WEIGHING IN – Judy Croshaw, now 78 years old, has been a member of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church since she was 12. In fact, her sister was the first bride ever married at the church, and Croshaw herself was married there in 1967, with sunlight streaming through the beautiful stained glass.
Why then has Croshaw – veritable church royalty (my words, not hers) – spent so many hours with her sleeves rolled up painting the walls, hanging decorations or taking care of any other number of odd jobs at the Glenville church?
Because that’s exactly what Croshaw has signed up to do.
Croshaw and her husband, Phil, are two members of the church’s Black N’ Blue Thumb Crew. The crew, lovingly named for the color of a thumb that’s been smacked with a hammer, is a group of 20 or so parishioners who volunteer their time every week to fix up the facility. They laughingly make no promise about the quality of their handiwork, though, in truth, many of the members are skilled craftspeople, whether as mechanics or master gardeners.
The group’s volunteerism is the kind of fellowship and commitment to the community that we need to cherish. And it’s all the more important to keep that spirit in mind during the holidays, when materialism too often clouds the meaning of the season.
Like all great legends, the origin story of the Black N’ Blue Crew has evolved over countless retellings. But Nancy Mesh, 82, credited with being the longest-serving current member, said the group dates to 1974, when she and a few fellow church members volunteered to take care of the gardening and weeding on the grounds.
The current version of the group, which comes every Tuesday morning but is also on call to do everything from unclogging a toilet to rewiring the sound system, solidified in the early 2000s when some retirees began showing up to provide maintenance services. They were guided and encouraged by then-pastor Gary Sandberg.
In the years since, the crew has built everything from sheds to a blessing box to a memorial garden where families can spread their loved one’s ashes, and come to meditate and reflect. I recently met up with the crew when they were busy hanging Christmas lights in between coffee and conversation.
One of the most significant projects was creating an outdoor chapel in the church’s backyard. The job required constructing more than a dozen rows of pews and completing the stonework of the altar. Finished in 2006, the outdoor worship area took two summers of labor. Now, every nice Sunday, the space is where the parish of roughly 700 members gathers for prayer.
The Black N’ Blue gang is also a traveling band. They’ve completed mission trips to Central Pennsylvania and Western Massachusetts. They helped rebuild after flooding in the Schoharie Valley.
They’ve gutted houses, erected wallboard, installed railings.
Pastor Deron Milleville, who has been with the church for more than 15 years, said without the volunteers, Good Shepherd would be spending more money and waiting a lot longer to tick items off its long docket of to-dos.
“Remodeling rooms, putting in a new drop ceiling, changing a light socket – that stuff just wouldn’t happen as easily. When I suggest something, I get the playful eye roll and the laugh, and then it happens,” Milleville said. “They have such care and respect. And I think it’s more than institutional: it’s spiritual. They all love this place.”
The Black N’ Blue are made up primarily of retirees, since the Tuesday meetup happens in the morning and it’s beneficial to have members with flexible schedules. But, like the church itself, it’s always looking to welcome new members to its community.
Cheryl Gauthier, 69, was first introduced to the church and its Black N’ Blue crew about six years ago when her husband, Randy, was sick with a brain disease. Not then a member of the church, Randy tagged along with his friend Davis Willoughby, 70, a former mechanic at the Air National Guard Base in Glenville who has been a member of the blue thumbers since 2008 and a member of church since 1983.
Randy was an engineer, so he was something of an asset to the group, but mostly the volunteerism and handiwork afforded him something else to focus on as he got sicker, Gauthier said.
Plus, Randy just enjoyed hanging out with the crew, Gauthier said.
“They were always kind and welcoming. They welcomed him no matter what,” Gauthier said. “So then I said, ‘Well, why aren’t we a part of this beautiful group?’ That’s how we came to be members (of the church), and I’ve been welcomed ever since.”
Randy died in 2018, but now Gauthier is a member of the volunteer crew as well as an active member of the church. On Tuesdays, she normally wears her husband’s old Black N’ Blue shirt to keep his spirit alive.
Especially during the holidays, she’s apt to remember how volunteerism introduced her family into the community.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.