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Godparents build on caring role
Teri Hummel, left, gets a kiss from her godson, Andrew Brunton, 4, June 12 at Brunton's residence in Orlando.

Sitting in a Duke University classroom with novelist and religious scholar Reynolds Price, it is easy to see how students' affection can stretch across years, if not decades.

Still, when a beloved former student and assistant, Daniel Voll, asked him to become godfather to his infant son in 2000, Price immediately recognized a number of serious impediments.

First, the baby was in France, 3,000 miles away from English professor Price's home in the woods of North Carolina. Second, since a 1984 bout with spinal cancer, Price has used a wheelchair, making travel difficult, at least on short notice. And finally, Price is not a Roman Catholic, a requirement to serve as official godfather to little Harper Peck Voll, whose grandfather was actor Gregory Peck.

Instead, Price agreed to become Harper's honorary godfather. As a "belated christening gift," he composed a lengthy letter about faith to the child and sent it, with the understanding that it would not be read for years. As a more accessible gift, Price later went on eBay to locate an original copy of his own childhood favorite, Hurlbut's "Story of the Bible." Through the years, he has become better acquainted with the boy on occasional visits and by the phone.

"He's a sweet kid," the 73-year-old writer says.

During this same period, the letter has grown into a new book, "Letter to a Godchild (Concerning Faith)."

Whether long distance, like Price's experience, or close to home, godparenting appears to remain strong 1,500 years after it began, although there are no comprehensive figures.

Godparenting has its roots in the early church, when adults being baptized had a sponsor who guaranteed their good character, according to Elaine Ramshaw, author of "The Godparent Book" and numerous articles on the subject. Parents first sponsored their children, but about the sixth century, non-parents replaced parents as sponsors, although it is not clear why this shift occurred.

Today, the honor of godparent still is usually bestowed during a baptism, although for non-Christians it can be an informal arrangement.

Price's experience as a long-distance godparent is increasingly common, given the mobility and transience of modern life.

"It's more common just because it's more common for us to be deeply connected with people who live far away," says Ramshaw, former professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

"Geographic mobility; the isolation of nuclear families from extended family; the loss of community in neighborhoods; and divorce are factors that make it harder for children and teens to develop relationships over time with adults other than their parents," Ramshaw writes in a recent article in The Lutheran magazine.

"You don't have to be a certified saint or a religious geek to be a child's spiritual mentor," she writes. "You just have to be willing to form a relationship with the child, one of genuine appreciation and care. That takes time, lots of listening, sharing what the child enjoys and regular visits if you live far away."

Distance and different faiths have not kept Rick Spence of Orlando, Fla., from being godfather to Micayla McGee, 10. Spence, a Southern Baptist, was asked to fill that role by his childhood friend Mark McGee, who had married into the Catholic faith. Though he was honored to be asked, Spence admits that the ceremony was a culture shock.

Spence has continued serving as godfather after the McGees moved to Charlotte, N.C., about seven years ago, speaking to the girl on the phone about once a month and seeing her several times a year when the families exchange visits.

"We support her in what she does," he says. "Mainly what we try to do is to be supportive of her parents and try to help them out and to pray for her."

Although relatives who serve as godparents may live far away, Ramshaw says, the majority of those who are family friends still tend to live close by their godchildren.

Michael and Leanne Brunton had several concerns when looking for prospective godparents. They wanted a local family, not too old, who could take care of their sons if anything happened to them. But they also wanted a couple that shares their strong Southern Baptist beliefs.

"We looked for somebody who would raise them in the same faith as my husband and I," says Leanne, 32.

Their choices were Teri and Emmett Hummel, who they knew from First Baptist Church of Orlando.

"They are a very strong Christian couple; a very strong, godly couple," Leanne says.

The Hummels agreed to accept the responsibility.

"My husband and I talked about it and prayed, … and we felt that it was something that God wanted us to do," says Teri, 43. "It was as much spiritual as physical to be available to them. They know what our values are, that our views are like their mom's and dad's. Besides that, we'll pray for them. I think prayer will be the main thing."

For Price, author of about 40 books and a commentator on National Public Radio, the letter to Harper Peck Voll continued to draw him to the subject of godparenting, long after it was sent. He kept adding to it.

"First it was short, but it kept getting longer and longer," he recalls.

A year ago, Price recognized that the extended letter was "an evolution of one man's beliefs," as well as a "spiritual autobiography," beginning with his own childhood encounters with faith. What emerged was "Letter to a Godchild (Concerning Faith)."

"I wanted the published version to be available to as many different religious traditions as possible," he says. "I'm a religious person, but not a churchgoer."

In the book, Price acts as a spiritual guide to his own godson as well as to all other people who may read the book.

"I believe," he says, "that the essential core of our individual nature is immortal."