May 26—MARIETTA — Marietta High School seniors and their families gathered at Marietta First Baptist Church Sunday for fellowship and worship to close out the school year and to celebrate graduation.
The annual, student-led baccalaureate service was one that included music, singing, prayer and scripture readings and spiritual reflections in multiple languages, all presented by students of the Marietta Class of 2021.
High School baccalaureate services are common and meant to celebrate the high school's graduating class separately from commencement and specifically through prayer and spiritual ceremony.
At the start of Sunday's ceremony, parents took video of their students, adorned in white robes, marching down the church's aisles as triumphant piano music played.
The ceremony opened with the Lord's Prayer, recited first in Amharic, one of Ethiopia's principal languages, by Naomi Beyene, and then in English by James MacPherson. Bible verses throughout the event were recited in English, Spanish and French.
The service's spiritual reflections were moments when, in front of a crowd of peers and family, the high school seniors showed their vulnerabilities, offering classmates lessons through anecdotes, often from school, that challenged them personally, emotionally or spiritually.
Senior Faith Kumi shared her struggles with the bullying she received in middle school, bullying often targeting what she looked like.
"'Oh, you're so ugly. Your skin is way too dark. You're stupid. You look like a man.' I've heard a lot. And these phrases would echo and echo — ugly, stupid," Kumi said.
Those comments cut to her core, she said, forcing her to ask herself, "Who am I?" and allowing others, not her, to give her the answer.
Then, during the transition to her junior year, Kumi said she made a change — she set aside time to seek God. Her life improved, she said, until personal and family challenges again made her doubt herself. Those problems felt heavier when, at the same time, she fell short of certain academic goals — she wasn't accepted to the Yale Young Global Scholars program or bestowed a state leadership position with DECA, projects into which she'd poured blood, sweat and tears.
"Every single one of those rejections ended up with me having tears flowing down my eyes ... and I thought things like, 'You're not smart enough. If you're going down this path, imagine college,'" she said, saying again her rejection made her question herself. She repeated the motif of her address: "Who am I?"
But in her spiritual growth, Kumi said she's come to face her fears, her rejection and questioning her abilities with the knowledge that God has a plan laid out for her.
"When I reflect on my high school experiences, I'm honestly glad I didn't get many of the opportunities (I wanted) junior year. Ironically enough, a lot of them ended being virtual or costing a lot of money or would've resulted in me being totally stressed out. It's safe to say that God knew exactly what he was doing, and those experiences only made me stronger."
And a result of all the trials and what seemed like falling short of what she wanted — in other words, God's real plan for her, Kumi said — she's gotten into all the colleges she's applied for, including University of Chicago, the school ranked No. 6 in the nation she'll attend in the fall.
"I want you all to know that graduation brings another beginning, and as we go on to the next phase of our lives, I encourage you all to embrace your failures and persevere to attain your goals, because underneath our failures lies our strength."
After the ceremony, parents, students and friends gathered outside, snapping photos and chatting at one of the last school-related events of their high school careers.
Kibbie DeJarnette, student body faculty adviser at Marietta High School, said this year's ceremony was the 18th she's attended. DeJarnette said it's special to watch the students who will soon be leaving home put the entire program on for themselves, start to finish.
"It's a meaningful service ... just to give them a chance to express their Christian faith, which they don't get to do at a normal graduation ceremony," she said. "I've had four children already go through it as graduates, and it's just very meaningful to know that we can offer this to our graduates."
Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.