Remembering Bernice Van Pelt

Bernice Van Pelt passed away this past weekend.  Most of you who read the Genesis blog don’t know Bernice.  But anyone who was a third grader or had a third grade student at Ballwin Baptist Church would.  She was an 86 year old single woman who was never married, and did not have kids of her own.  And while I normally would not write a blog about the passing of a church member from a previous congregation, the legacy left by Bernice is worth noting.  She is a picture of grace and the wonderful blessing of a person who finds their call and lives it out.

Bernice had two passions that were totally evident in her life.  First, she loved God’s Word.  She knew the Bible, read it consistently, and wanted to pass it on.  Second, she loved children.  As a result, Bernice made a commitment to teach third grade children in Sunday School.  But for Bernice, it wasn’t a job at church to be done in her spare time.  Teaching those third graders was a call from God and something she did with a dedicated passion.  Bernice realized that third grade children had brains that were much like sponges, they could absorb and learn so much.  She also knew that these kids were at a prime age to place their faith in Jesus.  So she dedicated herself to making sure that no person going through third grade Sunday School would leave her class unprepared.  She created a curriculum that was full of material.  She taught doctrine.  She taught theology.  She taught kids how to use the Scriptures.  She taught them to memorize Bible verses.  And most important, she taught them the Gospel.  No fluffy lessons with a few goofy games and a quick reference to a Bible verse. Nope, Bernice knew she had 52 hours with these kids, one a week, and she had determined to fill their minds with Scripture and send these kids in the right direction.

My oldest son Andy went through her third grade Sunday School.  At the beginning of the year Bernice held a meeting for parents, and she pretty much made us attend.  Several phone call reminders made sure of that.  We showed up, and immediately I thought I was in her third grade class.  She told us what she expected to accomplish during the year, but also demanded that we were involved.  Kids would have homework each week, and they would have a Bible verse to memorize.  We were to check their homework and work with them to learn the books of the Bible, and recite key doctrines.  And, if our child didn’t learn the stuff, we could expect a phone call from Bernice asking why we weren’t putting in the time with our kids to make sure they were learning.  Heidi and I left there scared, no way we were not getting this stuff done with Andy.

Her teaching methods would be viewed by some as old-fashioned.  Kids sitting at tables, reciting things for memory, while she wrote all kinds of things on the blackboard.  Yep, third graders took notes in Sunday School at BBC.  They practiced their verses and other memory work, and looked up lots and lots of verses as Bernice explained the key beliefs of the Christian faith.  During the year, at several points she would move into a Gospel presentation, and several kids each year would receive Christ being influence by Ms. Van Pelt.  It was funny, you would not think this the sort of class that kids would find enjoyable.  But the truth is that kids loved her class.  No, they didn’t really like homework from church, but for many of them, they realized that Bernice was investing something in their lives that really mattered.  They knew that because it really mattered to her!  She gave them theology, but she shared it was enthusiasm, as if what she was teaching was of utmost importance.  But beyond that, she loved them, and they knew it.  They knew that her commitment to teach third grade was because she genuinely cared for them and wanted their lives to matter.

I worked with teenagers at Ballwin Baptist for fourteen years, and during that time I saw a bunch of kids filter through the youth ministry.  Ms. Van Pelt’s Class (as it officially became known, no other Sunday School class at BBC was identified by the teacher as far as I know) was often the topic of conversation.  Kids would joke about it a bit, but the truth is that all of them appreciated what had been done for them in this class.  Bernice laid a foundation for a good understanding of the content of their faith.  So our youth really had nothing but the fondest of thoughts for Bernice.  They loved her because she had taught them the Bible and led them to Jesus.

Each year our youth put on a banquet for the church around the time of Valentine’s Day.  As part of the banquet kids wrote and performed fun skits to entertain our congregation.  One year at this banquet the kids wrote a skit titled, “All I need to Know I Learned in Ms. Van Pelt’s Class”, playing off the title of the Robert Fulghum book. It was a tribute to a lady with two passions that converged into an incredible ministry.  Of course, Bernice was honored, the church laughed, and parents wept a bit, because we knew Bernice’s investment in the lives of our kids really mattered.  And we were so thankful to have a partner in the church so dedicated.

So why a blog telling you all this?  To be honest, for many of us in the church, our ministry is a bit of a side job and often a nuisance, something that takes up more time we don’t have. While we always give the glory to God and not to a person, Bernice was a picture of a person who saw her ministry in the church and for the Kingdom as something of amazing and eternal importance.  While we may not share her specific calling(please God, never ask me to teach third grade Sunday School), each of us is wired and gifted with abilities and passions God has given us to serve His church for His glory.  May we learn to do this with the heart of Bernice Van Pelt.  There will be a lot of former third graders in heaven who will acknowledge her influence.


