Franklin County High School’s graduating seniors at Sunday afternoon’s baccalaureate service didn’t enter the sanctuary to music at the Eastpoint Church of God in a somber procession.
Everyone was assigned seats and when it ended, dispersed through separate exits, not tightly filing out through the back.
There was no laying on of hands by clergy during the service. No speaker ventured out into the floor space in front of the altar to deliver their remarks, where their message could be accentuated by gesture and movement.
The baccalaureate’s moments of sharing were gentler, more formal, a sharing of hearts on hearts, with words poised at a podium, delivered in steady view of the broadcasting camera.
The dignitaries who traditionally conduct this service, which in the last several years has been in the ample sanctuary at the Eastpoint church, were there to place their fervent hopes at the bend in the personal roads for so many young and promising lives.
Each approached their subject differently, but their theme was shared. That this place, this county, needs you and if you stay here, and make the most of yourself, you will make a better world.
The words of Emerald Norris Larkin, a top scholar at Franklin County High School eight years ago when she graduated, and now a nurse at the health department, told of her path since when she was sitting in the pews and preparing to graduate as the Franklin County High School Class of 2012.
“The most cringy post from me at 18 was ‘I can’t wait until I get out of Franklin County. Omigosh I will move so far away,” she had written.
“For many of us, we think we’re just going to take a left or a right turn on 98 and never come back,” she said. “I thought I was going to be like that.”
But that isn’t quite how it worked out for her.
Her first thought was to sign up for the registered nurse program in Panama City, and work part-time. “Then I figured out I had to go there five days a week,” Larkin said. “There’s no way I could fit in a job for myself.”
Living at home with her parents, Larkin applied to schools to try to get out of the county, but each time something didn't quite come through.
“I don’t regret it, everything lined up exactly how it needed to happen,” said Larkin, who has been married since 2015 to fellow classmate Austin Larkin, who works for the U.S. Postal Service.
The couple moved into a house adjacent to her parents, full of “shag carpet and wood paneling walls,” a place the young couple bought with the help of her father, who passed away two years ago.
“Sometimes your plans are not going to work out just like you imagined them,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you have to stay there forever.
“I couldn’t see all that then,” Larkin said. “I see it now. If I moved away I would have missed out on a lot. I would not have been able to be there for my mom when she lost my dad. I gained so much by staying.
“I thought success was defined by moving away for college, making money, having a nice house, driving a nice car,” she said.
“I’ve learned you’re successful if you spread the good news of Jesus,” said Larkin, who also works as youth pastor at the church. “I’ve found I’m able to do that, no matter what job I have.
“I’ve been the nurse to save lives, or to make ham sandwiches to people displaced by hurricane,” she said. “I could not imagine missing out on any opportunity. I’m stronger for having that situation.”
She closed by noting that the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders “have robbed you of your rights as senior to experience your wonderful graduation.
“All of that, I believe, is because there is some force you’re going to need to overcome in your life,” she said. “Ask yourself ‘How is God using this situation to strengthen me?’ I think God is preparing the Class of 2020 for something amazing in each and every one of your lives.”
The words of Sister Susan Roach, who pastors the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Apalachicola, were directed to those seniors who may not see themselves as cut from the churchgoing cloth.
“We do not portray the Lord as some do, that you cannot come to unless we are a certain way,” she said. “Many times in the church world we think God is not for people if they’re not just so. I know when God came into my life I was certainly not ‘just so.’
“You may say ‘Sister Roach, I don’t even go to church, I don’t even live like you live,’” she said. “God is approaching you and reaching for you because He is for you.
“Whoever we are, the best way to win someone’s heart is not to come to them as an enemy, not to come to them with a scornful look, but to come to them with arms open wide, and God is certainly doing that today,” Roach said.
“In the future you will face more troubles, trial and adversity, it’s what life brings. Life throws curves,” she said. “You’re going to have obstacles, you’re going to have trials, and God wants you to know He is for you. That’s why He sent his son.”
