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Students planning service


Amid the parties, farewells and fanfare that mark graduation week, a few students are taking time out for prayer.

Liberty High School graduates will offer thanks today and petitions for the future during a baccalaureate service at a Methodist church a short distance from their Eldersburg school.

"Church rounds out the senior cruise, the farewell to teachers, the awards and graduation itself," said Pam Owens, a class member, who will deliver the opening greeting. "The service hits every aspect of my life."

The service will take place Sunday off campus at Wesley Freedom United Methodist, which has one of the largest sanctuaries in the area. Although many faculty members will attend, separation of church and state preclude their participation in the planning or the prayers.

"On a personal level, I think this is a real positive, but as a public school, we have to remain neutral," said Liberty Principal Robert Bastress.

Privacy rules deterred the school from releasing the names and addresses of students to those planning the nondenominational service. The Liberty staff could not promote the religious event.

"We felt it was important to have an appropriate blessing," Ms. Owens said. "We are not forcing anyone to attend, but we just want them to know this is happening."

About a dozen students and several parents have worked with the South Carroll Clergy Association to organize the service, the first for the school in about 10 years. County school officials said the service is the only one they know about this year. In Baltimore County, a similar event has been organized by parents and students of Sparrows Point High.

Melea Stoltenberg, 18, said a time for prayer will enhance the many activities that precede graduation June 10. "A baccalaureate service helps us set our priorities," she said. "We are all coming to a fork in the road and religion can help us stay in the right direction to a good future."

The Class of 1995 received engraved invitations and the committee publicized the service.

"The baccalaureate service gives students a chance to stop and reflect on what God has done in the past, what He is doing now and what He shall do in the future of this graduating class," said Linda L. Tilghman, who planned the service with her daughter and the other students.

The students have selected scripture readings, music and poetry for the one-hour ceremony at Wesley Freedom.

"We hope it brings the class together in a different light than what we see every day," said Melissa Lauber, 17. "Graduation and this service are another step into our future."

Along with familiar commencement songs such as "Through the Years," students have added touches of originality.

Several students, including Ms. Owens and Mike Puskar, wrote poems.

As a gift to the senior class, the school's brass quartet, all undergraduates, will provide the musical accompaniment. Trumpeter Kevin Schreiner has composed "Baccalaureate Fanfare," an "upbeat march" for the quartet.

"We can say we played them a farewell," said Kevin, a junior.

Ms. Owens has spread the word of the service to her classmates and said she was amazed at how many asked, "What is a baccalaureate?"

"Many say it's a church thing and it will be boring," she said. "I promise them it won't be because we did it and it's all for us."

A student-centered effort was the intent from the outset.

"From the beginning, we said the baccalaureate shouldn't be created by adults, but by students," said the Rev. Eugene R. Alexander, pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church and father of a graduate. "We wanted to be the helpers only."

The Rev. Terry Weik, youth minister at St. Joseph Catholic Community, is not surprised that teens have added religion to their commencement celebrations.

"A lot of teens I work with are spiritual, a lot more spiritual than we adults give them credit for," he said. "They may not identify with the traditional things religious, but they have a deep thirst for the spiritual."

Father Weik will be weaving ecumenical themes into his homily.

One parent, who didn't want her name used, said the service could alienate some families.

"Graduation is the main thing and it covers everything," she said. People can be easily hurt, when it comes to religion and diversity. No matter how you try, you cater to one area more than to another."

While she respects all faiths, Ms. Tilghman said, "We have become too neutral in the name of freedom of religion and we are not expressing our faith to our children."

Ms. Tilghman tried to organize a similar service last year but didn't get started soon enough.

This year she began planning in January, consulted county attorneys to make sure of the legalities and then mailed 587 invitations two weeks ago.

"With every correspondence, we made sure parents and students knew this was not sponsored by the school," Ms. Tilghman said.

Area churches provided 114 names of Liberty seniors in their congregations.

Then, she combed computerized mailing lists for others.

With information from students and parents, the number of invitations grew to more than twice the 268 students in the class.

"Our biggest drawback was not being able to formally contact parents," Mr. Alexander said. "We also couldn't be on the graduation schedule of events."

The school's parent group donated $400 from its general fund for the effort.

Area churches have also helped with printing and postage.

Graduates of all area schools and their parents are welcome at the 7 p.m. service at Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church, 961 Johnsville Road, Eldersburg. Refreshments will be served after the ceremony. Information: 795-2777.

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