Story by Lisa Rice
Members of the Senior Class of 2018 of the Warwick Valley High School chose to gather for Baccalaureate Blessing of the Graduates Service on Thurs., Jun. 21. The multi-faith event was hosted by the Warwick Valley Ecumenical Council at the Church of St. Stephen’s.
This year’s service was unlike any of the traditional Warwick Baccalaureate Ceremonies of the past, and one that reflects the times the senior class is growing up in. Sometime last year, a local resident complained about the event to Freedom From Religion and in the fall, the Warwick School District received a letter from that organization that any involvement with the optional ceremony was a violation of the establishment clause.
To avoid the time and expense of a legal action, the District made the decision to remove mention of the service from the student calendar and website and would be unable to assist in informing its graduating class of any of the details.
In addition, the Warwick Valley High School Meistersingers, who have traditionally provided contemporary and inspirational musical selections for as long as anyone can remember, were prohibited from practicing at school or performing as a school group at the service. It seemed that if the clergy wanted to offer a blessing to the high school seniors, they were on their own.
Rev. Tim Anderson from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Pine Island acknowledged the community-wide efforts is his greeting.
“Welcome! We are thankful to be here and to Father Jack for hosting us again for the blessing of the graduates,” said Anderson.
He then thanked the many involved, including Roger VanderPlatt from Lazear Smith VanderPlatt Funeral Home who Anderson said “really, really made this happen”; the Jubilate Choir under the musical direction of David Crone and Stephen Wing; organist Stephen Yates and vocalist, Erik Walker, whose daughter, Sarah was one of the graduates.
“Welcome graduates!” Anderson continued. “Tonight is all about you…kind of. Tonight is about your accomplishments. Tonight is about your journey…and for what God has done for you. We pray for you. It’s also about those who have guided you to this place; parents, teachers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and family. Tonight is about God. So that we can say thank you.”
Rev. Jennifer Morrow from the Warwick United Methodist Church provided the invocation, inviting every to join in the spirit of prayer.
“Thanking the creator for the lives of these students. Tonight, loving one, we ask that you strengthen each one here to follow you,” said Rev. Morrow.
Inspirational biblical passages were read by three seniors, members of the Church of St. Stephen. The first reading from Genesis 12: 1-9 was read by Stephen Mehling, who will be attending Sacred Heart University. He was followed by the responsorial Psalm 133, offered by Rev. Jim Erwin from the Christ Episcopal Church.
Sarah Walker, who is off to Saint Joseph’s University, read Romans 12: 19-21. The final reading, Philippians 1:2-11, was provided by John Roca, who will attend Rider University. Rev. Richard Marrano from St. Stephen Church offered the Gospel reading, Luke 22:24-27.
One Voice Can Make A Difference
Rev. Jack Arlotta, Pastor of St. Stephen Church, provided the address to the graduates. He described a graduation class of about 400 students from a Bronx High School fifty years ago, who came from different places with different backgrounds.
“1968 had been an amazing school year,” said Fr. Jack, noting the space program, the British invasion that was “continuing, but Elvis was still the king.”
He spoke of the devastation the class had recently sustained with the assassinations of two social leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and that the graduating class endured the death of one of its seniors in a car accident. He acknowledged that men in that class were aware they would be drafted.
Then Fr. Jack updated to fifty years later, 2018, as those graduates prepared for their half-century reunion. He said how most were retired, some having pursued service careers as doctors, teachers, and social workers, successful business people, chiefs of medicine, women that became judges and one young man who even ran for the office of mayor; he lost.
“They didn’t know where their lives would take them,” he said. “You’re on that same threshold; yet to dream where your lives will lead you.”
Fr. Jack noted the difficulties the Class of 2018 has faced saying, “You have had to learn more about the world than you should have. You had to learn fast. The world is at your fingertips. You can speak to friends, even if on the other side of the world. You have grown up in a world that takes violence too much for granted. You have to be aware even when you come to school. Some of your childhood had been sacrificed and lost.”
But then he noted what is still the same, saying it is still “our world” and people still need to unite. He said that the students still had the support, trust and confidence of their parents. They had numerous faith traditions, virtue, promise and hope.
“The principles that established it are still in place,” said Fr. Jack.
The school having had to “step back” from sharing this tradition with many of its seniors was the so-called “elephant in the room” for most of the service and wasn’t lost on the Pastor.
“One voice in this country can be expressed and heard, as you all know,” he said. “In order for your voice you must read, learn and understand, otherwise you’re just making noise. Be true to yourself. Know who you are and where you come from. Be straightforward. The little things in life create the difference. The world will be changed by your example, not your opinion.”
“Be young men and women of character,” he concluded. “Be responsible, kind, compassionate. Be generous. Have a good time. Enjoy your life. Do what you love and believe in and the rest will come naturally.”
Prayer for the Graduates & Parents
Following a musical hymn by the Jubilate Choir, Peter Zimmerman from the Bellvale Community offered a prayer for the graduates. He began by sharing that his mother had passed away during his freshman year of high school. He told the graduates if they were still lucky enough to have their mom and dad, to give them an extra hug. He shared a poem, which he said is for men and women alike, “The Man in the Glass,” which included the verse:
“For it isn’t your father or mother or wife, whose judgment upon you must pass. The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life is the one staring back from the glass.”
Fr. Tim Jantzen from the Warwick Assembly of God offered a prayer for the parents, thanking God for the children and asking him to bless them as they go off to school.
“May their parents be their biggest supporters. Lord, whatever may come their way, may they know they’ve done their best,” said Fr. Tim.
Prayers for Sunshine
Returning to the altar for the benediction, Father Tim revealed that he had been asked to pray that the weather is good for graduation so that the ceremony would not have to be moved inside.
“Let us pray that we have a beautiful day for our graduation ceremony on Saturday. We pray for abundant sunshine. Great sunshine, yet cool temperatures, if that can be possible. And we pray that if it does rain, that these people won’t come hunting me down,” said Fr. Tim.
He ended with a traditional Irish Blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
The ceremony concluded with another performance from the Jubilate and a recessional by Erik Walker and Stephen Yates, and was followed with refreshments provided by the Warwick Valley Knights of Columbus with donations from ShopRite.