A church where kids are part of everything

By on November 1, 2002

Ian Sowton, 73, a volunteer at the Sunday school program at Toronto’s Holy Trinity Church, joins in a friendly back-rub circle with parish children and a Sunday school teacher.

Kids plop themselves down comfortably on a carpet laid over the ancient pine floor in front of the altar. Rev. Sara Boyles, parish priest of Holy Trinity church in downtown Toronto, drops down in a swirl of folding skirts to the carpet with the kids and distributes hand chimes for them to ring at key times during the eucharistic prayer.

Kids are part of everything at Holy Trinity, and their involvement is deliberate.

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Baptisms are handled in a way that gives children an integral role, rather than having them fidget as passive bystanders.

Mrs. Boyles does baptisms at a low table with a big bowl, instead of using the grey, cement baptismal font. Kids pour the water and hold the book for her as she reads through the service. In preparation beforehand, a parishioner leads a class where children bring dolls to be baptized.

?The children come in to these ceremonies and are right in the midst of things,? said Rev. Joyce Barnett Kemper, a mother of two teenagers and a volunteer who heads the children?s program at Trinity. ?They are quite enthusiastic.?

?We offer a place where your kid is okay,? said Ms. Barnett Kemper. ?We want the children to learn that church is a good place to be. There are no crying rooms behind glass for us.?

Holy Trinity is known for its location ? tucked in behind the Eaton Centre in the heart of downtown Toronto. The mall was built around the church and for its Christmas story, there is a giant of a production staged annually since the 1930s which is a definite ?kid magnet? to the church, says Ms. Barnett Kemper.

Because of the production, a semi-permanent stage was built over the narthex, with two shallow stairs running the full width. It is on these stairs that children will often place themselves just before eucharist, sprinkled in among the legs of adults who circle the altar.

The kids can see everything, but can also pull their attention in and out for some quick moments of playtime. When it gets to communion time, they cross the floor to take their place on the carpet, right at the center of the circle in front of the altar.

In fact, so integrated are children into the life of the church that it is hard to discuss their program without talking about the church as a whole.

The church has moveable pews, and they have been placed in horseshoe fashion around the altar, which stands at one end of the horseshoe. People sit where they want ? and everyone can see everyone else?s face during the service.

The atmosphere is very informal. (There are lots of blue jeans, and people who show up in suits for their first visit usually come back the following week in casual clothes.)

At the times in the service the kids can run freely back and forth between their program, their parents, and any adopted aunts or uncles who might be around.

Process has always been important to the children?s program.

Ms. Barnett Kemper said the emphasis is on acceptance and community. The smallest children or toddlers, have their program in a corner of the narthex and can be seen throughout the service. ?Some of the little ones find it difficult,? acknowledges Ms. Barnett Kemper, ?but they do gradually learn to be quiet.?

The next age group up is called ?middle kids? as opposed to little kids. ?That way they aren?t made to feel small,? says Ms. Barnett Kemper.

Holy Trinity changed the order of service to accommodate children. ?I realized that we had kids in the narthex during the most boring part of the service, so I put my foot down and we changed things around.? Now, children are always in the church for the peace and intercessions but are not subjected to 40 minutes of announcements, which sometimes happens as parishioners line up behind a microphone each Sunday.

Parishioners take turns leading a session of the children?s program.

One of the church?s senior citizens, Ian Sowton, 73, is a regular feature in the lunchroom with the kids. ?I feel pretty strongly that the congregation shouldn?t leave it to the parents of children to run programs, but should take responsibility,? he said in an interview. ?It makes the kids feel that they belong with everybody, I think.?

On this day, while Mr. Sowton helped the 4 and 5 year olds with their cut-and-paste project, they listened to the story of Sarah and Isaac.

At Christmas, all the toddlers got to ?be Mary? and wrapped and cuddled their dolls, which stood in for baby Jesus.

A ?kid-friendly lunch? is also key to success. ?It?s very important to have food available because people are coming from far-flung parts of town. We finish the service at 12:15 and the kids can get wrangy,? said Ms. Barnett Kemper. ?We always have peanut butter and bread laid out at the back of the church, and people can help themselves any time during the service.?

There?s an inter-generational service about once a month.

For one Easter project the children decided to get people in the congregation to tell their ?faith under fire? stories. ?One man talked about being under fire in London during the blitz when he was a boy,? said Ms. Barnett Kemper. Another person told the kids about a struggle with cancer. And another told the kids about a fire at Holy Trinity in the 1970s.

?The kids talked about each of the subjects before the filming and then came up with a list of questions to ask the person,? Ms. Barnett Kemper said.

The parish freely uses the ingenuity of its parishioners with the children. ?It?s always a challenge to keep the bigger boys engaged,? she said. ?But I will never forget the image of those boys poring over a huge atlas which one parishioner had brought in to show them where Paul had traveled.?

With a smile, Ms. Barnett Kemper added, ?It?s the vision I had of all those heads leaning over the atlas. They were completely engaged ? 14-year-old boys.?

Second of two parts. pull: ?We offer a place where your kid is okay. We want the children to learn that church is a good place to be. There are no crying rooms behind glass for us.? Rev. Joyce Barnett Kemper cap1: Jane Davidson A child peers over the pulpit at Holy Trinity church in Toronto. cap2: Jane Davidson Ian Sowton, 73, a volunteer at the Sunday school program at Toronto?s Holy Trinity Church, joins in a friendly back-rub circle with parish children and a Sunday school teacher.

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