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‘Focus ‘05’ opening celebrates children, workers, Sunday school

August 1, 2005

By Kathy Noble*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)--Participants celebrated children and the Sunday school program as they gathered on the opening night of Focus ’05, a biennial gathering for workers with children sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.

Seven hundred Christian educators, Sunday school teachers, Vacation Bible School leaders, nursery workers and others who staff and volunteer in children’s ministries attended the July 26-29 event at Brentwood (Tenn.) United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, chief staff executive of the discipleship agency, opened the event with a story of little boys in Uganda who leave their villages at 3 p.m. and run to safe houses, carrying a mat and whatever they have to eat or drink, and, in the morning, run home to their villages. “They run to escape being recruited as soldiers,” she said.

“Focus,” she continued, “is about paying attention to children who run for their lives every day, and it is about paying attention to children who are right among us; it is about paying attention to the spiritual formation needs and concerns of children here and around the world.”

She described the participants – including children’s workers from Africa and Philippines – as people who “love children, who teach children, who know what it is to be taught by children … (who work toward a) sustainable future in which God’s reign, God’s future is made real in the lives of all of God’s children.”

Children were liturgists, greeters and ushers as worship opened the festive evening. It ended with a party celebrating the Sunday school. Louise Stohl, Nashville, Tenn., who has taught children for 50 years, led the prayer before the offering.

Retired Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, Chicago, drew on stories about how Missouri became known as the “Show-Me State” as she emphasized, “Whether we are 65 or 6-and-a-half, we long for, we pray for touchable moments when we see hope. Make it real, make it workable, show us, show us, we cry.”

“We need someone to show us the way, to teach us the method, to give us an example,” she said as she applied her sermon title, “We’re All from Missouri,” to her text, Psalm 85:7, in which the Israelites ask God to show salvation.

U.S. Rep. Willard Duncan Van Diver, a Missouri congressman from 1897 to 1903 to whom the phrase is sometimes attributed, once told Congress, “Frothy elegance neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

“Truth be told, frothy elegance never convinces or satisfies,” Bishop Rader said. “We’ve got to be shown.”

Using a statement from the Council of Bishops’ document, “The Beloved Community,” the bishop said, “Our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity. … ‘The Beloved Community’ reaches the entire world, all of God’s children.”

During the party celebrating Sunday school, Focus ’05 participants visited a “Wall of Fame” featuring pictures and stories of Sunday school teachers. They also hung bells on banners to honor teachers and other Christian educators.

The reminiscing continued around refreshment-laden tables where participants also considered the theme, “Sunday School – It’s for Life,” a year-old emphasis of the Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Publishing House to revitalize Sunday school.

Sunday school began for Rita Smith from Resurrection United Methodist Church, Chicago, when she was a teenager at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem, N.Y. “Sunday school was my beginning of my formal understanding that led into adulthood and commitment.”