As youngsters crowded around the Rev. Dr. Tim McClendon to get their backpacks blessed at St. John's United Methodist Church on Sunday, sisters Camilla and Caroline Grier stood out because they were taller and older than most.


Camilla, 20, attends the University of Alabama and will be a junior. Caroline, 17, goes to South Aiken High School, where she is starting her senior year this morning as Aiken County students return to classes.


“I'm usually already back in Alabama by now,” Camilla said. “But since I didn't have to be at school for sorority recruitment, I could stay here and come to church today.”


Immediately after she received the special tag to show that her backpack had been blessed, Camilla attached it to her gray book bag.


“I love being a part of this,” she said. “When I take my backpack back to school, I'll feel like I have a little bit of home with me.”


Caroline called the backpack blessing “kind of comforting.”


St. John's, located on Newberry Street, held backpack blessings at its mid-morning contemporary worship service and its 11 a.m. traditional worship service.


The Grier sisters attended the contemporary worship service and so did Bryan and Casey Young.


Their sons, Knox, 4, and Granger, 7, served as greeters for the service and handed out church bulletins. The boys also got their backpacks blessed.


“It's a nice way to start the school year, and it makes you feel like they are going into it with a little extra protection,” Casey Young said.


Paula Langdale brought her daughter, Adysen, 5, to the service.


“I think the backpack blessing provides an extra special touch before the school year begins,” said the elder Langdale, who is a first-grade teacher in Lexington.


During his sermon, McClendon talked about the importance of what people say and how they say it.


“The truth of the matter is that words can hurt,” he said. “We need to be very careful when we speak. We need to bless more than blast, praise more than poison and heal more than hurt with our words.”


McClendon also addressed the problem of bullying, asking the children in the congregation not to “put people down and cause them pain.”


McClendon also used humor to make his point, reciting the following prayer: “Lord, help me keep the words I speak soft and sweet, because I never know from day to day which ones I'll have to eat.”


Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.