Church Choir Director Retires after 73 Years of Service

By Rick Wolcott*

Juanita Woods with Cake

“You are our ‘Shining Star!’”

Those words, written on balloons in the Greentown United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) fellowship hall, express the congregation’s love for Juanita Woods.

Friends and family gathered after the final service of 2017 for a reception to celebrate Woods’ retirement as choir director, a position she has held on and off for 73 years.

Raised Lutheran, Woods joined the choir at what was then Greentown Methodist Church shortly after she was married because her husband had family members who were active in the church.  Thus began a life of service that, over the years, has led Woods to be, among other roles, choir director, children’s choir director, camp counselor, junior church leader, Sunday school teacher, and Bible study facilitator.

Juanita speaking“This church has filled my life,” Woods said.  “I’ve always felt needed.  I’ve never felt I’ve been anybody special, I really haven’t.  I’m here to do things and if there’s things to do, I do them.”

“I’ve been in the choir ever since I can remember but I also remember Juanita being my camp counselor, she was my junior high youth leader, and she directed my children in junior choir,” said Carol Lavy.  “I just can’t imagine being 94 years old and still doing the ministry she is doing!  She’s our backbone.  We are blessed.”

“Juanita’s a special person and a strong leader.  It’s more than just music that she has taught.  She’s taught Jesus and lived Jesus for the people.” Pastor Carolyn Nichols said.  “When I came here last year and was told we had a 93 year-old choir director, I started looking for a 93 year-old woman and I never found her.”

George Manos can attest to that!  He says it’s hard keeping up with his mother-in-law.

“We’re from Pittsburgh and one day I couldn’t get her on the phone at home so I kept calling.  Finally, she answered and I said, ‘Mom, where’ve you been?’ She said, ‘Well I was ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Wal-Mart.’ I said, ‘Mom, you’re 94!’ and she said, ‘yeah, so what?’”

Director singing“In my mind I don’t think I’m 94,” Woods said.

After singing a solo during her final service as choir director, Woods joined her daughter, Karen Manos, and Nichols at the front of the church for a brief celebration of her many years of service.

Manos told the congregation that as children she and her sister grew up playing in the church basement as their mother held choir practice upstairs.  She later sang with her mom in the Canton Civic Opera for 30 years.

“Music should have been Mother’s middle name,” she said.

Juanita with Pastor and daughter“We love you Juanita not just for the music over all these years but also for your love, the way you have cared for the children that you taught to sing and the adults that you have been with through Sunday school and Bible study, and the way you have touched so many lives,” Nichols said.

“I feel speechless,” said Woods before blowing a kiss of appreciation to the congregation.

Her final act as choir director was leading worshippers in singing Happy Birthday to organist Steve Dallas, a long-time friend who will succeed Wood, and will now serve as her choir director.

“Speaking for the choir, we’ll be mighty glad that she’s going to be singing with us,” said Sherryl Kostolich.

“She’s a special lady,” Dallas said.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Growing Arts Ministry Births Modern Baptismal Font

By Rick Wolcott*

Baptismal fonts often have ornately designed exteriors, but their interiors are usually not visible to worshippers in the pews.

“I want to be able to see the water,” said the Rev. Steve Stultz Costello, co-pastor with his wife Cara of Faith United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) in North Canton. “In seminary we talked so much about the power of images and symbols and that what we say and do in worship should all speak of God’s abundant grace and love, and of what we believe and have come to experience in Jesus Christ.”

Faith UMC has a growing arts ministry that invites people to discover their creativity and provides opportunities for them to use their talent.  In May, Stultz Costello asked five members involved in the arts ministry to design a new baptismal font for the church’s modern worship service.  It would replace a glass bowl from the kitchen used for previous baptisms in the Family Life Center gymnasium.

Jim Benzing, Wes Bullock, Al Martinsen, Suzie Thomas, and Aaron Vaughn knew they needed to create a font that was both beautiful and portable.  It needed to be big enough to look natural in the large temporary worship space, but small enough to fit through hall doorways and to be stored in a closet during the week.

“Art by committee is dangerous because everyone has their creative ideas and a flow for how they work,” said Benzing, who previously created a cross with molded hands and feet that is on display at the church and was on stage in Hoover Auditorium during Annual Conference 2011.

“The collaborative process could have gone south quickly but everyone was very patient and we ended up working well together,” said Vaughn, who has painted some of the wall murals at Faith UMC.

