A fun ritual that signals a new fall semester in Rhode Island is taking on a new role this year as a catalyst for evangelism and church growth.
The annual Blessing of the Backpacks has for years been a lighthearted way for young Episcopalians in the Ocean State to integrate faith with school life. Kids arrive at church this month hauling items they would normally bring to school — backpacks, calculators, iPads — and hand them over to a priest for a blessing, a prayer, or sometimes even a sprinkling of holy water.
“Little kids in particular often feel the church is where God lives,” said the Rev. Canon Linda L. Grenz, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Rhode Island. Blessing backpacks “is helping them make the connection that God is not just in church. God is with you wherever you go, including school.”
What’s become a rite of fall for parishioners is now taking on new significance as a disarming means to introduce newcomers to church life.
This year, families are inviting friends and neighbors to come along for what all agree is a fun, not-too-serious occasion in the life of the church. Adults are invited to bring their hiking or workplace backpacks, too, to make the event a whole family affair.
“It’s hard for someone who isn’t normally a churchgoer to show up at a regular Sunday service,” Grenz said. “This is something our kids can invite their friends to. It’s a way to help people come to church and find it a safe place and a holy place.”
Backpack blessings occur at one-third of the diocese’s 50 congregations. They’re scheduled to come on the heels of church-hosted back-to-school parties, where kids play games while parents socialize or listen to a school safety talk.
Backpack blessings also serve as primers for the next fun fall activity to which the neighbors are invited: blessing of the pets on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis.
Taken together, these special occasions in quick succession offer multiple venues for non-churchgoers to get acquainted and build relationships in a low-pressure environment, Grenz said. The events are now part of the Open Doors program that she developed through LeaderResources, a ministry she founded in 1994 to help congregations be more welcoming and effective.
They also help the faithful to practice being more inviting and hospitable. It’s easier, Grenz observes, to invite kids and parents to a party of sorts than to something that feels solemnly religious and might be intimidating for non-members.
“It’s hard for Episcopalians — we’re not very good at inviting somebody to church,” Grenz said. Fun events like backpack blessings provide “a way for us to begin to help our members find ways to invite people to church.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
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