GLORIETA, N.M. — Bob Cassily firmly holds a heat-resistant brick in one hand and uses a hammer to chip away the quarter-inch excess with the kind of precision Michelangelo might have used to chip away marble as he created the classic statue of David.
No one may ever give a second thought to how perfectly the dozens of bricks fit together to form the lining of a fire pit, but that doesn’t matter to Cassily. He’s pouring decades of experience in undertaking this project for God.
“I feel like this puts my life up to this point in perspective,” the New Hampshire native said. “I feel I’ve been prepared in my background as a mason to come here and serve and meet a real need here, and I really enjoy doing that.”
“Here” is LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center near Santa Fe, N.M. Cassily and his wife Gloria are two of nearly 200 people, mostly retirees, who served as volunteers at the 55-year-old retreat center and contributed more than 27,000 hours of labor in 2008.
The effort is duplicated at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville. Both conference centers are operated by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Like many of the volunteers, the Cassilys live in a recreational vehicle and travel the country. But they’ve called Glorieta home since April because there has been no shortage of opportunities for a master mason with experience in high-end stone work.
His rugged hands reveal the story of a man who has spent a lifetime bringing decorative form to granite stones and other common building materials. Here he builds an elaborate pit that features a granite cross on the opposite side of where thousands of young people will sit during the years to come.
“We try to keep the big picture in front of us,” Cassily said. “Each year 2,000 people either come to the Lord or dedicate their lives to ministry here at Glorieta. That’s what we focus on. It is deeply satisfying to know I can use what God has equipped me to do by being a part of creating an atmosphere where people come and hear from the Lord. It makes it all worth it.”
Across the campus at the Glorieta prayer garden, Midge Hyatt cradles shoots of a tender ground ivy plant as she prepares the ground with rich, dark soil she’s mixed in a five-gallon bucket. The red clay and rocky soil at Glorieta is hardly conducive to vibrant plant growth, so Hyatt uses a recipe that will ensure healthy plants. She has it memorized after six years of volunteering alongside her husband Phil. The Lafayette, La., natives offer about five months a year to Glorieta and spend much of their time working in the prayer garden.
“We keep coming back because of all the young people who come out here,” Hyatt said. “We will sometimes find little notes about their burdens or prayers they’ve written on little pieces of paper and stuck in the rocks. It is a spiritual experience to walk through the garden and see the culmination of your work and know that you’ve had a hand in creating a place where so many people make so many big life decisions.”
Hal Hill, LifeWay’s manager of Glorieta, said the service volunteers render is vital. With a limited paid staff, the volunteers handle jobs such as cafeteria duty, grounds maintenance, guest hospitality and food service.
“The service we provide at Glorieta could not exist without our volunteers,” Hill said. “Our staff provides a structure, but there isn’t enough of us to do the type of administration work that needs to be done and have extensive contact with our guests.
“The volunteers are the ones who have a lot of interaction with guests and are great ambassadors for our ministry to people,” he said. “We have to have them.”
Dave Zarbaugh, a volunteer from San Antonio, said the ministry to others and the camaraderie he shares with fellow volunteers is what brings him back to Glorieta. He said he never knows where or when a ministry opportunity presents itself.
“I was leading the devotional this morning for the kitchen staff and one of the delivery drivers was in there with us,” Zarbaugh recounted. “After it was over he told me how meaningful it was to him and that he’d be back next Thursday to be a part of the devotional. He asked that I pray for him.
“There is always an opportunity here to do God’s work,” Zarbaugh said. “I just simply believe this campus is anointed by God as a place where He meets people.”
The conference centers offer a number of opportunities for volunteer groups as well. Carpentry teams from Texas and Oklahoma, among other states, have come for two weeks or more and built furniture and a variety of other needed items. Some Baptist Campus Ministries come to Glorieta during spring break to do a service project such as painting buildings or sprucing up the grounds after winter’s thaw.
“We can pretty much work with anyone or any group who wants to come,” said Fred Laird, Glorieta’s volunteer coordinator. “One of the things I love about our volunteers is the diversity of experience they bring. We’ll have carpenters, plumbers, electricians and all sorts of trades, but we also have people who have been missionaries, administrators and school teachers. They bring so much, but the one thing they have in common is a love for serving the Lord and a love for people. They are always willing to go the extra mile. Each one brings something unique.”
Cassily is testimony to that. Master masons don’t come around often, and it was a meeting at an RV park in Florida that directed him across the country to Glorieta in New Mexico.
“We met some people who’d just come from volunteering here,” Cassily said. “The more they talked about it and said it was the best experience of their lives, the more we felt we needed to come. I believe God was speaking to me through them, saying this is where He wanted me.”
And now Cassily hopes God will use something as simple as a fire pit as a place to speak to thousands of young people in ways that will eternally impact their lives.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Turner is media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources. Additional information and volunteer opportunities at Glorieta and Ridgecrest can be found at www.lifeway.com/glorietavolunteers and www.lifeway.com/ridgecrestvolunteers.)