While students at St. Mary Catholic School in Newton have been granted several opportunities to learn about their faith in a classroom setting, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders got the chance to be living examples of that by participating in the March for Life demonstration at the State Capitol in Topeka on Monday.
Joining the crowds at the pro-life rally, St. Mary students and faculty celebrated mass with those gathered, heard the testimony of an abortion survivor, marched with the group from the Topeka Performing Arts Center to the State Capitol and heard from multiple speakers — including Gov. Sam Brownback — about pro-life legislation.
It was the first time representatives from St. Mary had participated in the rally, though parish pastor Fr. Nicholas Voelker had attended before. Voelker initially approached one of the middle school classes about making the trip to Topeka for the March for Life this year, and Principal Philip Stutey was quick to jump on board with the idea as a learning experience that the entire middle school could take advantage of.
"The Catholic church teaches every life is valuable and so the pro-life cause is a cause that we believe in, and certainly — in middle school — the opportunity to go to Topeka and learn about social studies in a way that maybe you can't in the classroom is very beneficial to the kids," Stutey said. "Instead of learning it out of a textbook, we're hearing from a guest speaker who's lived through the process, the horrors of abortion. We heard the legislators, we heard the lawmakers and we heard what they're working on with legislation to try to make sure that our world is more pro-life."
"Any opportunity that we can give the kids to live their faith, it becomes part of them and then they want to carry on," said St. Mary eighth grade teacher Deb Henning. "The more opportunities we give them to live their faith, then the better they are as Christians and parts of the church."
Hearing the story of abortion survivor Melissa Ohden, in particular, clearly resonated with the St. Mary students, as Henning noted you "could've heard a pin drop" when she was speaking.
Ohden's message, Henning said, was also very similar to what the students were studying in class at the time.
"I think it made them think about what that means, because we talk a lot in religion class about protecting life, and she talked about protecting all life," Henning said. "That's kind of what we're talking about in religion anyway right now, so that was a really good tie in for us because then we talked about how everybody's life is important."
"It really shows how our faith basically helps almost everything and it's important to show that God creates us all differently and we should all have a chance in life," said St. Mary student Lezlly Acevedo.
Polling the students on the trip back to Newton, Stutey said it was clear the trip had made an impact — as the response was unanimously in favor in taking part in the March for Life again next year.
Both Stutey and Henning were grateful for the opportunity, highlighting the message of respecting life, which is extremely important to them individually. For Stutey, it is magnified as his two children are adopted — so being part of a demonstration that illustrates the numerous pro-life choices is something he could easily get behind.
As for the St. Mary students, especially the eighth graders (who may be old enough to vote in the next presidential election), Stutey is aware this is a key time — in the formation of their conscience, causes and beliefs — and hopes the trip was an illuminating one in regards to the life choices out there and those who support them.
"When you see several thousand kids, middle school and high school age, you realize it's not just you that believes in that," Stutey said. "It's not just something that is isolated, but it's something that you're part of; a bigger movement, a bigger group, a bigger community, that our church is much bigger than just our little church in Newton," Stutey said. "It's nice to see the faith being lived out by our young people; it's very inspiring."