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For the children among the angels

By Maggie Galehouse
The Inquirer

The women were tacking children's photographs to a bulletin board in the school auditorium. "Oh, you found 'Compassion,' " said one to another, who was sorting multi-colored slips of paper bearing different attributes. Compassion. Faith. Humor.

The words had been provided to pin alongside the photos, backdrop to a day-long seminar last Saturday at Bryn Athyn Elementary School, devoted to the memory of children who have died. "A Celebration of Little Angels," sponsored by the Bryn Athyn Church, drew nearly 150 people of different faiths, most of whom had lost children or siblings.

Angelology is central to Bryn Athyn and other congregations of the Church of the New Jerusalem, known to members as the New Church. They follow the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish scientist and theologian who claimed an ability to see and converse with the dead. One of Swedenborg's beliefs was that children who pass into the next life reside with angels and, once they gain intelligence and wisdom, become angels themselves.

The seminar was the third annual angel celebration held by the church. But it was the first to focus on children.

"Last year, we had a bulletin board with quotes about children in heaven," said Donnette Alfelt, one of the seminar organizers. "People wrote the names of children they had lost and pinned them on the board. It gave us the idea to serve a different set of people this year."

The gathering was meant to comfort the bereaved and did not openly promote Swedenborg's beliefs. Still, posters were on display bearing his quotes, such as, "Every child, wherever born, is immediately received by the lord when they die."

Debbie Cook, the day's first speaker, lost a child in 1990. Born with a degenerative heart disease, Laura died at age 4, six months after a heart transplant. Cook, 42, drove with her husband from Boston to attend the seminar. She said Laura was obsessed with the idea of heaven and had visions of life after death.

"Why would she make up stories about angels?" Cook said to a small group that gathered around her after her talk. "She was only 4, and she had been close to death several times."

Cook's husband, Richard, 43, did a slide presentation of his paintings depicting Laura's spiritual journey. Cook said that, growing up, he had met spiritual challenges, but that losing a child was the hardest.

After the initial grief, he said, he realized "you have somebody on the other side," he said. "For a religious person, it's a leap of faith."

The Rev. Grant Schnarr, director of evangelization for the New Church, believes that his brother, Bruce, is an angel. Bruce died at age 2, six years before Schnarr was born. In an animated, informal talk, Mr. Schnarr, 40, recalled moments when he felt Bruce's presence.

"It's something between a mental process and a vision," said Mr. Schnarr, describing incidents others might regard as paranormal, such as a television or stereo turning on suddenly, or a vision of Bruce appearing in a hallway or a bathroom.

Aware that many are leery of the paranormal, he said, "I'm an ecumenical kind of seeker. Swedenborg says all religions have value. Truth is truth. I explore psychology and religion."

Many, such as Thelma Wexler, discussed their stories only away from the microphone. Wexler lost her 3-year-old son, Benjamin, when he drowned in Perkiomen Creek in August. Wexler, who lives near Collegeville, believes that Benjamin communicates with her and other family members by leaving feathers in different places.

One time at Kmart, Delia, Wexler's 3-year-old daughter, pulled apart a display of basketballs and found a feather sitting behind it. In the diner where her husband, Mitchell, works, a customer found a feather that had somehow gotten deep-fried. During a recent golf game, Mitchell followed a ball that had gone into the rough and found it sitting on top of a feather.

Since Benjamin's death, Wexler has acquired enough feathers to fill a grocery bag.

At the seminar's closing ceremony in Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Wexler kept her coat on. A faded blue corduroy jacket, it had a large patch sewn on back, with a poem about angels and the dates of her son's life: Oct. 8, 1993-Aug. 11, 1997, Benjamin Dylan Wexler.

Wexler's mother, Thelma Beard, accompanied her daughter to the seminar and ceremony. Summing up her day, she said: "I come to these things hoping for hope."

This article was published by The Inquirer on April 26, 1998 and was written by Maggie Galehouse.

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