GREEN BAY — Deacon Bernie Terrien was surprised earlier this school year by a morning greeting while walking down a hallway at Southwest High School. The passerby referred to him as “Deacon,” which caused him to pause.
“I was in a different setting,” he said, “but yeah, you are a deacon 24/7.”
Deacon Terrien, now in his 24th year teaching at Southwest, added that he is “super open” about his faith and vocation at school.
“Being a deacon makes me a better teacher and being a teacher makes me a better deacon,” he said. “As a deacon I draw on my relationship with Jesus Christ to help me see through the eyes of love and mercy.
“Being a teacher exposes me to the wonderful diversity of good people and submerges me in the wonderful messiness of life,” he added. “It affords me the opportunity to walk alongside people and accompany them through many different joys and trials. It is a great spiritual gymnasium.”
Deacon Terrien was ordained to the diaconate in 2016. He serves St. Bernard Parish in Green Bay. He lets students, faculty and staff know when he is preaching at weekend Masses or presiding at a wedding or baptism.
“I do have kids who show up at the 6:30 (p.m. Sunday) Mass,” he said. “Several of my colleagues, at least six or seven, show up at that Mass.”
Sometimes at the beginning of the semester, Deacon Terrien invites teachers, administrators and staff to join him in his classroom for prayer.
“We get four, five or six people here in the morning before the contractual day starts, so we are not doing it on contractual time,” he explained. “They are aware that I’m a deacon. I try to be accessible. They will come in before school and after school at times to talk.”
Deacon Terrien, who teaches two levels of biology classes and a dual credit anatomy and physiology course in cooperation with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, is also open to faith conversations with students.
“I heard one girl mention that she got confirmed at St. Matthew (Church),” he said. “I talked to her about it. I celebrate (faith) openly. The key is it makes them feel free to talk about their faith traditions. I’m not proselytizing or evangelizing.
“Some people don’t understand this,” he added. “They think there is this huge separation of church and state; you can’t mention anything in school. You can have conversations as long as they are conversations. If a student asks you something, you answer. If I hear somebody talking about their faith, I ask, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’”
The term “deacon” is derived from the Greek word diakonia, which means “service.” Deacons are called to especially serve the marginalized.
“In many ways, I consider our young people among those who are marginalized,” said Deacon Terrien. “It’s not easy being a teenager. They have good ideas, authentic feelings and legitimate questions that need to be listened to and heard. I try to make them feel listened to and heard. They genuinely become important people in my life.”
Deacon Terrien and his wife, Lynn, who retired as a science teacher at Southwest and is currently serving as a long-term substitute teacher at Lombardi Middle School, make mission trips to Chinandega, Nicaragua. They lead a “Rosary Run,” a local motorcycle ride, to raise funds for Amigos for Christ, an ecumenical project that offers aid in Nicaragua. Deacon Terrien discusses the mission work with his students and invites them to join him after at least one year of college.
“I don’t want to take them fresh out of high school,” he said. “Only one kid took us up on that. She wouldn’t have even considered herself a Christian before the trip. She didn’t have much of a faith life, so the whole faith aspect of Nicaragua was new to her. She met people down there and was exposed to the Gospel. She had a life-changing experience. She came back here and started going to Bible study, met a guy, married the guy and they are a very involved young Christian couple.”
Push pins on a bulletin board in the front of Deacon Terrien’s classroom represent the number of semesters before he is eligible for retirement. He finds the end of the school year difficult, so he anticipates mixed feelings when his retirement day arrives.
“At the end of the school year, it takes me about a week to work through my depression of losing that group of students,” he said. “I’m sending them all group emails. I always bust out Cat Stevens’ (song) ‘Father and Son.’ I have a lot of seniors and they graduate early. There is a super-emotional relationship that develops. I’m not sure that many people realize that. It’s not just about academics. It becomes much more than that and it goes both ways. I’ve gone to their weddings and other events in their lives.”
A healthy faith life helps Deacon Terrien build relationships with his students.
“I work on realizing God’s love for me,” he explained. “This brings me peace, comfort, confidence and joy. This gives me the strength to work at making my students feel loved so that they can work from a place of peace, comfort, confidence and joy. In the profession we often say, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’”