers For Christ, but there is no way, she said, that she could choose a favorite memory. There were simply too many good ones to choose just one.
Today, she continues to enjoy the relationships that she and Dick built and nurtured when they served with Laborers For Christ, and she’ll never forget the love and care shown by the congregations with whom they worked. Again, she emphasized, they were as much a blessing to her as she and the other laborers were to them.
“There was such camaraderie between the members of the churches and the laborers,” Eileen said. “We felt like such a part of the community. When in North Platte, Neb., we would get up in the morning, open the trailer door and there would be a basket of corn or potatoes. And we never knew who gave it to us. Or we’d be in a store buying stuff and someone would ask if we’re part of the group living in the trailers down at the church. Then, when we’d get to the front of the line, we were told our groceries had already been covered. Really, the congregations and communities were an absolute blessing to us – and we’ll never forget that.”
A few years after the Bartelts began their journey with Laborers For Christ, a new couple showed up on the scene. Mitch and Jan Mitchell started serving with Laborers For Christ in 1998, after hearing about the opportunity from a pastor when they were yet in their 40s.
“A long time ago, when our kids were still little, we heard a pastor in Albuquerque talk about LCEF’s Laborers For Christ,” shared Jan. “We immediately said we’d love to do that in our retirement – it sounded fun and like such a blessing, and that’s exactly how it turned out.”
Throughout the course of their 10 projects with Laborers For Christ, the Mitchells traveled to projects in their home state of Michigan to churches in Kansas, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, New Mexico and Texas. Each and every one, said Jan, was a matter of the whole community – both church and laborers – coming together to make something big happen.
“This kind of helping out, it was like the Amish do, with the whole community together putting up someone’s barn,” explained Jan. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment to build a structure that will have so many people pass through it, so many that will come to know the Lord. There was such a connection between all of us. You could feel it on ‘signing day’, when everyone goes in, both the laborers and the congregation, and together we write our favorite Bible verses on the studs. The place is literally built on the Word of God.”
According to Jan, the congregations they served not only gained a new addition or structure on their church building, but the people also grew as members of the body of Christ.
“While we were there and participating with the congregation, we were careful to set an example for them, too,” she said. “In one church where we worked, Bible study attendance increased exponentially, and continued even after we left, because we saw Bible study as being so important and we talked about it with others. It truly seemed like our enthusiasm wore off on the congregational members, no matter how long they’d been there.”
But the biggest impact, said Mitch, was on the laborers themselves.
“Laborers made such a big impact,” he noted. “We realized that the Lord had been so good to us at that point in life, that we could give back, we could then take that love and share it with the congregations we worked with.”
The Mitchells, who recently celebrated 50 years of marriage, join Eileen Bartelt in looking back fondly on their time with Laborers For Christ. But even more so, they look forward to what the future holds for the ministry.
“We’d love to see Laborers For Christ continue on and continue to grow,” said Mitch. “It’s a great opportunity for people to share God’s love with others and to get to know people around the country and make friends everywhere. We enjoyed it so much.”