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.