By Brett Hetherington*
The end of a high school student’s senior year brings with it many feelings. There is the excitement of having completed 13 years of primary education; the sorrow of knowing that you will no longer see your friends every day; and the apprehension of the known and the unknown challenges that await you in the next chapter of life.
Prior to this year, many East Ohio Conference congregations and faith communities recognized their high school graduates, and their college graduates, during a May worship service. But this year’s online services made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that church leadership needed to get creative to recognize the seniors in their midst and remind them of the support network that the church offers.
Westlake UMC (North Coast District) Associate Pastor of Outreach & Youth Ministries the Rev. Paige Boyer said the church has a tradition of recognizing seniors. So, she was glad to see leadership make it a priority, in this year that is anything but normal, for the congregation to acknowledge the accomplishments of its young graduates.
“In a normal year we recognize the seniors during the morning service and have coffee and cake after worship and our members have a chance to recognize the seniors, so what can we do that invites involvement from the rest of the church?” Boyer shared.
The new plan for 2020 graduates involved placing on the church lawn a yard sign for each of the 11 graduating seniors accompanied by plastic weatherproof boxes in which congregants could place cards, notes of encouragements, gift cards or other small items they wished to share with each senior.
“The signs and boxes were left up for six days,” said Boyer. “Then myself, the new Youth Director Christopher Neely, Ellie Peiffer (director of Faith Formation) and Rev. Mollie Brown (senior pastor) packed up the boxes and yard signs, and added in the traditional gift from the church, a Bible – which includes a note from myself and a note with nearby United Methodist churches to the student’s school – wrapped in a Cambodian scarf.”
Then the real celebration began. A small crew of people from Westlake UMC mapped out a parade route that would take them past the homes of each of the graduating seniors giving them opportunities to drop off the gifts and congratulate each senior in-person.
“We are on a cul-de-sac and about halfway down the street you could hear cars honking and someone blaring Pomp and Circumstance on their car stereo,” shared Therese Hensley, whose son Connor received a scholarship from the church and will study Mechanical Engineering at The Ohio State University this fall.
“It was awesome. We talked for a bit, and we socially distanced,” the recent graduate said. “It was more of a celebration. It showed there is another community out there that wants to continue to support me in these times.”
When thinking of the impact this year has had on her son, Hensley was very touched by how the church had chosen to recognize her son’s accomplishments.
“This has been hard. As a parent you always want what is best for your child. This is a huge milestone you want to shout from the top of your roof. Not only that he is a super smart kid who had his choice of colleges to get into, and you feel shortchanged, I guess. The fact that the church community decided to support these kids … sometimes you just don’t think of churches as being communities that support these milestones because they are ‘school’ milestones, and it is touching,” she said.
When the parade arrived at Ali Steele’s house it left an indelible impression on the graduating senior who had served several years at Westlake UMC as a third- through fifth-grade Sunday school teacher.
“Separate from our plan the Sunday school families had planned a parade route past her house, so we planned our route to sync up with theirs, and we went past her house at the same time,” Boyer said.
“I knew that the church was going to be dropping off the sign, but I didn’t know about the parade or the kids I was teaching in Sunday school for years would be there. I knew next to nothing,” said Steele who will attend Purdue in the fall to study Bio-Medical Engineering. “I was really touched because it was amazing that everyone spent their time to come and celebrate me. Especially when I saw the kids I taught in Sunday school there. Teaching Sunday school means the world to me, and to have everyone there it meant so much that it wasn’t just one person, it was many people.”
Her mother Margie was similarly touched and wrestled with her emotions as she shared her impressions of the day.
“It brings tears to my eyes. Ali is a good kid. She teaches Sunday school at our church and has for a while now. It’s been a grounding experience for her. When COVID hit and everyone was quarantined, everything she thought she was going to have for graduation – prom and all those experiences and everything – it just disappeared, and you could just see the disappointment,” she said.
“When we saw everyone drive by, her tears just started because these were the kids she cared so much about that even with the virtual Sunday school, it really brightened her during this whole COVID experience to see their faces on Sundays. She hadn’t seen them in person since March and to see them – even in their cars with signs – it just broke something. You can forget how much human contact means. To see so many cars, so many people supporting her, it meant a lot.”
The small parade crew was able to surprise and visit with all but one senior who was not home that day. Each graduate was touched, and all appreciated the care and attention that was shown to them. At least one even made a point to take pictures by her sign with the church in the background while the signs were still on the church property.
In taking just a few hours to celebrate and recognize these young graduates’ accomplishments, the church left a mark on their hearts that will carry them far into their future, no matter where that path takes them.
As Steele says, “I don’t think I could not teach Sunday school. I love how much the church has done for me.”
The Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that our nearly 700 East Ohio Conference congregations are answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to their communities in creative ways. Please e-mail EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ministry story.
*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.