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Mealtime ritual helps preserve joy of camp worship

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – After a summer in which she spent significant time as a counselor at Camp Mennoscah near Murdock, Kan., Melissa Volk, Newton, Kan., returned to Bethel College for her senior year with an important internal question: “How can I bring my camp self back to my everyday life?”

One of her favorite camp experiences was the shared prayer before each meal, when campers, counselors and summer staff stood behind their chairs to sing a grace. Volk began to thinking about how she could share this with the Bethel community.

“I’m Catholic,” Volk says. “We say the same prayer before every meal and it’s spoken, not a sung. In volleyball, we have team meals and at [some] people’s houses, they want to sing. So I had heard people sing different prayers [like ‘Johnny Appleseed’].”

At camp, Volk says, “I felt weird at first because I didn’t know [the grace songs], either. But as soon as I did learn them, it was a nice, different way to say that before-meal prayer. Since I’ve been saying the same one my whole life, I found this really interesting. I loved it. It’s a very pure form of worship.”

Volk had an idea: Get a table grace going sometime during lunch in the Bethel cafeteria. The first thing she did was e-mail Dale Schrag, campus pastor and director of church relations, about it.

“I was fascinated by the proposal,” Schrag says. “I had some conversation with other folks – I think I talked to [Professor of Bible and Religion] Patty Shelly and [Professor of Music] Bill Eash. We determined right off the bat that if this was going to work, it needed to be carried by students, not by faculty or staff. It wasn’t something we could impose.”

Schrag told Volk they felt the best procedure would be for her to lead the singing or get other students to lead – perhaps some Concert Choir members.

The next question: Which prayer to use? That sparked much discussion – no one wanted a prayer that was “exclusive.”

“It was actually Melissa’s suggestion, with which I totally concurred, that the ‘Doxology’ made the most sense because it was the most universal,” says Schrag.

“We thought about doing this after convocation [on Mondays and Fridays],” says Volk. “The hard part about that is all the choir students go right to choir afterwards. So to lead it and help it become established on Mondays and Fridays, we would have had people running from the Fine Arts Center to the cafeteria, then back to the choir room and being late for rehearsal.

“We wanted to do lunch,” she continues, “because it is a meal that a lot of people [go to at the same time].” But having choir members was important, she adds, because “getting up in front of your peers [to sing] is really hard.”

The planners finally settled on Wednesdays, right after chapel, at around 11:45. Someone from the Concert Choir always has a tuning fork or pitch to start.

Schrag and Volk both say there was some resistance at first when students weren’t sure what was going on. Volk quickly responded with an e-mail to all students letting them know the plan and how to participate.

Now, when the notes of the “Doxology” sound, the normal cafeteria chatter stops for a few moments, as people join in or just listen.

Volk says there are still a lot of students who don’t sing, which she attributes to not very many knowing the prayer.

The cafeteria recently installed a television for student announcements and Volk would like to see if it could be used to display the words to the “Doxology” for those who want to join in – and, she hopes, get as much out of it as she does.

“It just reminds me of God before I eat,” Volk says. “Like at home, my mom will pray before we eat. But it’s hard at school to remember, and to do it. I mean, you can pray silently to yourself, but for me there are times I forget to thank God for my meal. Something like this [makes it] easy to remember God and be thankful for the food you’ve been given and the company you’re in.”

Schrag says he has also heard from cafeteria staff that they enjoy seeing students participate in this small mealtime ritual.

Volk hopes singing the “Doxology” at lunch continues and that in the future when she comes back to visit, students will still be celebrating God with this song.

“It would be cool if, years from now, I came back and some kids were still doing it,” she says, “that it had become a tradition, that some other people thought it was important enough to include in their everyday lives also.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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