“The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” — Gordon B. Hinckley
Sitting at a fortified card table in the remodeled garage he calls home, Steve Lawless reminisces about his father. The space is small, humble, and laced with beauty —a reflection of Steve’s interior (if not his imposing stature,) as well as the time he spent, during his twenties, living and working with the Jesuits. Built by Steve’s own hands, the “garage-mahal” is bathed in comfortable and welcoming warmth; suffused with small details that make it a home, like the antique tractor-seat stools or the small rose-glass bowl that once belonged to his mother, now sitting next to a handmade stained-glass window. Steve, whose lean body stretches out to 6’6’’ and whose sizable hands reveal the rich history of an uncommon life, folds himself into a small wooden chair to talk about the community-building service trips he marshals out of his sleeper coach, a converted passenger bus aptly named “The Merry Green Marvel.”
In an effort to illustrate the spirit of his work, Steve recounts his father’s legacy as an usher in the Catholic church of their hometown, Eldora, Iowa. “He would show congregants to their seats and then ring the bell to start the service,” Steve says.
Noting that “human connection is a form of spiritual creativity,” Steve draws parallels between his father’s ushering and his own work with the Marvel.
“I see myself as ringing the bell for a spiritual experience, and ushering participants into an adventure that will pull them out of their comfort zone and extend them into the heart of service. When this is possible, amazing things can unfold inside and around you. You will have stories to tell and a sense of expanding yourself beyond what you knew was possible. You will be more aware of the world around you.”
“These trips are about building community on a deep level,” he continues. “Simply going in and mucking out a flooded home or going out and doing wetland restoration work is not really community-building in its deepest sense. The work needs to be tied into the community on a more meaningful level.”
Indeed, relationships are at the heart of what Steve hopes to accomplish with this form of outreach. He believes that taking the time to understand the histories and concerns of the people one is serving is critical to generating meaningful human connections.
“There is a difference between “charity” (sharing wealth and helping where you can) and the experiences I am working to create. Charity can be isolating in the sense that you are doing the work, but have little connection to the people you are helping. I am propelled by the Australian civil rights worker Lilla Watson who said: ‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
In late December 2018, twenty students from Ohio State University made their way down to the city of New Orleans, where they met up with Steve and the long, shiny bus that would serve as kitchen, sleeping quarters, and basecamp for the next week. New to each other, they quietly unloaded their belongings, but Steve soon had them working together to fix a group dinner. There is nothing quite like embarking on a shared undertaking to quickly dissolve those awkward uncertainties that reside buried within us, and before long this mixed, unfamiliar assemblage had coalesced into a fledgling group of new friends, bubbling with laughter, interested in hearing each others stories, and working steadily side by side. This uncomplicated dinner was the gateway to a week that would bestow ever-widening circles of service, friendship, and community-building.
A typical day on the Marvel involves connection and congregation from the early- morning hours, when the group prepares breakfast together, throughout the day as they roll out into local sites offering service and sharing stories, and into the evenings around the campsite or dancing in a local venue. Assignments vary from environmental stewardship projects like bagging oyster shells to help build a living shoreline, or planting cypress trees to protect the bayous, to cooking and serving in local food banks or offering support in a youth community center. All the while, students engage with local community leaders, listen deeply, share stories, and learn where the struggles and strengths of the community reside. Steve sees this work as transformative learning at its best — the endeavor to create opportunities for active citizenship.
“I tell the volunteers that when you enter people’s lives you have a chance to see what resiliency looks like. Whether it’s through relief work in a flooded home, conversing with a mother at a food pantry, or even planting cypress trees as part of erosion mitigation, Resiliency is at work. I like to use that capital “R” for resiliency. With it, I mean the power of the human spirit and Nature’s ability to heal is moving! No matter the ravages of storms, oppressions, and greed, resiliency wants to find a way to pick folks up again —to grow green and robust again!”
When these volunteers are opening their hearts to service, they can’t help but give some witness to this resiliency, Steve says. “That open-heartedness is key, because when they go home they have these stories and the faces of resiliency inside them. In the South, they call that the Blues! This experience widens and deepens their heart to have compassion and grit in all the brokenness inherent in life. Maybe it’s having a certain gravitas when it comes to being there for that struggling friend or family member, or having the fortitude to move toward the problem in their home communities rather than thinking it’s not their problem. It’s powerful to know you have inner resources to move forward rather than avoid. That’s the kind of leadership and community that people want to be invited into and be a part of. Resiliency is the fiber that weaves a faith life: that can take a deep breath, nod the head, and take another step knowing, ‘This too shall pass.’ And being there for each other. Weaving this faith together, is essential to the resiliency needed in creating strong communities. This is the lesson at the heart of service learning.”