13 Responses to “Remembering Bernice Van Pelt”

  1. Cindy Fall says:

    Awesome post, Mike. Both of our boys havve commented many times through the years that they didn’t realize at the time how what they were learning in Miss VanPelt’s Sunday School class would stick with them throughout their lives. What a legacy she leaves behind.

  2. This is a wonderful tribute to Bernice. She was truely a good and faithful servant of the Lord and is with Him in heaven. Teaching 3rd grade Sunday School for 26 years will be a huge star in her crown. I was proud to count her as a friend. She also had a passion for visiting those who had visited BBC. We visited people together for a long time and told them about our church, inviting them to come and join us. We should all be as passionate about our Christian walk as Bernice. We will miss her so much. Thank you Lord for sharing her with us for as long as You did. We were truely blessed.

  3. Judy Chiles says:

    Thanks so much for writing this Mike. You have put into words all of our thoughts about Bernice. Tom and I loved her so much. Besides ministering to the children, she ministered to us personally at Ballwin and even after we left. She always had a kind word to say to us and ALWAYS asked about our family. The conversation was never about her. Every time we came back to visit and saw her, her eyes lightened up and we knew that we were loved. I can only hope to leave such a legacy.


  4. Kim Reed says:

    Ms. Van Pelt taught both my sister and I in third grade Sunday school class. My sister is 37 and I am 31, we both still remember her and her dedication to her students very well. God blessed our lives by knowing this amazing woman; she will be missed, but we rejoice in knowing that she is with our Savior.

  5. Debbie Dumey says:

    Thanks, Mike. There is no one quite like her. Every one of my kids benefited from her. I didn’t think they’d make it through, but she believed in them. Such mixed emotions – such a huge loss here, but what rejoicing in Heaven as she met her Jesus.

  6. Audra Augustin says:

    Great tribute Mike. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Beth Jackson says:

    Reading this made me tear up a bit!! What a wonderful tribute to an amazing woman. I was in her third grade Sunday School class and she most definitely drilled some knowledge into me. Even now, almost 20 years later, I can remember the order of the books of the Bible without cheating and looking at the Table of Contents. All because of her.

    She had a love for what she did. And that deserves to be honored and remembered!

  8. Daniel Bondurant says:

    There are too many people to name who helped guide and raise me in Christ at my time at BBC, but Ms. Van Pelt stands out as one of the most influential and loved. As a child in her class, I was taken in, loved, and challenged to be active in my faith. At the time, I did not understand, nor appreciate, the amount of hard work she did for me or the rest of her students. It wasn’t until my later high school and college years that I began to see how truly of an inspirational woman she was. Her conviction, passion, and love for the people around her was obvious to everyone who knew her. Over my college years, I rarely had the chance to go back to BBC, but every time I made sure to check in with Ms. Van Pelt. While most people whom I caught up with asked about college or future job prospects, Ms Van Pelt always made sure to ask about my walk with Christ and encourage me.

    I feel honored to have grown up in an environment where Ms. Van Pelt was a part of. The Church lost one of it’s greatest workhorses this week. May we all follow in her footsteps.

  9. Janet Varner says:

    Even the casual observer could see her passion for Jesus. Often I heard her talk about “MY Jesus” – it was so personal. It would make you stop and think. Of course he is my Jesus too but she made HER Jesus come alive the way she would talk! Her enthusiasm and passion was catching especially for the kids, but for us adults too.

    • Becky Wood says:

      Beautiful tribute, Mike. So thankful our boys were blessed to have her in Sunday School. Though we were at Ballwin Baptist a few short years, Garrett and Spencer both accepted Christ and were baptized there.

  10. Melody Pitt says:

    Bernice was a Martha and Mary combo. She was a hard worker who paid attention to details who also loved the Lord dearly and spent time at His feet regularly . She knew how to balance both roles as a servant of our Lord. May we all strive to find the same balance.

  11. Tim Toma says:

    Amen. Beautifully said, Mike. Thank you and God bless.

  12. Matt Stein says:

    Amen. Ms. Van Pelt taught Doctrine in her class and instilled a passion for diligent Bible study with the intention of communing with God that will remain with me for the rest of my life. She was the first to instruct me in God’s different attributes and glory. She taught us about God’s holiness through Scriptures like Isaiah 6 and the burning bush, showing His “otherness” and putting the focus on a need for the cross. She believed what she taught and brought it to us in a loving fervor.

    I believe it’s no coincidence that I was a student in her third grade class when the Holy Spirit entered my life while reading about Jesus from the book of John at home.

    Although it may not seem like much to some, there may not be a more holy calling for us to emulate than that displayed by Bernice Van Pelt. Her life convicts me that we need more teachers and people ready to dedicate their lives to studying the Word and showing others how to do the same.

    I thank God for her often.