I’ve worked many jobs in my past: from donuts to light bulbs with meatpacking, deliveries, and telemarketing in between. And off and on for over twenty years I worked at a printing press bindery for the same boss, Dennis Fullman.
No matter where I went, whenever I returned to Kansas City I could always work for him. But not anymore. He’s dying of cancer.
When I first started working for him, Dennis was a deacon in the church that raised me. He, his wife, and three daughters moved to Kansas City from Wichita, where he found work at a printing press and remained there. I knew him a little while growing up. His youngest daughter was just a couple years older than me. When his oldest daughter got married it was one of those classic weddings my Mom dragged me to when I was a boy who couldn’t yet stay at home by myself on a nice Saturday afternoon.
When I reported for work the first time in 1997, I was just 18 years old. I’d never worked an 8-hour shift before and had no idea there would be plenty more 10, 12, and even one 16-hour day left to come.
After the first few days, my legs hurt constantly. It wasn’t long before I found myself lamenting Sunday nights and an early bedtime. I learned how to eat quickly at work. There were no lengthy lunch breaks. Just two ten-minute breaks to empty what was full and fill what was empty.
My coworkers were a mixed group. We literally had people wearing blue-collared jumpsuits in the plant and white-collared dress shirts in the office. Temp guys like me just wore whatever we didn’t mind getting dirty. Some permanent workers at the plant were friendly to us temps. Others gruffled whenever I bothered them for a tool or advice.
I was shocked when I came to work at 7AM only to find Dennis was actually ending his day. He’d worked there for years and was still on the night shift. Why? It was simple. He chose that shift when he had daughters at home. He’d never see them if he worked afternoons and evenings, so he worked while they slept and then slept while they went to school.
At work Dennis was always calm. Sometimes our project would be stressful, as we had to ship tens of thousands of school agendas all over the country by the end of each summer. Mistakes would often cause endless delays. But he never lost his temper with machines or hot-headed teenagers. If I close my eyes I can imagine him quietly putting on his glasses and then pulling allen wrenches from his pocket to adjust my machine.
After the first few summers with him I graduated from college, got married, and started a family of my own. But here and there I’d find myself back in Kansas City in need of quick work, so I’d call Dennis. And he’d always find a spot for me while I looked for a more permanent option.
Over the years his job changed from nights to days and from the plant to the office. His wife, Lily, even started to join him on site. And what was once just two acquaintances at church became good friends to my wife and me. We’d visit them at their home, talk, and find ourselves mentored over dinner, talks, and prayer.
There’s dignity and value in most any job, and God used Dennis for decades at a printing press. He showed up on time, worked hard, and invested in the countless people that came and went along the way. I never met one person at the plant who didn’t respect Dennis. They all knew he was a Christian. Dennis lived in a such a way that there never was any doubt. Work like that is always the Lord’s work.
In a rush of document-gathering to move to Brazil, Marci and I found ourselves in Kansas City one more time last fall. We couldn’t resist seeing Dennis and Lily. There was no meal. Just a visit. Stories. Prayers. And, yes, some tears. We wouldn’t say it out loud, but we all knew we wouldn’t see Dennis again.
And yet, on this side of Easter Sunday, I know I will see him again where there won’t be any more cancer. Or death.
It’s easy to underestimate all the ways that God uses us. We might think we need to do something radical or drastic for God. We either must climb great heights or perform exhausting tasks. But Luther’s Reformation was partly built on reminding ordinary Christians that God is using them in and through their daily work whether at home or on the job.
Here’s the secret. When God slams someone right in front of you, open yourselves to them. That’s what Dennis and Lily did for my wife and me.
I hope one day I’ll get to pay it forward.
One week after writing this Dennis died.