By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It was not a typical Friday morning for Erin Sears, a rising senior at Princeton Senior High School.
A little more than a week ago, the teenager was standing in front of hundreds of people in the pews of Wesley Chapel on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her task was to preach at the annual gathering of United Methodist Church members from all over West Virginia and part of Maryland.
Not only that, but the new bishop for the West Virginia Area, Sandra Steiner Ball, had asked her to plan the morning’s worship service in which she would speak.
Afterward, Sears said, “I was very humbled, and also a little nervous. When the bishop asks you to preach — I was excited, but it was kind of nerve-wracking.”
“The best advice I got was, ‘Once you get up there, allow God to speak through you.’ You may not say exactly what you planned, but it’d be what God wants,” she said.
She was “a little nervous at the beginning, but once I looked out and saw so many faces were smiling back at me, and I remembered how many people said they’d been praying for me all week, (then) I was pretty calm.”
A small band on-stage began the service with some contemporary Christian music. Before long, Sears walked to a simple podium — saying she had chosen not to use the impressive high-rise pulpit in the chapel — and began her message, urging her listeners to be willing to hear from Jesus Christ in unexpected places.
In her own experience, she said, she has heard his message in places as varied as a song on the radio, and a trash dump in Nicaragua.
She was listening to a local popular-music radio station with a friend when she heard the song “Hall of Fame,” which included the phrase, “You can talk to God. Go banging on his door.”
“I never expected to hear it that way, but God sometimes speaks in areas where we wouldn’t expect to experience it,” she said.
A trip to the Central American nation of Nicaragua last year on a “Mission of Peace” church outreach opened her eyes to others’ living conditions.
She said, “Through that visit, I began to recognize life in a new light, and how precious, how sweet, each life is. And how real joy really does come through helping people.”
She told her listeners that some of the youth on the Nicaragua trip helped establish Project Chacocente, which has raised more than $60,000 to help people there.
“This project lives on, and it is incredible the amount of difference it has made,” she said.
She read the Bible passage that tells the story of the risen Christ meeting two strangers on the road to Emmaus, a few miles from Jerusalem. They had heard all about him, but did not recognize him until he sat down with them at dinner after they had invited him to stay with them.
Sears said, “See, it doesn’t have to be an expected person. It can be that stranger anywhere, and everywhere. ... It is my prayer that we begin each day with our hearts, our minds and our doors wide open, ready to welcome Jesus to dinner.”
Sears was already serving as chairperson of the church’s statewide Conference Council of Youth Ministries when she met Steiner Ball, newly installed as bishop.
Steiner Ball said in introducing Sears, “I was very impressed with her conversation, with her questions, with her faithfulness, (and with) her deep concern for the life, the love, and the health and vitality of the church.”
Assigning a high school student as one of seven preachers at the four-day meeting is unusual for the West Virginia gathering, but it is in keeping with the new bishop’s vision.
“The bishop is very clear and very determined that the youth have an active role in the annual conference,” said Laura Harbert Allen, director of communications for the West Virginia Area of the church.
Sears said that through her church experiences, “I’ve just grown and matured, and felt a calling to be an advocate for youth and youth ministry.”
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org