Sister Marlene Ellingson, of the Southern Estates Ward, Mesa Kimball Stake, is a busy mother of 13 children and a grandmother of 21. More recently, she was successful in an eight-year quest to bring back a religious baccalaureate, an interdenominational service to honor graduates, to our community at Mesa High School.
“My long history of attending baccalaureates with my children helped me to recognize the trend away from religious baccalaureates. My first baccalaureate, with my oldest daughter in 2001, was a wonderful service. My whole family felt the Spirit and was uplifted,” says Sister Ellingson. “As years passed, I began to see less and less mention of deity. By 2007, the music included “The Prayer”, but any mention of religion was practically gone now. When the time for another daughter’s baccalaureate came around in 2009, there was basically no religion at all.”
Sister Ellingson initially met with resistance from school administrators, she said, “but when a new principal came to Mesa High a few years later, who also found the baccalaureate to be too secular, I was again hopeful.”
At this point, Sister Ellingson and her husband spoke with Mr. Baser, a government teacher on campus. “What about Vespers and the Christian Dance Club?” she asked him. Vespers is a school tradition of religious choir music sung at Christmastime. She was told that their music could be religious, due to the fact that many of the classical masterpieces were written for the Church. Additionally, since the Christian Dance Club was student-led, it could also be religious: the policy is that while school administration cannot prevent religious observance by students, administrators themselves cannot organize such observance or put it on.
In mid-January 2016, she met with the assistant principal and explained their plan to turn the event over to the students and the community, with the idea that an Interfaith Club which represented all religions could take charge of the baccalaureate. Students would run and plan the baccalaureate with the help of community and family involvement. With a few phone calls, she reached the Arizona Interfaith Council. This group, which included the city mayor, was happy to support such an endeavor.
Mr. Baser agreed to be faculty advisor to the new Interfaith Club, so along with his guidance, the students used past programs that Sister Ellingson provided as a starting point to plan their own baccalaureate. They arranged the auditions, asked parents to help decorate, set up and put on the program.
“From our community, the program included both a Sikh and a Hare Krishna prayer,” says Sister Ellingson, “We got to hear the Jewish Shofar blown and a Catholic priest gave a wonderful message about finding the Creator in one’s scientific education. The students spoke about God helping them throughout their high school experience, each musical number was about God and there were real, heartfelt prayers!”
“It’s my hope that others can take this idea and push for more religious freedom in their own communities and schools,” says Sister Ellingson, “and be able to bring this idea into fruition as we did.”