By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 18, 2014
CALHOUN—Members of the Calhoun community in Gordon County came together on a recent Friday evening at a town stadium—not for high school football but for an evening of prayer and inspiration in the wake of a painful scandal.
The Gordon County Ministerial Association, community leader Janice Hunt and Father Joe Shaute, pastor of St. Clement Church in Calhoun, helped organize the Aug. 22 event, featuring a skydiver, praise and worship music, and inspirational messages to help youth shore up for a crisis and stand against peer pressure.
In July, three former Calhoun High School students were indicted on felony charges for aggravated sexual battery in connection with an alleged attack on a female student at a post-prom party in May. The incident was reported following a party in Ellijay, in Gilmer County, attended mostly by Calhoun High students. The three 18-year-olds are also being charged with underage drinking.
“We made national and international news for all the wrong reasons,” said Father Shaute, who has been the pastor at St. Clement for seven years.
The parish is a member of the ministerial association, an alliance of local churches working together on various projects. Father Shaute said following the alleged attack and its repercussions, many had been wondering how to reclaim a sense of hope.
“It really was dividing the community,” he said.
The speculation on blogs and social media was not helping the community to heal.
“It was not a good healthy environment,” he said.
The priest placed a call to Calhoun City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michele Taylor, with whom he has a “good friendship,” to see how they could support students.
At the same time, Hunt, a lifelong Calhoun resident, was calling Taylor for the same reason.
According to Father Shaute, Taylor said, “You two people need to talk.”
The result was the program, open to the community, with two themes: “Who’s Packing Your Chute?” and “Your Mind Is a Battlefield.”
Hunt, who had organized a similar event a few years ago after an attempted youth suicide, said the divisiveness in the town was amplified over the summer.
“My heart was just so heavy for the community,” she said.
In addition to the parish, Baptist, Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist churches helped put the program together.
Hunt says the group’s members all serve the same God, and there was no dissension.
“Their goal was unity,” she said about the association’s members.
Hunt, who is not Catholic, played the piano for Masses years ago when the parish had no other musician to call upon. This is just one example of Calhoun’s small town generosity.
Historically a rural community, Calhoun has always been tremendously supportive of St. Clement and its activities, including an annual procession in the heart of town honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, Father Shaute said.
He also tells the story of a judge opening the courthouse late on a Friday evening for an Hispanic couple scheduled to be married at St. Clement who had forgotten about the marriage license process.
It’s those kinds of actions that are “part of what’s unique and special about this community,” he said.
The association was able to rent the recreation department’s football stadium for the parachute jump by skydiver Christian Stevens from a plane overhead, who landed on the field. The theme was based on the life story of Navy Capt. Charles Plumb, who parachuted and survived when his jet was downed during the Vietnam war, but was captured as a prisoner of war. He survived years of torture.
Many years later, a man approached the captain at a restaurant. He asked, “Aren’t you Captain Plumb?” and seemed to know about his service aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
“How do you know this?” asked Plumb. The man answered, “Because I packed your chute.”
“God is the one who is packing our parachute … and he is our parachute,” said Father Shaute. Sometimes God is working through parents, friends and teachers, but often these parachute packers are anonymous, he said.
Approximately 300 people attended the evening event that lasted for more than two hours. Teens were encouraged to turn to prayer in times of pressure or bullying.
Father Shaute acknowledged that in public schools, students are often afraid to express faith openly and are unaware that so many of their peers share the same beliefs.
“They don’t know they’re walking the same walk,” he said.
The evening featured a reading of Psalm 91, a psalm of protection.
“It’s the soldiers’ psalm,” explained Hunt.
A D-Day paratrooper, now in his 90s, attended and told Hunt the paratroopers used to read Psalm 91 every day.
Brenda Robinson, a local teacher, was the keynote speaker.
Father Shaute said the program also featured the song, “My Redeemer Lives,” with a beautiful and very literal sign language interpretation.
Teens participated as prayer leaders, as did representatives of the participating churches.
The ministerial association has held ecumenical sunrise services on Easter and Thanksgiving programs. Father Shaute said the prayer service was one of the larger events they’ve organized. He hopes they can have another program before the next prom season to focus on teens and wise choices.
For Father Shaute, the cooperation shows that the community has “more in common than the differences.”
He noted that working on relations with other Christian faiths and non-Christians is “very important and special” to both Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Pope Francis.
“The Lord’s call is to be in the world, not of the world,” said Father Shaute.
Hunt believes that this coming together was not just the result of human hands.
“God just put it all together,” she said.
At St. Clement, a spiritual building committee is working on programs and days of reflection that would be open to the public.
“Calhoun is smaller than its neighbors,” said Father Shaute.
The once agricultural county became more populated and busy with the arrival of Mohawk Industries. Despite being a hub for interstate travelers visiting the outlet mall, Calhoun is still the place where lawyers and business owners come out of their offices to wave to the high school buses as players leave for out-of-town games.
“This community is really family-oriented. It really rocked this community to its core,” he said of the assault investigation.
The presentation of the Chris Tomlin song, “God of this City,” on the stadium stage carried important weight.
“We want God at the heart of this community,” said Father Shaute.