PIEDMONT -- It was bittersweet Sunday for students, teachers, families and alumni of Zion Lutheran School on Park Boulevard as the 130-year-old school that has served East Bay communities since 1882 prepared to graduate its final eighth-grade class before closing its doors because of financial problems.
About 300 people -- including the entire student body -- packed the pews of adjacent Zion Lutheran Church in a farewell service that celebrated "God's Faithfulness: Past, Present and Future."
"It's a sad day, but it's been a good year, and we've had a good response from the students," said eighth-grade teacher John Heinitz, who has taught at Zion for 34 years. "We're in good spirits."
The one-hour church service began with the processional hymn "You Are My All in All," during which the entire K-8 school paraded solemnly into the church. Pastor Paul Aldrich led the worship that focused entirely on the school and its students and teachers, past and present.
"No matter what circumstance we are in, God remains faithful," Aldrich said. "Sometimes God reminds us that our plan is not always his plan."
Alumna Kendra Carr spoke for the thousands of students who walked the halls of Zion Lutheran Church for more than a century.
"While I was a student at Zion, I grew personally, academically and socially -- we were given the guidance to do that," Carr said. "Now our reach is wide -- we are doctors, lawyers, teachers ... mothers and fathers -- and I've no doubt we are who we are because of Zion Lutheran."
She especially thanked the teachers "who poured their hearts and their knowledge into us."
"It's a gift so vast that we had to come back to say 'thank you,' though those words seem inadequate today," Carr said. "Though Zion may be closing, the work of Zion does not end. It does not extinguish the torch that has burned brightly for so many years and will continue to burn within us. Thank God for Zion, it is permanently etched in our hearts and lives."
The congregation cheered for the elementary school children's chorus of "Our God is An Awesome God" and "Seek Ye First," while the older students rang out "Amazing Grace" on handbells. Clad in long white dresses, Zion alumna Zaria Graham and her little sister, third-grader Nyhiri Graham, performed a graceful and poignant "Praise Dance."
Toward the end of the service, Aldrich invited Zion's eight current teachers to the front of the church, where they received a standing ovation -- and not without a few tears shed. Aldrich thanked and blessed each one of them personally for their "untiring devotion to Zion students and families."
Two current students, seventh-grader Zhané Duckett and eighth-grader David Watts, also read remarks and tributes they had gathered from fellow students:
"I'll remember the fun with friends and the love we shared with each other."
"When I came here, Zion welcomed me with open arms."
"I liked playing volleyball -- it's all about teamwork, everyone working together and helping each other to do their best."
"The teachers make you want to learn; they make you want to go to school."
"Zion doesn't just teach you reading and math, it teaches you about God, faith and living as followers of Christ."
"We all leave Zion -- grateful for the preparation we've received and the many great friendships we've shared together."
Following the church service, congregants were invited to the church Garden Room for a pictorial walk down memory lane and light refreshments. The day's activities wrapped up with an afternoon picnic at Montclair Park -- with more than 300 Zion students, families, teachers, alumni and friends celebrating the end of an era, plus new beginnings.