In order to truly understand the depth and richness of the adventures that Steve now guides, one must make sense of the aggregate experiences of his life’s journey, all of which have been folded in to the Merry Green Marvel. The bedrock doctrines of the Marvel reflect the three primary chapters of Steve’s biography: hospitality, outreach and education.
As he describes his childhood, growing up the youngest of five children on a farm in Eldora, the first word that comes to Steve’s mind is “hospitality.” He tells of a culture that is increasingly rare these days, one in which the notion of “neighboring” is presented as a verb. “Where there were once ten farmers, each tending around 250 acres, there is now one 2000 acre tract managed by a single farmer,” he says. And while many have accepted these changes as the cost of “progress,” Steve laments the deep personal connections rooted in the farming culture of his childhood that have been lost. Hospitality was in the bones of his community, as nearby friends and relatives shared equipment, made hay, and shelled corn together, augmenting those undertakings with shared meals and the stories of their lives.
“We looked after each other, helped each other, and knew that was at the base of our community,” he muses, noting that these childhood lessons —the sense of accomplishment and well-being that come from shared work— is a foundational principle on the Merry Green Marvel.
After graduating from Marquette University in 1984, Steve entered the Jesuit novitiate, spending two years as a novice and exploring the religious life. These years provided him with a wide variety of experiences, ranging from working in homeless shelters and cancer wards, to a 30-day silent retreat, to helping a group of Hmong-Lao refugees start a community farm in Iowa —undertakings that gave him a powerful sense of purpose and meaning.
“This was the richest, most-formative educational experience of my young adulthood,” he says. “There was an amazing community of men who were dedicated to community outreach and social justice work; who had a sense of spiritual direction through the exercises of St. Ignatius (giving things their “best interpretation”). We believed that if we did our due diligence, good things would come. We were steeped in the belief that the world is ‘charged with the grandeur of God.’”
Though he ultimately opted out of the priesthood, Steve continued to be influenced by the deep impressions made during those years of contemplation and service. Informed by all he’d learned, he went on to pursue a graduate degree in literature and education. Education would become his path to service, and the deep well of literary knowledge would help imbue the work with the language of love and beauty.
During his career as a teacher, Steve never took the conventional path. Instead, he chose a creative approach, helping start a chartered farm school in Michigan, teaching on a Native American Reservation, and shepherding a Waldorf school class from third through eighth grade. All along the way, Steve incorporated and emphasized the joys of service, the relationships forged through shared physical labor, and connection to the natural world.
Today, although his service doesn’t take place within the walls of a church, Steve has found that he increasingly follows in his father’s footsteps as an usher. Welcoming adventurers aboard the Marvel, Steve ushers them into experiences that push boundaries while simultaneously building meaningful connection. In a historical moment when many bemoan the stresses of “connection overload” we continue to be a society permeated with isolation, loneliness, and the search for meaningful purpose. Preferring the role of “guide on the side” to that of “sage on the stage,” Steve offers an opening for rich and meaningful connection. A trip on the Merry Green Marvel is an invitation to build bridges, experience the edges of physical and emotional comfort, and engage in the thrill of getting outside the familiar.
The effort is paying off as seen by the testimonials of his adventurers:
“You have given me a gift that I will carry with me for the rest of my life… I have seen the soul of a nation and the heart of a country, and I have been inspired by the displays of kindness and community that woke me up each morning and went to bed with me each night. On the first day of our trip you told us that “a hero is nothing more than a community member with the passion and drive to be the change they want to see.” On this last day, I think I at last understand that it is these people that make up the fabric of any great and successful society. Thank you for showing me this side of humanity that is often lost in the hustle and bustle of the modern world.” —Alex
“I was very hesitant about participating in this program. The thought of sharing a bus with 20 people sounded terrifying and I knew it would be a huge step outside my comfort zone. However, when you first introduced yourself and offered to take us to City Park after midnight to grab beignets and learn about Louisiana culture, I knew I was in for a real treat.” —Marissa
“You have a contagious joy and adventurous spirit that brings smiles and inspiration to everyone around you. You have made a lasting impact on my life and have shown me what it means to have a compassionate heart for service.” —Raj
“I would not have wanted to spend this week anywhere else, and I thank you for sharing your home with us and teaching us how to live simply while creating lasting relationships… The Merry Green Marvel is more than just a bus —it is a way of life that I plan to continue after I go back home.” —Kristina
“ Not only did you introduce us to some of the kindest, most generous people, but you helped us understand why it was important to know these people. Your dedication to serving others has truly inspired me to approach this world with an open heart and mind. I hope that I can one day touch other’s lives the way that you have.” —Julia
For more information about trips on the Marvel, click here.