St. Cloud girl surprises her grandfather with a "stuffy" congregation at church

A local girl’s gesture to cheer up her grandfather at work during the coronavirus pandemic is making people smile on social media.

Nathan Blackwell is the senior pastor at Cornerstone Family Church in St. Cloud. Since the coronavirus pandemic his church has been practicing social distancing and holding services online. Pastor Blackwell now delivers his sermon to an empty room, preaching to a camera that broadcasts the services live online.

Five year-old Ava Smith said she thought her grandfather was lonely at work so she decided to surprise him with some friends on Palm Sunday. She filled the first three rows of the sanctuary with stuffed animals. She also left her grandfather a simple note that read, “Papa, I wanted to bring you some friends so you don’t have to preach alone.”


Pastor Blackwell said he was shocked when he walked into the sanctuary and saw all the stuffed animals. “It really brought a smile to my heart in the midst of all this gloominess that seems to be going on.” 

Ava’s mother, Ashley Smith, said the idea came up when her daughter started asking questions about social distancing. “[Ava asked] if we can’t go to church who is Papa preaching to and she wasn’t really happy with the response I gave, which was no one.”

Smith said Ava’s grandmother then suggested the little girl bring her grandfather stuffed animals to keep him company. Ava immediately jumped on-board with the idea. “It makes me feel kind of happy because Papa feels a little excited.”

Pastor Blackwell said it has been an adjustment to preach to an empty room and he enjoyed the surprise. “It always energizes you to have an audience and even though my audience was my little friends here it was certainly encouraging knowing who put it there.”