Remembering a Brave Prom King

Corsage and CrownMost people attend a prom or two, but I’ve attended lots of proms. Like most teenage girls, as a high school junior, I was excited about the prospect of my first prom. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun, since the boy I had a crush on didn’t ask me.

My senior prom was monumentally worse. By then, I was a patient at Toledo State Mental Hospital following an almost fatal suicide attempt. After spending a couple months in a private psychiatric ward, my insurance ran out. I was committed to the decaying institution that then housed thousands of mentally ill individuals. Before Mental Health reform, that horrible place was reminiscent of the one depicted in the classic film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Battling depression and an eating disorder, I looked more like a 17-year-old Holocaust victim than a carefree teenager. The psychiatrist granted me a weekend pass hoping that attending prom would lift my spirits. My date was a classmate who suffered from epilepsy. He must have empathized with my situation, and proudly escorted me to the prom ignoring the stares from a few overly-curious students.

Fast forward three decades to May 2002, when my life looked nothing like that struggling teen. Faith, education, and the support of a few encouraging mentors had positively changed my circumstances. I was also engaged to a wonderful man who was a school administrator, whose job necessitated that we chaperone prom. Never having had an opportunity to go to prom together, Larry and I decided to don a tuxedo and gown and make it our night, too. Larry and me

Since then, my husband and I have attended quite a few proms. The impressive decorations, twinkling lights, and colorful dresses, still take my breath away. But the prom I remember most vividly is the one when a precious senior who was dying of bone cancer was elected prom king. It was the last year that my spouse served as a middle/high school principal at a rural school in northwestern Ohio.

We had all come to love this quiet dark-haired youth whose given name was Anthony-Dillon James. Better known as A.J., he had waged a long and valiant battle against Osteosarcoma. For nine months, he was spot-free, but then the disease turned deadly. Despite his illness, A.J. was compassionate and wise beyond his years.

Somehow in a tight-knit community where folks have known each other forever, tragedy is worse, because everyone is affected. Prom wouldn’t have been prom without A.J. being there, and he knew it. Even though, it had been months since the senior had been able to attend school, he mustered all his strength and accompanied by his dedicated fiancée`, he showed up looking handsome in a white tuxedo.

As the disc jockey played pulsating music, the students danced energetically, while silently grieving the inevitable loss of the fun-loving youth who had always been part of them. When his classmates voted for their prom king, I shouldn’t have been surprised  when A.J.’s name was announced.

There was a moment when the reality of the high school student’s dismal prognosis hit me full force. It happened when a pretty senior asked if she could take a picture with him, and they  posed humorously cheek to cheek with toothy grins. What A.J. didn’t see, was that when the blonde turned away, her expression crumbled into a painful grimace. She had taken the photo as a memory of the boy she had probably known since kindergarten, realizing he would soon be gone. Like a trained actress, before she turned to face A.J. again, the golden-haired girl mustered her courage and smiled brightly. Her affection for her terminally-ill classmate wasn’t romantic love driven by adolescent hormones. Rather it was the kind of caring that country kids take for granted growing up in a close circle of friendship.

When my husband and I visited him for the last time, A.J. sensed that my heart was breaking. He smiled his dazzling smile, and said, “I’ll be okay.” Then the 18-year-old lifted his T-shirt sleeve and displayed a large tattoo of a compassionate Jesus. A visual reminder of the Bible’s promise, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

That July, the bravest prom king I’ve ever known took his last Earthly breath. Still, he lives on in the hearts of those he inspired, forever wearing a white tuxedo and a jeweled crown.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an AP & Amy award-winning journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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52 Churches in 52 Weeks: The Ultimate Church Hopper

Church windowI am a self-admitted church hopper or at least I have been for almost a year now. Late last summer, I embarked on a project, “52 churches in 52 weeks.” If you Google this title, you’ll find that other individuals have taken this same journey. So far, I have visited about 46 different churches, all but three of them located in Miami County. I have attended Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Apostolic, United Church of Christ, Church of God, Brethren, Catholic, Assemblies of God, and non-denominational services, and the list goes on.

When my husband and I relocated to Miami County a few years ago, one of the questions people frequently asked us was, “Where do you attend church?” However, this might be the wrong question if you are trying to decide whether you share a similar faith experience and denominational or theological stance. After all, statistics from the website www.city-data.com reveal that the largest population growth in religious attendance in Miami County is in the category of those who do not attend at all. In a county of approximately 104,224 people estimated by July 2015 data from the United States Census Bureau, currently about 64,347 individuals are not attending or claiming affiliation with a religious group. This is a 21 percent increase from the 52,998 individuals who claimed no religious affiliation in 2000 when there were approximately 99,000 residents. Of course, this dramatic rise must be adjusted for the population growth that has occurred in Miami County.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Miami County as nationwide especially mainline denominational churches have seen a tremendous decline in attendance in recent years. This is often attributed to the large proportion of the young adult (millennial) population who are not church-goers. It was this statistic about those with no religious affiliation which originally spurred me to investigate the churches in Miami County. This began as a private project for possible publication, because while completing a master’s degree in ministry some years ago, my studies included a personal emphasis on church growth.church windows

The project was eventually accepted as my research report to fulfill a Leadership Troy requirement. As a part of the 2016 class of Leadership Troy, it has been an interesting journey documenting my experience visiting dozens of our county’s houses of worship to prepare to write a report not about specific churches, but about the local faith community in general. I hope to let you in on the results in a few months, but for now, if I haven’t visited your Miami County church or other religious fellowship, temple, etc., and you would like me to, please send me an email, being sure to include service times and location. In my report, one of the items to be addressed is that some religious establishments are neglecting Internet postings through a website, blog, or Facebook page regarding basic information like service times. Although there are also fellowships that are doing an exemplary job of having an Internet presence to get their information out.

