ST. JOSEPH — Dorothy Ditmars believes in divine direction. The topic came up in her Sunday school class recently, the discussion turning on why people do what they do.
Does the mere tumbling of worldly events guide a person or does a grander design figure in a calling?
Several years ago, Ditmars learned of a need for candles among the homeless population in Kansas City. Along with this came a voice.
"I think God tweaked me and said do something to reach out to these people," she said. "I'm sure he's spoken to us a lot of times, and we had our head turned."
Ditmars answered with 1,300-and-counting candles made on her kitchen stove by recycling wax and wicks and cat food cans. She had never made a candle before. She has lived her 81 years with a roof over her head.
Still, she seemed led to the task.
For more than 60 years, Ditmars has attended the Broadway United Methodist Church in Plattsburg, part of a congregation she calls "mission-minded."
A newsletter came from the Grand Avenue Temple, a Methodist church in Kansas City, about an outreach for the homeless and a need for candles in short casings. These "sojourners," as the church refers to them, use the candles for light and for warming canned food.
The appeal ended up before the Plattsburg congregation, and a friend, Naomi White, raised the matter at a meeting of the United Methodist Women.
"There are a lot of things I can't do," Ditmars says. "I'm not too physical anymore, but I can certainly do this."
She spent a lifetime knowing the value of work. Born in St. Joseph, she lived on Alabama Street on the city's South Side until age 11, moving then with her family to Los Angeles. After returning to Missouri, she married Riley Ditmars in 1949 and moved to the farm east of Plattsburg where she has lived the past 63 years.
They had been married 55 years when he died in 2004.
During their marriage, she worked on the farm and at grain elevators and cattle operations in Plattsburg, retiring in 1992, then 1993, then 1994 and a couple of years after that. She likes to stay busy.
As at many churches, congregants sit in the same pews Sunday after Sunday. Fellow churchgoers know where they will find Ditmars. In her seat, they leave Ziploc bags full of mostly burned candles and assorted cat food containers and tuna cans and sardine tins, anything short that can fit under a grate used for cooking.
She looks forward to seeing what shows up in the pews, the raw materials for this project. "I'm kind of like the kid waiting for the Easter bunny," she said.
Using a pressure cooker pot she had scrapped, Ditmars melts the wax and uses an old tea cup for dipping the mixture into the tins. The placement of wicks takes some timing, racing the hardening process, but the woman has mastered this.
Agriculture students at the high school supplied her with some cardboard cases, getting a second life after fruit sales, for packing the candles off to the Kansas City church for distribution. "One closet is full of boxes," she said.
The Rev. Bill Radford, pastor of the Plattsburg church, said members of the congregation embrace many forms of Christian outreach, from helping land-mine victims in other nations to helping fill a food pantry in Clinton County. A nonprofit clothes closet is in the works for the community.
"This is what we're called by God to do, to help our brothers and sisters, to help the least of these," the minister says. "There are an awful lot of people suffering right now from unemployment and underemployment in this county."
Ditmars marvels at the continued support. "We've got a lot of good people who do wonderful things," she says.
On the side of each candle, a label contains one of Ditmars' favorite verses from Corinthians: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."
She includes it not as heavy-handed evangelism but as a simple message. The woman found direction on learning of needs of the homeless. Maybe the text will prove a guiding light for others.