Close your eyes and imagine the way the sunlight streams through the stained glass windows of the Lewis Memorial Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Imagine the rich wood tones of the interior and the hush of expectation that fills the space as your footsteps echo across the floor. Now imagine you are 40 inches tall and five years old.
“There is no greater joy than seeing the younger students in chapel,” says Lower School Religion Teacher Laura Portwood. Recently, Portwood and Episcopal Chaplain Father Skully Knight have implemented a new way for little Knights to become more familiar with the chapel and what occurs inside. The two have been hosting Fridays with Father throughout the month of February for kindergarten students.
Portwood says as the students approach the empty chapel she reminds them that visiting chapel is like visiting a friend’s house. Once the heavy doors part and the small students enter the space, there is a powerful sense of awe and wonder among them. “Even kids get a sense that this place is special,” says Father Skully. He says they may not quite understand why, but they realize immediately that the chapel is different from any other building on campus. Portwood says even the most common experiences, like sitting in a pew are exciting for these students who experience every day as a new adventure. Such enthusiasm and zest for exploration is truly inspiring for the adults. “I love their sense of awe because I still get it myself,” says Father Skully smiling, as he reflects on the sights and sounds of some of his favorite churches, including All Saints Chapel at Sewanee.
On a recent Friday, Mrs. Henderson’s kindergarten class had the opportunity to learn more about the chapel and the objects within. Students listened attentively as Father Skully described the vestments he was wearing, what takes place in the sacristy and even how and why the candles are lit. Students were inquisitive, as only five year olds can be. While the tour was directed at the kindergartners, even the adults in the room learned new terms and traditions. “I really appreciate it when people have questions about church,” says Father Skully.
The goal of Fridays with Father is to help students become more comfortable with the chapel and the chaplain. Portwood says they want students to know from a young age that everyone is welcome and the chapel is their space. Such openness is a hallmark of an Episcopal school and the Episcopal Church. Episcopal schools are intentionally diverse communities. At Episcopal, students and faculty join together at different times, in various locations, and in many ways to encourage all students to dig deep into their individual faith and develop a sense of their own spirituality, all while helping them to develop a love for both God and their neighbor. Lower School students explore faith in daily Morning Meetings and attend chapel every Friday. Middle and Upper School students attend chapel twice a week. In addition, the older students have the opportunity to lead many of the chapel services as members of the Student Vestry. This commitment to spiritual growth can also be seen as students participate in service learning projects throughout the year or as they simply learn to love their neighbor in Frazer Hall.
The Fridays with Father experience has already created a noticeable change among kindergartners. Now as they see Father Skully on campus they enthusiastically wave to him. They are familiar with him and happy to see him. “I want everyone to feel that the chapel is theirs, a place where they belong,” says Father Skully.
Hopefully the students will also retain that sense of awe as they see a sun ray shimmer through a rose window or as they share the space with their classmates, family and friends for years to come.