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"Released Time Program Marks 35 Years"

The sanctuary pulses with the energy of 145 children during Halifax Released Time. A praise team leads students as they rap the books of the Bible and clap and stomp to choruses. They wave their hands, eagerly volunteering to act out a Bible story.

Since the program began 35 years ago, the meeting place, the music and the students have all changed. But the basis of the program—the Word of God and the commitment of the volunteers who conduct the program—remains the same.

“It’s an honor to be able to participate in this program,” says Trish Carle, who has served as program director for the last ten years. “The seeds that we’re planting now in the children, we never know if they’re going to blossom into a child’s faith, but I really do think that we’re planting good seeds. It’s a really good work that we’re doing.”

In 1975, Marlene Miller and a friend visited a released time program in Chambersburg and liked what they saw: Students heard Bible and missionary stories, memorized Bible verses and sang songs. Under the Public School Code of Pennsylvania, students are permitted to be excused from school for a total of not more than 36 hours per year for religious instruction.

With permission from the Halifax School Board to offer such instruction to fourth and fifth graders in conjunction with the local ministerium, the women recruited volunteers and the Halifax Released Time program began on October 8, 1975.

That first year 40 to 50 students attended weekly classes, held at the former Otterbein United Methodist Church in Halifax and at the former Enders United Methodist Church in Enders for children attending Enders-Fisherville elementary school. Eventually, other locations near the schools were utilized for small groups.

In later years, students were car-pooled or bussed to released time classes that met at the Word of Life Chapel, then at Camp Hebron. In 1992, the group began meeting at the Halifax United Methodist (UM) Church, within walking distance of the Halifax Elementary School, which all fourth and fifth graders now attend.

“It instills some of the basic Christian values into the kids,” says Carle. “It exposes them to the Bible and the words of the Bible in case they hadn’t been exposed to it before.”

Carle writes the curriculum, “How God Speaks,” and invites pastors and other people of faith to take turns presenting lessons to the group. Afterwards, children meet with volunteers for follow-up activities, such as learning Bible verses, now called Fantastic Faith Words.

Seventy-eight percent of the parents of fourth and fifth grade students this year signed permission slips for their children to attend. And the children respond enthusiastically.

“I think they’re pretty surprised they can have so much fun and be in a church at the same time,” Carle says. “They’re developing relationships with the volunteer mentors, some of which might be life changing.”

Twenty-five volunteers assist in conducting the program, which meets for 12 two-hour sessions during the school year.

“It’s a testament to the entire community that we’re allowed to have a program like this,” Carle says. “It wouldn’t be possible without the support of everyone from the superintendent, the school board, the principal of the elementary school, the teachers, and ministerium and, of course, the volunteers that help to make it happen.”

Those volunteers come from various churches within the community. Sharon Fetterolf, whose children and grandchildren have participated in the program, has taught a class for six years.

“The most important thing I can do as a teacher is to make God real to them. The Bible is not just a storybook,” she says. “God is not just someone who is so distant but someone who is close to them and wants to have a relationship with them.”

She finds many children have misconceptions about spiritual things, such as thinking human beings might turn into angels.

“They’re hungry to know about God. They see things on television, they hear things from their friends, but they’re always open just to interact with you,” she says. “If you give the kids a good foundation, a good biblical foundation, it sets the stage for their life.”

Sondra Cook remembers walking to released time classes when she was an elementary student and participating in good discussions at what is now the Halifax Historical Society; she has assisted with the program while her children have participated.

While academics and athletics are important, Cook says, so is Christian education.

“I like the fact that it’s Bible based—everything from memorizing scripture to the actual stories that are either portrayed or told up front,” she says. “I’m afraid some parents think church is dull and boring and all about rules and regulations. We try to focus on the love and salvation and to get the gospel story out, but the kids have a lot of fun.”
According to Dale Parker, pastor of Halifax UM Church and ministerium treasurer, a recent study of college students found that assisting students’ spiritual growth helps create students who are more caring, more globally aware and more committed to social justice and also helps them better respond to the stresses of life.

“There’s an overlapping of a common concern for these children. Ours (at released time) is putting the emphasis on the spiritual and the relational needs of their faith, and the school puts more emphasis on their academic and psychological and social needs,” he says. “It’s not competition but complementary; it’s the faith community working with the school community to reach a common goal.”

When Parker became pastor of the church two years ago, he was amazed by the enthusiasm of the children and the passion of volunteers to develop a spiritual foundation for young lives.

“This program is far better than most Sunday school programs I’ve
been to,” he says. “It is a model ministry for other churches who are looking as to how to reach these kids for Jesus Christ. It’s just awesome.”

The ministerium funds the program by providing Bibles and an annual picnic and compensates Carle with an honorarium.

According to Parker the program benefits the community by
eveloping the children’s confidence and character. It also offers an opportunity for Christians from various churches and denominations to work together.

“Working together . . . is a testimony to those who are not Christians that we are not here promoting our own agenda but serving a living God who wishes to reach all of us for the common good,” he says.

The ministerium, which also includes Halifax Lutheran Parish; Camp Hebron, Inc.; Faith, Zion Stone and Jacob’s UM Churches; and The Valleys Evangelical Covenant Church—has found the program so beneficial that two years ago the churches began sponsoring a Mother’s Day Weekend retreat at Camp Hebron called “R U Up 4 the Challenge (of Middle School).” That program challenges students to grow deeper in their faith after they exit the released time program.

Last year the ministerium organized RockSOLID Camp Connection, offering middle school students one church camp experience per year.

“Our assumption is this,” Parker says. “if children and youth go to a camp experience together and they get to know each other. . . the chances of them having a positive peer group is much better. It’s for the purpose of developing a faith community among the youth.”

Birthday cake and punch was served as part of the released time program’s 35th anniversary meeting.

Carle, who works hard to recruit volunteers, hopes the program will continue.

“The legacy we leave behind is just going to be a stronger Christian community in the years to come,” she says. “I would love to see so many volunteers that I actually have to turn people away.”

Posted with permission from The Upper Dauphin Sentinel.