On a positive note, I have been profoundly changed on this path. About halfway through the project, there was a Sunday when my husband and I visited a West Milton congregation. As the sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, tears filled my eyes. Not tears of sadness, but of gratitude for what I have witnessed in fellowships all across our county. Whether it was 30 elderly seniors gathered in a century-old brick building singing traditional hymns or hundreds of people of all ages clapping and making a joyful noise in a converted bowling alley, I have been privileged to observe local residents expressing their faith.

Church window 2Witnessing the zeal of many church attendees reminded me that there are citizens who still care deeply about this nation, and about this community. Those who want to do the right thing and support the schools, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and to battle the county’s heroin epidemic like the 40 plus area churches that joined together for the Hope over Heroin event in July. I gleaned all this information from reading church bulletins listing numerous outreaches mostly led by volunteers, and by listening to heartfelt Sunday morning prayers and sermons. I have been blessed by friendliness and inspired by devout dedication, relieved to find that there are thousands of wonderful believers alive and well in Miami County. To be continued …

Christina aloneChristina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker who earned a master’s in ministry from Mount Vernon Nazarene University.  Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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Children and Seniors are going to Bed Hungry

“Could you please give me a dollar, so I could get something to eat?” I was in a restaurant parking lot one evening last summer when a twenty-something male approached me and asked me this question. The slight-built red-head didn’t seem to be high on any substance, but I wasn’t sure.

A Healthy Meal from Panera Bread

A Healthy Meal from Panera Bread

“A dollar? What can a dollar buy?” I replied suspiciously acting a lot tougher than I felt, because the lot was deserted and I didn’t know what to do. I had to do something, because my sense of spiritual and moral responsibility had kicked in. Yet as a female, it’s crucial to be aware of your surroundings and keep yourself safe.“I could get a donut,” he said hopefully.

Here’s the thing, you can never give people who say they need food, money. Not ever. This is a hard and fast rule I learned years ago volunteering in a large ministry’s food pantry. Sadly, the food money can turn into drug money. Now days, gift cards can be sold for heroin too. I’m not judging others who are in dire straits financially. Long ago, as a single mother I was part of the poverty statistic, which fuels my empathy. The point is, if you treat everyone the same, you don’t have to decide who’s high or who’s hungry. Anyway, addicted individuals still need to eat, and more importantly, so do their kids.

According to www.neighborhood-voice.com, “One in four children in Ohio either go to bed hungry or are at risk of going to bed hungry each night.” It’s a frightening feeling being an adult without resources looking at empty cupboards. Can you imagine how much more helpless a child confronted by those barren shelves must feel? Another organization www.feedingamerica.org reports that 21.5 million U.S. children took part in their school’s free or reduced meal program in 2014. But on weekends during the school year, if a food BackPack program isn’t in place, there are children who might not eat. Thankfully, there are also independent summer meal programs for kids in our community, but they need of our support.

Wonderful Gram

Wonderful Gram

There are also millions of malnourished seniors struggling with food insecurity. Long ago, my late grandmother entrusted me with the china platter that is a tangible reminder of this vulnerable population. The ivory-colored serving plate, which was once rimmed with gold, is now glazed with tiny cracks of advanced age. It’s not an antique, being devalued by the ravages of constant use. Still, to me, the platter is priceless. The turn of the century dish first belonged to my grandma’s aged female neighbor, who would sometimes sell it to “Gram” for $5.00 at the end of the month when her check ran out. Being out of money, meant being out of food; and like many older folks living alone, this senior was too proud to tell her family or a government agency that she needed help.

Besides, in those days, five dollars spent frugally could purchase a week’s worth of groceries. The neighbor would simply buy the platter back, when she received her monthly check. My grandmother’s income was more comfortable. I’m sure she would have gladly given her neighbor some groceries, but the purchase of the platter salvaged the pride of an elderly woman who was used to making her own way. It was decades ago, and there weren’t many established senior nutrition programs like “Home Delivered Meals,” or “Congregate Meals.” Gram’s neighbor died without retrieving the dish, which makes me proud thinking that Grandma might have helped her to the very end. The old platter also reminds me to be grateful for the luxury of the abundant food my family is blessed with. It is a symbol that others are not so fortunate, and that they continue to require assistance to meet their basic nutritional requirements.

Like the redhead in the parking lot, but since a donut isn’t a healthy nutritional choice, it wouldn’t solve his problem. Without thinking, I said to the young man who was younger than my son, “Follow me,” and headed back into the restaurant where I had just come from. Trying not to embarrass him, I paid for his meal, making certain it was food not drugs that my hard-earned cash was buying. Then muttering a sincere “God bless you,” I walked out hoping that somehow his circumstances would get better soon. I felt really good for a minute. Then I realized that countless other individuals in our community would be going to bed without supper that night, some of them, innocent children.  

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com

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