NORTH LIBERTY– They gathered in an early morning mist, heads bowed, hand-in-hand.
They also laughed really loudly, scooped up sugared donuts and jostled each other like the boisterous teenagers they were.
And together, they prayed.
It’s not uncommon for Heritage Christian School (HCS) students to gather in prayer; it’s part of the school routine. It is less common to see students in a public school setting engaging in prayer, though that’s what happened before school on Sept. 28.
Heritage Christian School students invited area public school students to join them in the international See You At the Pole event, a student-led prayer initiative that was started by a small group of Christian youth in Texas in 1990. Since then, the annual day of prayer has grown to an estimated 3 million students participating in more than 20 countries.
See You at the Pole has been a part of HCS’s calendar for several years. It was a new challenge to see if other youth at local schools would also step up to the pole and declare their Christianity for all the world to see.
And many did.
HCS Administrator Mike Annis said the first hurdle was to see if administrators at North Central Jr. High in North Liberty, Clear Creek Amana Jr. High in Tiffin and Northwest and Southeast junior high schools in Iowa City were amenable to allowing HCS students to pray at each school’s flag pole.
“We received favorable response from all four schools,” said Annis.
School administrators in the Iowa City School Community District were amenable, Annis explained, because the activity took place outside of the normal school day.
The event is traditionally student-led at HCS, so students plan whether there will be songs or devotionals, guitar playing, praying aloud or silent prayer. When they traveled to the public schools, though HCS students brought doughnuts, circled the flag poles and simply began to pray.
“It was a day when we get to pray for each other and know what’s on our hearts,” said HCS seventh grader Luci Murphy. “We wanted to let others know what we were doing by the pole.”
It was a different setting, but not such a different experience, said Malachi Rocca.
“It was still comfortable to pray,” said Rocca. “It was pretty much like a regular See You at the Pole day… only colder.”
The doughnuts were definitely an enticement, added seventh grade HCS student Rachel Robinson.
“It was kind of different, because some people weren’t praying at first,” she said. “They would just come for a doughnut.”
“But they would eat a doughnut, and then pray for a little while, and then go get another person,” interjected Rocca.
The sweet enticement perhaps had the intended effect, then. The students who visited NCJH said participation at the school was estimated to be triple what it normally was before, without HCS students’ visit. And doughnuts.
“It’s a precarious place to be; you don’t want to run out of doughnuts,” Annis joked. “But really, the food may have encouraged others to at least investigate what was going on at the pole.”
HCS’ vision is that students will use their education and their faith to impact the broader community, said Annis.
“There’s a challenge in that they exist in a fairly sheltered environment here,” he said. “It’s tough to stand on the convictions you’ve been taught when you are out in the world. For a 13- or 14-year-old to lead something like this is not easy. We want our students to practice while we still have them with us, so we can coach them through it.”
It seems HCS students have already developed the confidence to demonstrate their faith in public. Seventh grader Asa Herrin said praying at the flagpole at a public school was not a difficult thing for him to do.
“I know they thought, ‘What are these people doing?’ But the more people that came, you don’t feel weird. It allows other people to hear what you need help with, and have them pray with you.”
Rachel Robinson agreed.
“We want other people to know about Jesus, so they can learn about being Christian and also so they can pray with friends. It feels pretty cool to be praying as a group,” said Robinson.
HCS students graduate at eighth grade. Some of them will go on to a Christian-based high school, but many of them transition to public school settings. Annis said he knows it will be more of a challenge for those students to practice their faith in a public school setting, because the support network does not as readily exist. He believes, however, that activities like See You At the Pole help HCS students develop a strong foundation they will be able to stand on in the future.
“If there is only one student at the flagpole when they are in high school,” he said, “…well, we hope it’s one of ours.”