December 5, 2016

With Jesus in the Family

Jane Morrison knows what keeps young families connected to the church.

Stephen Chavez

It’s 5:30 on a Friday evening at the Spencerville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist Church, not far from Washington, D.C. In the parking lot moms and dads park SUVs and minivans and escort their small kids, wearing pajamas and carrying toothbrushes, into the church fellowship hall.

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They’re there for Jammie Night, a semiregular special event designed for kids and their parents to welcome the Sabbath. Jammie Night is the brainchild of Jane Morrison, until she retired and moved to Florida, one of the leaders of Spencerville’s beginner Sabbath School class.

The format is simple: kids and their parents enjoy a simple supper of finger foods. Then Jane, wearing her jammies, lights a Sabbath candle to welcome the Sabbath, and invites them to brush their teeth in the bathrooms. When they return, Jane sings some songs with motions and props (stuffed animals, rollout “sleeping mats,” etc.). Then Jane’s husband, Pat, one of the pastors at Spencerville, shares a short Bible story. By 7:00, after a closing prayer, parents bundle up their kids, strap them into car seats, take them home, and put them to bed. In about 14 hours they’ll be back for Sabbath School and the worship service.

Practice Makes Perfect

Jane and Pat Morrison have been involved in ministry to children and their parents for most of their adult lives. It started when Pat, then a seminary student, was involved in an evangelistic field school. The evangelist’s wife approached Jane and asked, “Would you be willing to go downstairs and help with the children?”

Jane remembers, “We went down there to find 80 children in the huge, empty room. It had only a piano. We were it.” She and another seminarian’s wife went to a box factory, created a stage for puppet shows, and borrowed material from the local church so they could stage stories adapted from Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories.

Since then Jane and Pat, often serving on college/university campuses, used their love of children to create a safe, wholesome, entertaining climate for children, as well as for their parents.

“Beginner Sabbath School is unique,” says Jane, “in that their parents are in there with them. The parents learn the basic Bible stories and concepts.”

“Part of my role was to help include their parents,” says Pat. “I’d say, ‘Dad, if you don’t learn the song here, you can’t sing it with them during the week.’ ”

Throughout their careers as pastoral leaders the Morrisons have taken a time-honored tradition—Sabbath School—and expanded it to minister to families throughout the week and break down barriers of age and membership.

The Authentic Life

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Amy DeMartino, a longtime friend of the Morrisons, remembers bringing her three small children—all under the age of 4—to Jane’s Sabbath School at the College church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. “They started out ministering to the kids, but through their actions, how loving and wonderful they are, you just develop this love for them. And before you know it, you’re at their house on Sundays eating pancakes.”

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“Teacher Jane taught all my kids at beginner Sabbath School,” says another friend, Selena Trott. The lessons Trott learned all those years ago are now on display at the Collegedale church at Southern Adventist University.

“When I moved here to Collegedale, a woman spoke to me after I taught Sabbath school one day. She said to me, ‘You remind me of the best Sabbath school teacher I’ve ever seen in my life.’

“I said, ‘You must be talking about Jane Morrison.’

“She burst into a huge smile and said, ‘How did you know?’

“I said, ‘Because Teacher Jane is the best Sabbath School teacher there is.’ ”

That’s probably because the Morrisons’ ministry to children didn’t end when Sabbath School was over. “We had Baby Welcomes for all our new babies,” says Jane. The Morrisons invited church families to their home to welcome new babies. “We wanted them to be welcomed by their whole church family, regardless of age. A lot of those Baby Welcomes were for babies whose daddies weren’t Adventist. It was a comfortable way for them to come to something. It wasn’t at the church; it was at our house. They really got into it.”

The Better to Serve

At the College church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, Jane had a play group for small kids every Wednesday. Taking over the fellowship hall on the lower level, she had age-appropriate toys for kids of different ages. After free play she did a story, an activity, a little craft followed by a simple meal of beans and rice with toppings, and dismissed the group at noon, just in time for the kids’ afternoon naps.

“She would get right down on the floor and play with the kids,” says DeMartino. “She would take her shoes off, roll around on the floor with the kids, come down to their level, and meet them where they were. It was just wonderful.”

Trott remembers, “It was an outlet for young moms who were either working or staying at home and were looking for fellowship and a chance to get out of the house. A lot of community people came to it. Because if you’re a stay-at-home mom without a huge budget, it gave you something to do with your kids, especially in winter in the Northeast, where it’s cold and you can’t take the kids outside.”

Kids First

Jane and Pat Morrison have sculpted a ministry to children over several decades based on their ability to see things from the perspective of those they’re trying to reach: small children and their parents. While most adults are addicted to their schedules, families with small children, for a variety of reasons, are unable to keep strict schedules.

“With my support [Jane] would say, ‘Bring your kids to church,’ ” says Pat. “ ‘Sit near the front so there’s not much to distract them. Stay as long as it’s comfortable. If that means you stay until the children’s story and leave, we’re comfortable with that. Just so the kids know they’re part of our church family.’ ”

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Pat and Jane Morrison pose with three of the children Jane taught in Beginners Sabbath School: Bella (left), Emma, and Mia DeMartino.

That attitude was noticed and appreciated by the members with young children. “She would always encourage us to come to church,” says DeMartino. “It was a lot for me to juggle then. I would get nervous and think, The kids are going to make noise. And sometimes [Jane] would come right down from off the platform, or from off to the side, and come sit with me and help me. She would do this for everyone.”

Pat says, “When I was very young, my dad said, ‘Pat, if you take care of little kids, their parents are going to be comfortable.’ ”

Trott agrees: “The way to reach young families is to love their kids. A lot of people loved going to church because Jane was there, and Jane loved their kids.”

High Praise

Just as Jesus modeled love and acceptance to children and everyone else, people still use children’s ministries to model that type of inclusion.

Amy DeMartino’s testimony: “I’ve been an Adventist my whole life; I was raised that way. But my husband’s a [non-practicing] Catholic. When we got married, I started taking our kids to church.

“I grew up in a small church, and I could feel—you could just tell—that some people didn’t fit in. I think that’s why people leave the church. They feel that they’re not part of it, that they don’t fit in.

“When I had kids, I made a special effort to go [to church] every week. I was nervous: They’re not going to accept my husband because he’s not an Adventist.

“But no, [Jane] never, never once acted as if we were any different than anyone else. They never treated my husband, Peter, different than anyone else. They just loved him and were a witness for who Christ is. That was illustrated by her taking off her shoes and coming down on the floor with our kids. She never stood above you; she was always beside you. She’s like the epitome of Christ. To this day I still think to myself, Try to be like Jane.”

Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.