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Pastor gets his own 'sermon in a sack'
Pastor gets his own 'sermon in a sack'
By SALI McSHERRY
Superman, the Pied Piper, rock star, hero and God's goof ball were just some of the words guests uttered in honoring the Rev. Mark Simone, who has served at the Federated Church of Chagrin Falls for more than 20 years.
Held at the Federated Family Life Center in Bainbridge, the shindig was attended by more than 220 people. One of the organizers, John Bourisseau, a longtime friend, said they had no idea of how many people to expect. One of the happy challenges was that more tables had to be set up, he said. A memory book compiled before the celebration for the Rev. Simone, had at least 150 entries, ranging from one sentence to a full page, he said.
Tears welled up in peoples' eyes as the Rev. Simone gave tribute to his wife, Kathy, an artist and art teacher, who has supported him and his work for the past 32 years while raising four children. The couple also has four grandchildren.
Emily Richmond, who was in the Rev. Simone's youth group, said he is the "constant light of human compassion." When she was younger, she said with a chuckle, she thought he was Jesus. She wrote in the memory book for the youth minister, "He taught me to live a good life," "soaring through the stars instead of plummeting into the ground."
The diversity of people at the celebration was incredible. One gentleman, Rex Taylor, who is in his late 80s, along with his wife, Dene, have gone to just about every event in which the Rev. Simone was part of, including rock concerts, Mr. Bourisseau said.
Tony Kotnik, who is instrumental in helping the Rev. Simone with confirmation classes and weekly youth group meetings and has traveled on many youth work camps said, "What he teaches is that a saw or hammer is the best kind of prayer. He's the first minister I met who doesn't like to stay in the church building."
Helen Pointer, who has been involved with the church for many years, said the Rev. Simone is "funny, crazy, compassionate, has a servant's heart, is talented, fun, and has met challenges head-on and heroically."
The Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton, of the Federated Church, said the Rev. Simone is a free spirit and has an easy laugh. It's easy to feel like a kid around him and he has a way of engaging young people in the things that really matter, he said.
Born and raised in Ravenna, the Rev. Simone's first youth pastorate was at the church of his childhood, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. He said the "First Congo" assisted him in earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Kent State University and his master's of Divinity in pastoral psychology and counseling from Ashland Theological Seminary.
Two former members of the Rev. Simone's original youth group at that church, Brian Hartley and Eric Wrisley, surprised him with a roast at the event. What stands out about them, he said, "is that they, and others in his youth group have turned into some of my best friends" over the years.
The 55-year-old youth minister's a "walking miracle," said his longtime friend Mr. Bourisseau.
The challenges he has faced he has met head-on, the Rev. Throckmorton said. He faced liver disease 11 years ago, and within days of death, a liver transplant became available. The church family rallied and raised money to help pay for the transplant. The Rev. Simone said he likes to say, "They bought me my liver."
Two years ago he faced cancer, went through chemotherapy and is in remission, he said.
"Mark has such a genuine and unique sense of humor. He brings God to people in so many ways," Mr. Bourisseau said.
Mary Ann and Ed Ponce, whose late son, David, was a member of the Rev. Simone's youth group, said the minister inspired David to travel to South Africa to film "The Lost Sparrows of Roodepoort," about the strength of the children afflicted with AIDS at an orphanage in Johannesburg.
At the night of the film screening in Chagrin Falls, the Rev. Simone was to be the master of ceremonies but was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments, and Mrs. Ponce told him he didn't need to do it. As an insight into his character, she said, the Rev. Simone told her, "If they have to carry me in on a stretcher, I'm not missing this night."
Mrs. Ponce said, "Mark has walked with Ed and I through our darkest days and has become a very dear friend as well as our minister. What a blessing, plus, he's really funny."
The Rev. Simone's signature "sermon in a sack," is typically used in wedding ceremonies he officiates. Following premarital counseling, he collects items that are relevant to the couple and places them in a bag. He then takes each item out of the bag and speaks about how it symbolizes something important to the couple and their world together.
At the event, there was a "sermon in a sack" devoted to the Rev. Simone, reflecting special memories, his strengths, humor and heroic nature -- from the board game "Operation," to a tiny hammer that represented the fact that Mark could never handle the big hammer, Mr. Bourisseau chuckled.
"It's such an honor to be at the Federated Church. It's such a vibrant place," and "I'm so energized" by the people there, the Rev. Simone said.
Wearing kooky sunglasses and smiling, he said the celebration "was a very humbling experience."
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