By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DEWITT — Students at St. Joseph Catholic School walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. April 20 to take a prayerful approach to a nationwide initiative aimed at ending gun violence.
While their peers in public schools staged protests against gun violence and demanded action on gun reform, St. Joe’s students in grades kindergarten through eight focused on their personal responsibility to stem violence and reach out to others.
They reflected on and prayed about peer pressure, serving their neighbors, standing up for someone being picked on, reaching out to someone in class having a hard time, and avoiding the desire to judge, among other things.
Before the Student Council-led prayer service began, 16 students — each holding a hand-printed poster — gathered in the school’s conference room and listened to Principal Sharon Roling explain logistics for the 20-minute event. Each student was assigned a spot to stand outside the school or church.
At 10 a.m. a bell rang and the school’s 160 students, escorted by their teachers, walked out of the building quietly, dispersing into small groups to reflect and pray at each of the 16 stations. When everyone was in place at a particular station, the church bell rang. Each student holding a poster read the Scripture passage and a question printed on it. After one-minute of quiet reflection, the church bell rang again and the student with the poster said: “And let us pray.” All responded: “Help me to be your disciple, Lord.”
Father Stephen Page, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, participated in the walkout and repeated the Scripture passage for the younger students. From the youngest to the oldest, students demonstrated a respectful demeanor and maintained silence at the appropriate time.
The prayer service culminated at a 17th station inside St. Joseph Catholic Church. “Think about what we prayed for in the last 16 stations and what we can do for others to build them up,” Roling said from the podium.
The number 17 represented the number of students killed in the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day. The date of the national walkout marked the 19th anniversary of the shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where 13 people were killed before the two gunmen turned their guns on themselves.
Inspiration for the prayerful version of the national school walkout came from a diocesan principals meeting, Roling told The Catholic Messenger. St. Joseph Student Council members, with input from their teachers, made the prayer service their own.
Student Council President Hannah Palzkill said organizers decided that all grades could participate “so that we could all think about what has happened, what we can do to fix it and to pray for all who have died and for the shooters.”
Her poster read: “They are to slander no one, to be peaceable, considerate, exercising all graciousness toward everyone” (Titus 3:2). The question following the Scripture read: “When my friend has fantastic news, am I truly happy for him or am I jealous of his good fortune?”
Hannah, an eighth-grader, said the students were “really listening and not looking off into space … knowing what I was saying and understanding it.”
Student Council Secretary Elaina Schroeder’s poster read: “Children, let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). The question: “If someone in my class is having a hard time with friends or family, do I have the courage to notice her pain?” Elaina sensed that students “could really connect” with the Scripture and question. “They’ve all felt that way,” the eighth-grader said.
The poster carried by fifth-grader Ryan McGarry read: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.” The question: When I see someone being picked on, do I follow the beatitudes and be a peacemaker by standing up for her?” The Student Council member said he thought the students paid close attention and could relate to the question.
Student Council member Grayson Chrones carried a poster that read: “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9). The question: “When I make a mistake, do I try to cover it up, blame someone else, or lie about it?” “We all make mistakes,” the fifth-grader observed.
It takes courage to say, ‘I made a mistake’ or ‘I did some putting down,’ and to own it … to look for that change in attitude,” Roling said. Being proactive and incorporating Catholic identity was essential to her school’s walkout. “The best we can do is to pray, and to pray to be better people ourselves.”