What Emmanuel Means to Me
Emmanuel has been a part of my family for generations. I like that my family has this history. It is unique in a university town like this where people move here and move away that a family would stay so long and remain a part of this community for over ninety years. I am reminded of this when I see the quilt that hangs in the parish hall with the signatures of my parents, my aunts, my godmother, and my grandparents. To me, Emmanuel is family and community.
My great-grandparents, Glad and Helen Thomas, joined Emmanuel in about 1925 just after they were married. In fact, the corridor ambulatory right outside was donated in memory of Carol Thomas Brigham, their daughter who passed away from cancer. Back when Carol was married in this church, my great-grandparents realized that when it rains or the weather is bad, the bride and wedding party still have to go outside to enter the church from the back. This thought was the inspiration in donating the ambulatory. I’m thinking the choir and acolytes might appreciate this too.
My grandfather, Lott Thomas, grew up in this church. He was baptized here and acolyted for many years. He was even a choir boy. (That in itself is funny if you know him.) He said back at that time the choir rehearsed on a stage that was built as part of the parish hall. My grandfather also served on the vestry a couple of times and served as the Parish Warden under Father Mowry. Many people have referred to the back pew on the left as Lott Thomas’s pew. He has sat in that pew almost every Sunday for decades.
My mom, Kristin Thomas Feddersen, and her sisters were baptized at Emmanuel and grew up here. They were all also married in this church. My mom tells stories of participating in the Christmas Eve pageant growing up and being assigned the role of an angel - every year. At that time the pageant was a silent crèche – where the participants had to hold still for the singing of all the verses of “Silent Night”. My mom says no song is as long as “Silent Night” when you have to hold your arms over your head as an angel for all those verses. She also fondly remembers the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper and Mardi Gras Carnival – where all the classrooms in the education building had different carnival games and prizes.
I was baptized here too, as were my sister and my cousins. Like my mom, I was in the Christmas pageant for years – usually as a narrator since it was no longer a silent crèche. When my mom said I should become an acolyte, I decided I wanted to usher instead. I was in seventh grade, but all the ushers were adults so I had to get permission. I remember getting up the nerve to ask Mr. Kobel if I could usher. (And yes, when I started ushering I was actually shorter than my usher partner, Lori Dobrik.)
There is so much about the Emmanuel community that I like. I like that my school friends go to church here. I like that I can run into my grandfather at church on Sundays. I realize as I am headed off to college at Michigan that I am going to miss all this next year. The thought of finding a new church is a bit scary. I realize that basically, Emmanuel is like a family to me – and I am going to miss it.
Centennial High School, Class of 2016
University of Michigan, Class of 2020
Good morning. My name is Philip Kocheril, and this is the only church I’ve ever been a member of. Though I was born and baptized into the Syrian Orthodox faith, as was the familial custom, I have lived in Champaign and attended Emmanuel since I was born, and I think of myself as an Episcopalian. Regular Sunday attendance is rare for my generation. Actually, most of my friends are atheist, and some of the others who claim to believe can’t find a reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning. But I find it worthwhile to get up and attend Sunday worship.
Life can be very stressful. The past four years of high school, I have participated in a number of clubs and organizations, performed countless times, studied many hours, and learned quite a lot about life. A short while ago, when the stress was getting to be a lot for me, I came to church and meditated on what I was doing in my life. I didn’t know where it came from, but a kind of solace washed over me, and I felt calm. This is now how I feel whenever I come to church. For me, the church is a mental and spiritual resting place, where I can come to find peace.
And I feel that a large part of why I continue to come to church is the community here. I have no relatives within a 7 hours’ drive, so the people of Emmanuel have become a sort of family for me. In the past month or so, I was lucky to be featured in the newspaper multiple times; each time I was, I was greeted with a shower of appreciation, and sometimes newspaper clippings, by the people of Emmanuel. Normally, I have a hard time accepting congratulations, but I felt at peace and comfortable with my Emmanuel family.
