Community bonds and Christian faith will be celebrated Sunday evening as local high school seniors dressed in a colorful array of caps, gowns, suits and dresses enter Wilde Lake Interfaith Center for the eighth annual Ecumenical Baccalaureate.
These Howard County seniors, brought together from several area high schools, including Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Howard, Seton Keough in Baltimore and Notre Dame Preparatory in Towson, will be the focus of a Christian worship service that celebrates the spiritual dimension of their graduation and asks them to "stand up and be counted."
"This is a time our graduates can come together as one to celebrate their faith experiences and be reminded they have a very special community backing them as they go on to their next chapter," says Karen Douglas, one of the baccalaureate organizers and mother of a graduating senior. "Hopefully, this will help them to go forward and stand up as people of faith."
George Martin, lay deacon at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, echoes the sentiment: "It was seen that there should be more than just a secular graduation. It is fulfilling that their own religious communities recognize their accomplishments and give them a spiritual blessing."
Each graduate will choose an inspirational verse to read aloud during the service. At the start of the worship, graduates will proceed into the sanctuary, where they will sit together.
Dee Koza, a speaker at nationwide youth conferences, will deliver the keynote address. "She has a special way of connecting with the people she speaks to," Douglas says.
The service also will honor the students by incorporating the talents of graduating seniors: Gene Grangerwill play the piano, Christine Levnowill dance, Jamie Stephenswill sing, and Alison McNeiland Sarah Cruzwill address graduates.
"This service is especially meaningful because it's fairly unique to Howard County," Douglas says.
"Students don't really understand what a special place Columbia is until they leave. Not many other places recognize graduation with an ecumenical service that celebrates people in their diversity. In other places, you might go to your home church and that's it," Douglas says.
Churches participating include St. John the Evangelist United Methodist/Presbyterian, First Baptist Church of Guilford, Columbia Baptist Fellowship, Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, Locust United Methodist Church, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic, and the Lutheran Church of the Living Word.
Pastors and priests from all the churches will jointly bless all the students.
Although she will attend a religious service as she graduates from Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, Columbia resident Jamie Stephens looks forward to participating in a spiritual service in her home community.
"I think the baccalaureate is a celebration of all the graduates saying thank you and goodbye to everything that has supported them during school," she says. "At St. John's [Evangelist Roman Catholic Church], I have a lot of friends I won't otherwise get to say goodbye to. ... My church means a lot to me. I have come close to many people there. ... It's really important that I go to this service."
Bringing together so many churches with different traditions for a single service wasn't difficult, says Karen Douglas, noting that churches that agree to participate are amenable to the idea of an ecumenical format.
"At this point, our baccalaureate service has its own culture, [which is] pretty applicable to all of our faiths. You look for the common ground," Douglas says.
Douglas and Martin welcome and encourage the community to participate in the event.
Says Douglas, "This is an occasion where people have a special window into their hearts. Even people without graduates will find this a meaningful service."
The baccalaureate will begin at 7:30 p.m., followed by a reception. Graduating seniors and members of the community are welcome. Graduating seniors who would like to participate are encouraged to call 410-964-1434 to register so that their names can be announced at the service.