She stressed that God can be a friend in need when those troubles beset. “My heart reaches out to you and God is reaching to you. I don’t look down my nose at you,” Roach said. “You need God; He is the best friend you will ever have. God wants to speak to your life.
“The times when you are alone and you’re in trial and it’s late at night and there’s nobody to talk to, I pray that you remember this particular time, when different people from this platform will speak to your life,” she said. “Seeds are being planted in your life today and those seeds are seeds to carry you through. Life is going to throw you curves and God wants to touch your life and help you.
“God wants you to excel, God is not here to snuff you out,” she said. “We live in a text world; it’s very frustrating when we call somebody and they don’t answer. But God said to call unto Him,” citing verse from Jeremiah where God says “I am with you and will rescue you.”
Eastpoint Church of God Pastor Larry Sterling, who presided over the service, underscored the message by reminding the soon-to-be-graduates that it is important to trust in God even in the face of adversity.
“Lean not on your own understanding, do not be wise in your own eyes,” he said. “Do not test his correction for whom the Lord loves, He corrects.”
Sterling urged the seniors to continue a lifetime of learning. “In a world where we’re living in, there are some ways you are very blessed,” he said. “There are major technological advances, and there are opportunities that many before you never even dreamed about.
“Stay in Franklin County,” he offered. “One of the things we need is people like you contributing to the betterment of the community. Make things better, we need your generation to plug in and be part of this community. There are so many doors in front of you.
“We are so fragmented, everywhere you look, in many different ways and many different areas,” Sterling said. “If you lose the ability to think for yourself you’re allowing somebody else to tell you how you’re going to think and how you’re going to live.
“God has placed in you a talent that is able to develop and grow and can add to the beautiful society,” he said. “God has a plan and purpose for you; you are not forsaken.
“You can take this thing and make something glorious out of it. You can do something magnificent but you’ve got to think for yourself,” Sterling said. “The difference between facts and conclusions is a fact is a fact but somebody’s conclusion may be different. What you have to realize is not everybody’s conclusion is correct.
“Part of the reason we were in the journey is there was a fact - there was a virus attacking this country,” he said. “It’s a fact that this world was put on hold, on pause.
“Don’t despise the chastening of the Lord, it’s okay to be wrong. What’s not okay is to bury your head in the sand to ignore the facts,” Sterling said. “With God you can dream big. With God you got a way through everything.
“When you expand and continue to learn, doors will always find those that are learners. Things will open for you,” he said. “You want to find happiness in his world? Follow Him, keep learning.”
’The service opened with remarks from Superintendent Traci Yoder, and closed with her announcement that after a survey of the seating capacity for Friday’s commencement, each senior would have up to eight tickets to share with family and friends.
“No-one could have ever predicted the uncertainties that you all would be born in and graduating from high school in,” she said. “In your lifetime, you have already experienced many times of extreme uncertainty, from wildfires to hurricanes, and now this pandemic.
“While you may not be able to pull out pictures of all of your senior year events, you will be able to give hope and strength to the next generation for facing life’s inevitable difficulties. You can share how the power of people taking care of people always carries us through with love, compassion, and grace,” Yoder said.
“Although you were born in a time of great distress, fear, and anxiety each of you have a divine purpose. God gives us all gifts and talents. The purpose of those gifts and talents is to share them with the world in serving Him and each other. You are the dreamers and the doers that the God knew the world needed. You are the class that will change the world and make it a better place!” she said.
The service featured a reading of each graduate’s name by class sponsors Donna Barber and Lynn Clark. In addition, the traditional slide show, featuring pictures of the senior now and from their childhood, was presented. This moving tribute will not be repeated at Friday’s graduation, due to the difficulty viewing it in an outdoor venue at that time of day.
The service also featured music from the Living Waters Assembly of God Worship Team, and ended with a benediction from that church’s pastor, Scotty Lolley.