Mercer Island baccalaureate: Faith takes the spotlight

Ian Zhang, a class of 2010 graduate, hugs his mother. - Contributed Photo
Ian Zhang, a class of 2010 graduate, hugs his mother.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

As someone who had stopped going to a house of worship many years ago, I was a little hesitant about attending this year’s baccalaureate ceremony. I envisioned spiraling Gothic architecture, glass windowpanes and fire-breathing ministers who condemned me to an afterlife wreathed in flame for failing to attend church these past few years. OK, perhaps not that last one, but as an educated and involved member of this community, I am ashamed to admit that I connoted this event with the organized institution of religion.

The annual baccalaureate service, a community ceremony for graduating seniors of Mercer Island held this year at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, has always been about faith: a belief in something. This year was no different. That realization came almost immediately as the invocation given by Pastor Jeff Palmberg spoke less of God, and more of trusting in someone who had provided time and time again. Following Pastor Palmberg came this year’s student faith representatives: Claire Melvin, James Kashima (Buddhism), Eliana Rudee (Judaism), Saloni Parikh (Hinduism) and William Voit (Christianity). I was amazed as the eloquent and passionate student speakers spoke of the impact that faith had on their lives. Whether it was Claire Melvin being inspired and humbled by her work in Uganda, James Kashima reflecting on his Buddhist way of life, or Eliana Rudee speaking of how much she treasured the nurturing Jewish community here on the Island, it was very clear that no matter what organized institution we hail from, a part of the human condition requires faith. The point was driven home throughout the ceremony as each speaker essentially spoke of believing in something to get him or her through the tough times: whether that belief was placed in God, science, nature or people was, in essence, irrelevant.

Also featured was a beautiful reading of Maya Stevenson’s poem “Footprints” by faculty speaker Erica Hill. The poem resonated well with the audience as it touched upon themes of loneliness and despair, and how even when one feels completely and utterly forlorn, there is always a higher power willing to carry you forward. Guest speaker Michael Medved gave a more commencement style speech, covering a broad range of historical, political and sociological topics that concluded with an appeal to the graduates to take their faith with them into the next phase of their lives.

Of course, no baccalaureate ceremony is complete without musical numbers, and this year’s performers were exceptional. Julia Stafford welcomed the audience on the piano, Kahley Blankenship and Martina Unutzer performed a self-composed piece, Zoe Spranger played the flute during the candle lighting, and Lexie Showalter and Kaylia Balinbin, accompanied by Laura Vizzutti, performed “A Step of Faith” written by Greg Asimakoupoulos.

The ceremony concluded with a blessing by Mercer Island Young Life representatives Emily and Marshall Jamieson and the blowing of the shofar by Cantor Bradlee Kurland and Carol Stockton.

Essentially, the baccalaureate ceremony was everything I assumed it wasn’t going to be. I expected a heavy dose of sermonizing and conservatism; instead, I received wonderful exposure to a diverse representation of people, life philosophies and faiths. Baccalaureate is simply another opportunity for the important people in our lives — our pastors and rabbis who double as mentors, confidants and treasured friends — to get up on the podium one last time and let the class of 2010 know that no matter where we end up, our faith will always be with us.

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