But perhaps the biggest reason I come to church is the intellectual stimulation. I like being part of a church where reason is one of the three pillars on which it was founded. I would consider myself a deep thinker, and often find myself lost in my own thoughts, pondering the ramifications of some property of the universe or historical event. When I think about religion, however, I tend to struggle a little bit. Usually, I can come to some kind of conclusion and get back to whatever I was doing, but with religion, I never seem to have an end to my thoughts. And perhaps that is the point of religion: that we will never fully comprehend it. We hear it every time, “the peace of God which passeth all understanding,” and yet we still even subconsciously try to quantitatively define the enigma of religion.
I find myself wondering if this is perhaps a deterrent for people my age to come to church - the lack of complete knowledge about something. In this day and age, we know more about the world in which we live than we ever have. Technological advances allow us to understand the makeup of the universe well beyond what we could ever see with our own eyes. And yet, no amount of technology will ever make religion concrete. Maybe subconsciously, the people of this generation do not attend church to preserve their image of the “Information Age.”
But isn’t that the point of religion? Believing in something that is greater than yourself, greater than all of us could ever be, and putting faith into the morals and traditions of that construct? Religion is meant to teach us, and offer us a way to process life. If science is meant to process the world and explain it to us, while religion is meant to explain how we should interact with the world, then it is easy to see how they could conflict, and why some may think the two are mutually exclusive. However, I do not believe this is true. I think science and religion are not only not mutually exclusive, but dependent, because credence in only one of them creates a world without perspective.
I think that we, as humans, need both religion and science in our lives to create a balance. Everything that humans need is a balance, from nutrition and exercise to education and interaction. For me, this balance means studying math and science, pursuing music, and maintaining faith. All of these things are important to me and my well-being. I understand that life is going to get a lot harder for me in the next few years. But I think that I need at least some form of connection with each area. That is why, even if life gets in the way of coming to church, I will never abandon my conversation with God.
Even standing before you all here today, I have yet to fully grasp the idea that in merely a few months I will be exactly 342 miles away from the safety blanket I call Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal church. While I’m unsure of what my future as a wolverine at the University of Michigan and even beyond will hold, Emmanuel will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve practically grown up in this church, running around the halls with my sisters in our matching smocked dresses and big bow atop our signature curly blonde hair. And who could forget my days as a Girl Scout/ young entrepreneur were Emmanuel become my cookie-selling headquarters, ensuring the entire congregation has enough thin mints to last a lifetime. Even as I approached my rebellious teenage years where my life revolved around one thing only: finding the perfect prom dress, Emmanuel opened its doors and became Champaign’s hotspot for both finding your dream dress and helping raise money for women facing domestic violence situations. However most importantly, Emmanuel has provided me with a place to learn and grow in faith and the love of God, and shape my identity as a Christian.
One experience that really helped me grow in faith was my work as an acolyte. Now I know what you’re thinking, aren’t you the acolyte who fell asleep that one time in the middle of the service? Or the acolyte that constantly messes up up ringing the bells, carrying the correct plate, and basically every job imaginably at least once? While unfortunately the answer is yes to all of the above, luckily my skills as an acolyte don’t necessarily reflect what I’ve gotten out of the position. There is something rewarding about contributing and connecting to a church service, and hoping you were able to help others feel apart of something special as well. By having the opportunity to shake the hands of every member of the congregation, I gain a better understanding of what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself.
Outside of Emmanuel, one experience that really tested my faith was my trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi this past February to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. On the second day of the trip, we were given the opportunity to attend a local church service in the more impoverished part of town. Having only ever attended church with my family at Emmanuel and Holy Cross, I was curious to see what the experience would hold. When I walked in, I was immediately struck by the culture clash as I entered a predominately black church. As my classmates and I made our back to a pew in the back of the church, the racial segregation was unmistakable.
There were no prayer books or hymnals, but a projector screen with the morning’s agenda. There was no chorus or organ, but a few women on a stage with hand held instruments. Needless to say, I felt a little out of place. However as the service began, I found myself taken back by the incredible amount of faith and love I had the privilege of being able to witness. The entire service, the congregation was extremely involved and passionate, constantly clapping and cheering when the priest would say something they strongly agreed with. And during the peace, everyone stood up and walked around the church hugging each other saying, “Jesus loves you,” and any racial boundaries created before instantly disappeared. At one point during the service, a little girl sitting in the pew in front of me walked away from her family and sat in my lap. I’d never felt more welcomed into an unfamiliar environment in my life, and hope new members at Emmanuel experience the same feeling as well.
