EAST MANATEE -- Kel Cunard felt so strongly that God had a plan for his life that he left his dream job as principal of Bradenton Christian School in 2012 to become outreach and education pastor at First Baptist Church of Palmetto.
On Friday night, Cunard came back to speak to the 43 members of the sophomore class of BCS that he had left behind two years ago, who were now BCS seniors about to receive their diplomas during commencement exercises at Bayside Community Church on State Road 64.
He didn't apologize for leaving them in the middle of their high school lives. Instead, he let his talents as a preacher reveal to them that he was right where he
belonged and that they, too, must listen to a call on their lives when it comes.
"God has made you unique so you can make him known," Cunard told the assembly of graduates, family and friends that had swelled to 2,000.
Cunard then paused and looked over the audience, which included class speaker Doug Pace, who, in an earlier speech, had praised Cunard as one of the most influential people in his life; Rebecca Johnson, class Valedictorian with a grade-point average of 4.48; Malik Barton, 18, co-winner of the school's Son Light Award with fellow senior Lea Sifrit; Peyton Thomas, 18, who is heading to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach to be a commercial pilot; Coleman Barber, winner of the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award, who is heading to Florida State University to study the craft of writing; and the popular and talented Adam "Bubba" Pike, who was named Outstanding Senior and class Salutatorian with a 4.32 grade-point average.
"I challenge you," Cunard told those graduates and the others in the firm voice of a former school principal. "You have no hope of writing your life story alone. Let God write your story. Take risks for Jesus."
He then challenged the young men specifically.
"Our world is in need tonight of real men," Cunard said. "Don't you dare leave here and wait a decade to be a man."
Cunard got a thunderous ovation when he stepped from the stage.
Graduates Malik Barton and Peyton Thomas have, in a nutshell, the strength of faith Cunard was talking about, their friends and family said.
Barton, who is heading to Anderson University in South Carolina with dreams of being a nurse, is a young man from Palmetto eager to make his mark who says God paved his way.
"My father died when I was 3," Barton said before the ceremony Friday. "God and my mom stepped in."
Barton's mother, Olivia Barton, made sure her children all had the Bible and good adult influences. Malik's older brother, Kenny Virgil, 20, a 2012 BCS graduate, is heading Sunday to the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island.
"God put Joe Lawson, Coach Zach Cooper and Walter Presha in my life exactly at the right time," Barton said, listing just some of his male mentors.
Thomas, the son of real estate investor and 1982 BCS grad Keith Thomas and BCS third-grade teacher Elizabeth Thomas, has wanted to fly airplanes his entire life. He's already made a solo flight in a Cessna 172 and has promised his brother, Owen, 13, and sister, Maryemma, 11, that he will fly them to Paris one day.
Thomas has no problems linking science and technology and his belief in God.
"God created the universe, so he must love science," Thomas said. "God has given us the experience and knowledge to use all the tools in his kingdom."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.