After retiring, I spent much more time volunteering at church, and as the cliché goes, I benefitted more than those I taught. I learned, not only from the children, but also from other volunteers. A friend who probably taught me most was Susan Kessler, a member of the church the same age as my daughter Kathy. I got to know her well when we worked together creating a children’s worship ministry at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church.
After struggling for several years to find a suitable curriculum that would make worship meaningful for young children, our Nurture and Education committee discovered the work of Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman. Stewart, a Presbyterian Director of Christian Education and Berryman, an Episcopal priest, developed a hands-on, Montessori approach to the story of the Bible. Their book, Young Children and Worship, was still in progress, but we were able to secure the working papers.
At that time, prior to the book’s publication in 1988, the wooden figures for people and a multitude of other items needed for presenting the stories were unavailable commercially, but specific instructions were provided for creating these objects needed to bring the biblical stories to life.
Susan and I undertook the project, and spent the entire summer collecting felt, foam board, wood, shoe boxes, baskets, candles and innumerable other materials. Many of the items we made ourselves. We found other members to contribute specific skills, such as cutting the figures from wood, sewing a delicate dress for a doll’s baptism, or drawing and laminating figures for portraying parables. The church secretary saved envelope boxes for us to cover with gold paper for the parable boxes. Materials needed for each Bible story were assembled and stored in appropriately labeled shoe boxes. (Today, such materials are available to purchase – for several thousand dollars!)
During that summer I grew to appreciate Susan’s spiritual depth, her dedication and her organizational skills. Due to her perseverance and attention to detail as we also trained volunteers to present the stories.
The program still exists today, after 22 years. Children from preschool through first grade are dismissed after children’s time to worship in an age-appropriate way while their parents and older children listen to the sermon. After the story is presented using the visual props, children are allowed to manipulate the objects, retelling for themselves the stories they have heard. The method has been described as a “visual translation of the Bible”.
The emphasis is on worship – not education. The atmosphere instills wonder and praise and the Christ candle is lit at the beginning of the closing worship. Responses from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving are incorporated and children offer their own prayers.
As word of our children’s ministry spread, we were invited to speak to interested persons in other churches, some as far away as Martinsville. Susan gladly gave her time and enthusiasm to spreading the word. Often visitors came to observe and many other churches established similar programs.
When we needed a new Director of Education, we naturally turned to Susan, who had volunteered her services during the illness and death of Mary Lee Hartman, our DCE. During her ten years as Director of Children’s ministries, Susan continued to develop new ways for the church to serve children. She sought information about the Logos program, and created Kids’ Kirk, a mid-week after school program for children, kindergarten through fifth grade. She researched and created Fun Shops, a new approach to teaching Sunday School, in which children rotate weekly each month, focusing on the same story in various creative ways. She also worked with the Pre-school director and initiated a weekly time for preschoolers in the chapel with Susan and/or the pastor (and often a few puppets!).
At her retirement reception, Pastor Tupper Garden presented Susan with a bronze plaque to be placed in the children’s playground. It reads: “The Susan B. Kessler Children’s Playground, Dedicated to the glory of God and to the love of children.” Planning, equipping and supervising the maintenance of the playground was a significant accomplishment during her time as Director of Children’s Ministries. The plaque will help future generations to remember the dedication and sacrifice of time that Susan gave for the love of children and her Lord.
At the close of the reception, the children of the church sang the benediction they sang at the close of each session of Children’s Worship: “Go now in peace, Go now in peace. May the love of God surround you, everywhere, everywhere, you may go.”
Susan is a dear friend and I wish her well as she leaves her position in the church. Her retirement coincides with that of her husband, Dr. Reif Kessler. May God bless both of them and give them many years of joy together.
Go now in peace!