Later in the week of the trip, I was able to help prepare and serve meals at the local soup kitchen. It was there where I met Verna Jones, one of the nicest and more pure hearted people I have and probably will ever met. The second me and my two classmates walked in the door, she smoldered us with her sincerest gratitude for giving up our time to help others. Even though we were doing simple tasks such as packaging sack lunches, chopping fruits and vegetables, and serving meals, she made it seem as though it were the most important job in the world. She constantly told us, “you being here is a blessing, simply a blessing. God loves you so much, you guys could have gone anywhere on your vacation. You could be on a beach in Florida right now. But you came down here to Clarksdale, and to me, that is truly a blessing.”
Later on during the trip, I learned Verna had asked the habitat crew if they could help fix up her house a little bit. It turns out Verna’s house is completely run, unideal by anyone's standards with a roof that leaks and is sinking in on itself. I couldn’t believe how someone with so much love in her heart could live that way. This simply shows that even though someone like Verna was dealt a worse hand in life, she makes absolutely no excuses for spreading the love of God. And from both my experience in Emmanuel and on my Habitat trip, embracing your faith and spreading the love of God is what makes being a Christian so special.
So even as I embark on the next chapter in my life, I know Emmanuel will never truly be 342 miles away. The striking red door, the glass cabinets filled to the brim with antique easter eggs, the stained glass windows as the morning light shines through, the intoxicating smell of sweet incense lingering in the air, and the rich sound of an old organ complemented by voices uniting together as one, and most importantly the faith and love of my family and friends from Emmanuel, will forever be engrained in my memory.
Earlier this year the popular website The Toast ran a feature called “Kind-Hearted Reality Shows I’d Like to See.” The author explained that after a hard day at work, she often found herself just wishing she could come home to something pleasant. She wrote “I don’t want to watch anyone fail, and I don’t want to watch anyone fight. I just want the reality-show equivalent of a… home-cooked meal, and to be reassured that not everything in the world is horrible, all of the time.” She had a list of suggestions for new reality shows that would fit this bill, like Your House Is Nice Just The Way It Is, in which “a decorating crew shows up at a house to praise its already charming features.” Or perhaps Back in My Day: “A famous actor heads to a retirement home and asks people to tell their favorite stories.” And then the final suggestion: Everybody Gets Prizes, a show where, well, everybody just gets prizes.
I loved The Toast’s list, but it struck me that it’s no wonder reality shows like those don’t get programmed. Scandal, conflict, and violence grab people’s attention, and content creators have long since learned to take advantage of that. All our media over-exaggerate the prurient and attention-grabbing features of life in order to get a bigger audience so advertisers can sell more products. It’s one of the most effective and popular spiritual formation programs in America.
Headed out of town, coming from the right, we have a death march. The corpse is probably lying on a board or in hammock between two sticks, carried by pallbearers who are surrounded by what St. Luke calls a "large crowd." They are headed to the cemetery, out beyond city walls, to the Jewish place of burial.
At the head of the procession is a widow. She has already suffered the loss of her husband, enough of a blow, but now she is suffering something much worse: the loss of a son in his prime. Apart from the personal grief and loss, which have to have been staggering, this son was also for all practical purposes her Social Security and her 401(k). Who knows what she will be facing as a woman alone, now that he is gone? This bereaved mother and wife walks in front of her son’s corpse to the tomb, slowly, wrapped in tragedy, with all the mournful dignity befitting the occasion. Think the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony.
Headed into town, coming from the left, we have a very different procession. It’s a bunch of burly fishermen and women of ill repute, dusty from the road. With them are families carrying their lunches, uppity Gentile women who should have been home with their husbands, a couple state bureaucrats looking very out of place, and noisy kids making a ruckus. At the head of this procession is another Jewish man, also in his prime, but this one very much alive. People are watching, commenting, applauding as the motley crew moves towards the city. Think Florida Avenue with the Fourth of July parade passing by.