DIVIDE, Colorado (Mennonite Mission Network) — "People plan, and God laughs," quoted Matt Lehman Wiens, when asked about the six-month sabbatical he and his wife, Dr. Ruth Lehman Wiens, had planned for this year.
After Ruth Lehman Wiens finished her family medicine residency in June, the couple had intended to serve at Iona Abbey in Scotland for several months.
The McPherson, Kansas, couple described how they ended up volunteering on the Pikes Peak Massif in Colorado, instead of the island in the Hebrides. The couple shared this change of plans, during a November 12 Zoom interview, from the lodge at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp (RMMC).
Their plan to serve at the abbey was born out of a shared experience in summer 2012. "We had both been to Iona after Matt graduated college and after my junior year of college," Ruth Lehman Wiens said. "We spent about two months there… and we had always wanted to go back." She explained that the volunteer housekeeping work was backbreaking, but the diverse inter-denominational held an inescapable attraction.
The Scottish sojourn was still officially possible — despite widespread travel and health restrictions — which brought much uncertainty for the couple, as they had to make difficult choices based on COVID-19 safety protocols, such as whether they'd be able to maintain social distance while traveling and on assignment.
"It's been this protracted battle of always having, 'Well, maybe we can still go to Iona,'" Matt Lehman Wiens recalled. "The final straw for us was when they said, 'We're going to reopen; we want you to come. Here's what you need to do … .' When we did the math, it worked out to about four to five weeks between waiting for the visa and us sitting in a hotel room [to quarantine]."
Having already arranged their leaves of absence with their employers, in earlier summer Lehman Wiens spent two weeks camping in the Appalachian Mountains and traveled to Florida, where Ruth Lehman Wiens attended a month-long medical training, while her husband read and wrote.
After their stay in Florida, they headed to RMMC for more time outdoors but just as guests. It was there, during their later summer stay in Sky-Hi View cabin, that the lightbulb clicked on: Domestic service through SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners) would be a good alternative service option. SOOP is a service program of Mennonite Mission Network.
One day, their grill ran out of gas, and they called down to the office for more propane. John Goshow brought a new tank up the ridge. While chatting, they learned that he was a SOOP volunteer from Pennsylvania. "I had worked for Mennonite Mission Network [in development] for five years, so I'm ashamed I didn't think of doing SOOP," laughed Matt Lehman Wiens, remembering the chance meeting.
Once the couple realized that volunteering in an "isolated, remote and beautiful place" didn't require international travel, they signed up. Corbin Graber, executive director of RMMC, was thrilled to see a medical doctor and a fundraising professional offering their services. In a recent phone call, Graber recalled, "When I got their application, I actually got in touch with Arloa [Bontrager, SOOP Director] and said, 'What? Where do you get these people?' "
The Lehman Wiens arrived for their SOOP assignment at the camp Oct. 19, with a plan to stay until Dec. 4, and were put right to work. Ruth Lehman Wiens described their tasks as a little bit of everything: preparing food with Mary Yoder, the head cook; office work and grant writing; sanitizing frequently touched surfaces; doing extra bathroom cleanings; and changing linens when new guests were set to arrive. One of their weekends involved splitting and stacking firewood, and Matt Lehman Wiens spent two days digging a trench to improve drainage across a driveway.
While completing some tasks at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in Divide, Colorado, Ruth Lehman Wiens drives the camp's stick shift, "Lefty," while her husband, Matt Lehman Wiens, enjoys the ride. They volunteered with SOOP (Service Opportunities with our Partners) assignment this fall during a six-month sabbatical. Photo provided.
Graber expressed his gratitude for the enthusiastic help the Lehman Wiens offered — and about the benefits of having SOOP volunteers at RMMC in general. "As a small seasonal ministry, volunteers are critical," Graber said. "SOOP is an important partner in fulfilling [our] ministry needs: to do what we're able to do and offer hospitality."
Processing Plans B and C
Thinking back on the process of giving up their plan to return to Iona in 2020, Matt Lehman Wiens described a crucible of learning. "We have had to do a lot of very intense communication with each other about what feels right for us to do," he said.
Their wide-band communication skills were put to the test in mid-November as the COVID-19 situation worsened again. Ruth Lehman Wiens received requests to fill in at short-staffed hospitals back home, in Kansas. Consulting Graber and one another, they made the difficult decision to cut their SOOP term short, despite enjoying their time immensely. They departed RMMC on Nov. 17.
Ruth Lehman Wiens' willingness to return to medical work and assist in the COVID-19 response, ahead of starting her practice in January — and before the planned end of the couple's sabbatical — was shaped by what they've learned this year.
"When you try to hold on too tightly to your original plan and not give room for anything else, you might miss other opportunities that come along," she mused. "That's been a big lesson for us, and for everyone in COVID. You know, I don't think we're unique in that."