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Fraternalist of the Year

“So how did you find out you were Fraternalist of the Year?” I asked Michael (Mike) Bach, who has been Chief Ranger (CR) of his court, St. Joseph 552, Mankato, Minn., for almost four years now.  

“It was quite funny actually,” Mike said, beginning to tell the story with help from his family.

It all started with a letter. His daughter Christian nominated him to be Fraternalist of the Year but kept it a secret, then his wife Sandra (Sandy) found out by accident when she got the mail one day and saw an envelope addressed to Christian. Realizing it was a letter informing them Mike had been named Fraternalist of the Year, she and Christian set out to keep it a secret from Mike.

As it is normally Mike’s self-described ritual to get the mail when he comes home, he was taken aback when there was no mail for a few days. “I asked Sandy and she just said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m sure if you needed something it would be there. Just stop asking!’ So, I thought, I won’t talk about the mail anymore!” Mike recalled with a laugh.

When more letters followed the first, Sandy realized they had a problem if someone was going to be contacting him, so they finally told him. “Dad probably thought it was a joke at first, like we were teasing him,” said Matthew, Mike’s youngest son. Mike confirmed this, saying until they brought out the letter to show him, he thought, “That’s a dirty trick!” As to how it feels now that he knows it isn’t a prank, Mike said with a smile, “It’s nice. I was shocked!”

And a fitting title it is for Mike, who exhibits a kind of true neighborly love that can only be learned by humbling oneself so much you learn the fullness of what it means to receive this kind of love from the other side.

Living with Less

Mike has been a member of Catholic Order of Foresters (COF) his whole life; his grandparents bought him a policy when he was born. In turn, when he had children, he bought each of them policies. Mike called Agent Duane Mock while they were still at the hospital, much to Sandy’s surprise, who thought he was crazy.

Buying the children life insurance policies at birth would soon seem not so crazy in comparison to what came next, though. Shortly after Christian was born, Mike and Sandy made a drastic move—literally. They sold everything they owned and moved into a homeless shelter to become its resident managers.

“I remember when we were sitting in church and Mike handed me the bulletin, saying, ‘They’re looking for resident managers at the homeless shelter, I feel called to this. Pray for me,’” Sandy said. “And I’m sitting there holding my newborn baby like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll pray for you. Pray I will!’”

Mike knew immediately it was the Holy Spirit calling them and they would be moving in, but it took Sandy a bit more time. They held a garage sale at Sandy’s parents’ house to sell everything, which was not difficult—they have never felt an attachment to material items. With everything sold, they moved into their small living space at the homeless shelter and began the next nine months of their lives doing more with less.

They didn’t tell anyone who came in or out of the shelter that they were its managers. The shelter was for women and children, making it easy for Sandy to blend in with newborn Christian on her back.

This came with its due challenges, as the assumption that Sandy and Mike were homeless meant they were often treated as though they were homeless. Sandy said, “There were times when people from our church were there to ‘do good’, not understanding our role at the shelter—not that it should matter—and Christian would say hi to them, but they wouldn’t say hi back. As a mother, just imagine what that feels like. It takes a toll on you.”

An experience like theirs is an eye-opening look at society and its notions about the value of other people based on their perceived economic status. Both Sandy and Mike agree their time in the shelter was wonderful for providing them the opportunity to tangibly give back and serve, as well as to learn about the culture they live in.  

After nine months, Sandy remembered the moment she knew it was time to move on. “I’d lost my ability to see the good in people anymore. You can only be treated that way so many times. Christian and I were at a four-way stop in our car, and a man waved me through the intersection with a smile. I had to pull over and cry, I was so touched! Honestly, just smiling or holding the door open for a person makes that much difference. You never know where they’re coming from.”

This unique opportunity to see life from a new perspective gave Mike and Sandy valuable insight to carry with them as they embarked on perhaps less intense service opportunities. Most notably of which is Mike’s favorite event, their annual Christmas party.

The Christmas Spirit

“Mike loves to decorate. Even when he was in high school, all the businesses around would hire him to decorate for them and he would win decorating contests in the town. It’s kind of his thing, so he can channel all that energy into the Christmas party. It’s an outlet for him,” Sandy explained.

It is truly a passion project for Mike, who pulls out all the stops and brings in the whole family to help. Christian and her brothers James and Matthew provide their services to help set up and then dress up as elves for the party itself. “It takes a whole weekend for us to put it all together…to get all the trees to the church we have to use more than one car,” James said. The effort does not go to waste, as Mike said they usually get about 75-100 guests, with the number increasing every year. “We think it has to do with his Christmas spirit,” James surmised, looking to his father.

Matthew jokingly chimed in, “And the elves! All the kids want to play with the elves.”

The decorations serve a deeper purpose than simply making the room look nice, though. Mike revealed the heart beneath it, saying, “When we were at the homeless shelter, I always thought the food was good, but if we had tablecloths that would mean something, because it’s special.” Going the extra mile to make someone feel appreciated is what Mike and his family are all about. They are always tithing for COF events or necessities, like providing new tablecloths. “We just wanted to serve, so we learned hospitality and that’s why we do it so big. I love to serve,” Mike smiled.

Court Impact

When asked how to achieve these perfect events, Mike said wholeheartedly, “Organization. Planning.” Mike’s organizational skills are unchallenged, as being the court Youth Director for around seven years and then switching to his CR position has provided him with ample opportunity to streamline events. “It’s a little less work [being CR], but I like it. It’s different. I like the business of it, the meetings…there’s always something to do, as we have a big enough court to have members who do things. And Sharon makes my job easy!” Mike said, mentioning Recording Secretary and Agent Sharon Mock.

“Mike has been a great asset to our court. His enthusiasm and positive attitude of ‘We’ll make it happen’ has been a boost to our court’s activities,” Sharon told us. “He promotes COF membership, and has referred several individuals who then became members. In addition, he has personally served meals at the Salvation Army and encourages his children to be active in the Church.”

Christian, who has taken over Mike’s duties as court Youth Director for the past three years, wrote similar praise of her father in the nomination, saying, “My dad is always willing to go above and beyond to help out with youth activities, and he is very strong in his Catholic faith. He loves spending his time helping around the church and does weekly adoration for an hour…he has put his whole heart and soul into serving St. Joseph’s court.”

A man of faith, charity and humility, Mike exhibits holy virtues in every aspect of his life. After just spending an hour with him and his family, it was evident to me that he has a spirit willing to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) and take up their cross with them in his mission to ultimately serve God.

Article by Alison Mink.

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