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Students sing, build relationships at Newton First Presbyterian

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As a lifelong resident of Newton, Walter C. Claassen, who now lives in North Newton, believes in giving back to his community.

That includes his church, First Presbyterian in Newton. Starting in 2007, Claassen has endowed a scholarship at Bethel College that provides up to five students to practice and sing with the church choir each Sunday during the school year.

“With the size of our church attendance [an average of 160-75 a Sunday], it’s rare to have all the parts equally balanced,” says Claassen, who has sung in the First Presbyterian choir himself for 50 years. “This provides a [consistent] strong voice in each part.”

According to the terms of the scholarship, Bethel College Professor of Music William Eash, who directs the Bethel College Concert Choir, selects the students in cooperation with the First Presbyterian choir director, currently Rachel Hill Newell. For the first group, he chose four singers, one from each section, “based on their discipline within the Concert Choir, ability to read [music] and whether they serve as section leaders,” he says.

The students received a stipend and in return went to weekly choir rehearsals, sang during each Sunday morning worship service (unless they had a prior commitment with the Concert Choir or were away from Newton at holidays) and participated in some special occasions.

Alto Kelsey Easterday, sophomore music major from Manhattan, says, “I feel like I gained a lot singing in the Presbyterian Church choir. I directed the choir a few Sundays, and that kind of experience is invaluable.”

Baritone Austin McCabe-Juhnke, sophomore music and German major from North Newton, says, “It was a good community. People were ready to incorporate us into the choir not only as singers, but also as companions.”

Tenor Adam Larson, sophomore social work major from Lena, Ill., adds, “As students, we don’t always have ways to interact with the community, and this was a fun experience, to get to know community members.

“[First Presbyterian] doesn’t have a big choir,” he continues, “and they were grateful to have us there, and that we would take time for this out of our busy schedules.”

Soprano Chelsea Chaffin, senior social work major from Lawrence, says, “I heard from someone who is friends with a musically inclined congregation member that having us join the choir improved special music worship incredibly, which was good to hear.”

In addition to feeling good about relationships, these busy students were grateful for the financial boost. “It was really a life-saver for me,” says Chaffin, “especially because I was doing my senior social work placement in Wichita, where I was about 25-30 hours a week not including the commute time. I was also taking nine hours of classes at the time, so I had no time to work, which was hurting me because of the gas money. [The stipend] helped me break even, sometimes with a little extra.”

“I think it may be unique to have Presbyterians and Mennonites [through Bethel College] involved in this kind of relationship,” Claassen says.

Chaffin has graduated from Bethel, Easterday will have a fall class that interferes with choir practice and McCabe-Juhnke will be studying in Germany in the fall, so there will be some new Bethel faces at First Presbyterian this September – but the quality of music and relationships seems likely to remain high.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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