“If it had been up to me it would have been a pair of hands holding up a globe bowl, but we had a lot of different discussions and a lot of different directions,” he said.  “We talked about spiral springs, square structures, round structures, and flowing water with plumbing and lighting.”

The team chose the final design after looking at drawings of five different options.

Artists behind font
Al Martinsen, Suzie Thomas, Aaron Vaughn and Jim Benzing pose with the baptismal font they created with Wes Bullock (not pictured)

“Everyone’s eye went to this one.  It’s like the other ones didn’t even exist.  We were at such opposite directions for a long period of time, and then this was exactly what everyone wanted, not saying that God didn’t have a part in this, too,” said Martinsen, who has created paintings for the church in the past.

The baptismal font is 19 layers of ¾-inch Baltic Birch plywood glued together and sanded smooth, with a cross-shaped arm that holds a custom-designed glass bowl blown at Akron Glass Works.

“The one time we all met before my renewal leave, Jim mentioned they could use plywood and everyone was very hesitant.  But Jim could envision how plywood could look beautiful,” Stultz Costello said.

“There’s motion in it, there’s a flow, and you get that feeling using just wood,” Vaughn said.  “I think that’s pretty cool!”

“For something wood it definitely looks alive,” said David Coombs, who attended a late-November discussion with the artists as part of the church’s Wednesday Night Faith Connections that combines food, fun, faith, and fellowship.

The base is made of cherry wood with lacewood used to accentuate the cross.  The four sections around the cross were designed to hold prayers written by parents of those being baptized.  Burned into the wood lids of each of the prayer chambers is this verse: “By the abundant grace and overflowing love of God we are cleansed of sin and made whole in Christ.”

“I think it has been fun seeing people’s reactions to the baptismal font because everyone sees something different.  We’ve heard it’s a swan.  We’ve heard dove.  Some people think it’s a wave,” said Kathy Schmucker, Faith UMC spiritual formation director.  “For me, the first time I saw it I was in the back of the Family Life Center and it was in the center of the worship space and I saw this big letter C and an arm saying ‘come to me.’”

The reach of the baptismal font project extends beyond the walls of the church.  Donna Benzing, Jim’s wife, works with Guatemalan immigrants in the community.  They are using scrap wood from the font in bracelets that they make and sell.


Prayer Circle

Before concluding the evening with the artists in a prayer circle around the baptismal font, Stultz Costello had one final message.

“I believe when you gave yourselves over to this process that God saw this unformed substance, all the parts and you allowed yourselves to discover what that may be and what it might become and I just celebrate you for that,” he said.  “But I have to confess, I never imagined it would turn out this good.  It’s amazing!”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Life as a Boy Scout Chaplain: Why I Spent Two Weeks in a Tent

By Rev. John Partridge*

I just spent two weeks living in a tent, sleeping on a cot, walking farther than I have in decades, taking really cold showers, and I probably had one of the best times of my life doing it.  For two weeks in July, I served as a chaplain, along with about 76 other pastors (including just about every denomination and faith you can name), at the National Boy Scout Jamboree which is held every four years at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia.

Rows of tents house Boy Scouts, staff and volunteers
Rows of tents house Boy Scouts, staff and volunteers at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Glen Jean, W. Va. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While many people have heard about the Jamboree, many have questions about what a chaplain does and why the Boy Scouts would need so many of them for a single event.  Honestly, I asked myself the same questions before I went, and while some of the answers are simple, others take a little more explaining.

The easiest question to answer is why the Jamboree would need almost eighty chaplains.  Simply put, scouting has always regarded the spiritual life of its members to be an important value regardless of faith and with something over 28,000 scouts and 6,000 staff converging on the Summit for two weeks, this small city needed trained pastors to provide spiritual care.  As members of a sub-camp staff, my tent mate Michael Lavoi (a Mormon chaplain) and I were responsible for a “congregation” of more than 20 sub-camp staff as well as 2,000 scouts and their adult leaders.

Rev. John Partridge (right) with Boy Scout Jamboree chaplains2
Rev. John Partridge (right) with Boy Scout Jamboree chaplains.

As staff members, we helped out in registration during the busy arrival day, helping to carry mail, or wherever an extra hand was needed.   And, although the first few days were easy from a pastoral perspective, after everyone started getting tired we were called upon to help scouts, and adult scout leaders, mediate personal conflicts.  There were young people who were homesick, some that were in fights, leaders who knew about a death in the family of one of their scouts but whose family asked that they not be told, there were threats of suicide, thefts (yes, it happens even in the Boy Scouts), and everything else that happens when people live together.

But that isn’t all we did.

Chaplains took turns working shifts in the basecamp medical center so that one of us was either present or on call so that we could encourage the doctors and nurses but also to be on hand to provide comfort to scouts who were sick or injured.  We took turns offering worship opportunities, not only on Sunday, but every morning or afternoon.

Each scout had the opportunity to earn a special “Duty to God and Country” patch during the jamboree, and one of the requirements to earn it was to meet with their chaplain and talk about what their “duty to God” might look like in every day life.  That meant that many of our daily “office hours” as well as our evenings were spent meeting with individual scouts, or entire troops, to discuss subjects of religious significance.  Often, as we met with these young people, and shared meals with them, they asked other substantive questions about God, religion, faith, and other things.

Of course there was worship.  The first Sunday we were there, before the scouts arrived, we held a Protestant service in the back of the dining hall and had somewhere between 300 and 600 staff in attendance.  A week later, the Protestant service was held in the stadium and, while we met in the pouring rain, there were still probably two or three thousand in attendance.  Afterward, the United Methodist chaplains hosted a communion service (open to everyone) on Brownsea Island near the stadium.  That service, officiated by West Virginia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, was attended by 200 or more and the communion elements were served by the 15 United Methodist chaplains alongside United Methodist scouts who had volunteered to help.  As I returned to my tent from our communion service, I noticed that the rain had finally stopped, and that may have contributed to the increased attendance (probably 5,000 or more) at the Catholic worship service which followed ours at the stadium.

Bishop Steiner Ball, Rev. John Partridge, and Scouts
Bishop Steiner Ball, Rev. John Partridge, and Scouts

It’s worth noting that the Summit is enormous and covers 14,000 acres and adjoins 70,000 acres of National Park Service land in the New River Gorge National Park.  That means that nothing is close to anything else.  A walk to the bathroom is a quarter mile round trip.  A visit to the medical tent is a mile.  A trip to the stadium or to the chaplains’ headquarters can be two miles one way, and if you hike up to the top of Garden Ground Mountain to visit the Scottish games or the pioneer village, its at least three miles, all up hill, one way.  Over the course of two weeks, I walked about 75 miles and my partner, Michael, had hiked well over 100 miles.

But being a chaplain isn’t all work.  In two weeks you have the opportunity to live with, and share your life with, your fellow staff members.  Some of these scouters return every four years and request the same arrangements so that they can work together again.  There’s a chance to encourage young people and to build relationships with people of other faiths, and people from other states and other countries.

Not only was the jamboree attended by participants and staff from all 50 states, but also from 58 other nations.  Our leadership tried hard to make sure that staff members could get some time off and see some of the activities in and around the Summit, and although there isn’t enough time to see everything, as you visit you find yourself among young people from around the world.  While I didn’t get a chance to ride the half mile long zip line (the “Big Zip”), I did get a chance to climb a rock wall, navigate the treetop high ROPES course, and ride through all of the mountain bike courses.

Remember that while the Boy Scouts in the United States is mostly for boys, ours is one of the only countries where that is true.  All of the international troops are coed, as are the older youth from the Venturing, Explorers, and Sea Scout programs in the United States.  And so, while I was invited to participate by the United Methodist Men, whose office includes our official United Methodist scouting representative, there is a desperate need for female chaplains as well.  Out of all the chaplains present, only one was female and, since our denomination is one of the few who ordain female clergy, the United Methodist Church has the opportunity to fill this need.  Chaplains and other staffers at the Jamboree ranged in age from their 20’s up to well into their 80’s.

My two weeks at the Jamboree were probably some of the hardest and yet some of the most rewarding, and fun, that I have ever had.  They are indeed, memories that will last a lifetime.  But the next Jamboree is in four years and the United States will host the World Jamboree at the Summit in two years.  Whether you are clergy or laity, male or female, young or old, you have gifts and skills that can be used to encourage and bless the next generation of young people from around the world.

Think about it.

You should come.

*Rev. John Partridge is in his 6th year as pastor of Trinity Perry Heights UMC in Massillon (Tuscarawas District).