Summers with JesusJuly 5, 2019
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Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Daniel Vasta
A group of children were dressed in handmade robes that covered their clothes, bandanas wrapped around their heads.
They stood with their teachers, who were dressed liked them, in the pews of Zoar United Methodist Church, singing, dancing and swinging their hands in the air.
“Oh, happy day (oh, happy day),” they sang. “You washed my sins away ...”
This was Day 4 of vacation Bible school at Zoar. And the theme was “Athens: Paul’s Dangerous Journey to Share the Truth.” The apostle Paul is a prominent figure in the Bible, in that he started many churches and spread the Gospel of Christ in the first-century world, including Athens.
The children at Zoar were grouped into families, which they stayed with throughout the week. The groups consisted of kids from 3 years old to fifth-graders.
The kids visited a marketplace that had different Greek shops to make a craft, learn to write on parchment paper, pet animals and have a snack.
The children also visited and talked to Paul, hearing about some of his adventures and hiding with him as the mobs come to his door.
“Most of the shopkeepers, being Greek, are believers in the Greek gods and are curious and unsure about the God Paul is preaching,” said VBS co-organizer Becky Brockriede. “They ask questions of the kids. And the hope is, the kids will try to convince them that Paul’s God is the real God.”
Everyone who helps with vacation Bible school gets very vested in the program. And the themes vary.
At Salem United Church of Christ, the vacation Bible school theme was an African safari.
“We’re always singing songs, and we’ve made different crafts each day,” 11-year-old Justina McClane of Huntingburg said. “And we’ve watched movies about different kids in Africa. It’s amazing how they live and survive.”
Justina and Arie Buechlein of rural Shoals were in the same class. On this particular Tuesday, the second day of class, the theme focused on how to handle bad times.
“We’re learning about Pharaoh and the plagues,” Arie said. “Each day it’s a different character.”
Their class was outside, working together through team games. After bowling down water bottles with a ball and running rocks from one bucket to another, dodging opponents, the students all sat down on the grass and talked about the day’s theme.
They shared some sad moments that recently happened. “I lost my dog yesterday,” one student shared. “She ran off.” Another mentioned losing a toy.
“It’s sad when you lose something, isn’t it?” teacher Melissa Hargett asked. The kids nodded. “We can help that sadness by thinking of the things we do have.”
At the end of the talk, Hargett repeated the day’s saying: “When life is sad...“
The kids chimed in. “God is good!”
Learning principles of the Bible is the point of vacation Bible school, and that kind of learning started back in the late 1800s.
In 1894, Hopedale, Illinois, public school teacher D.T. Miles felt she had time constraints for teaching the Bible to children. She started a program to teach the Bible in the summer. The first daily Bible school had 40 students enrolled, and lasted four weeks.
In 1898, Virginia Sinclair Hawes, director of the children’s department at Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City, started an “Everyday Bible School” in the summer at a rented beer parlor on the city’s east side. Dr. Robert Boville of the Baptist Mission Society learned about Hawes’ summer program, and recommended it to other Baptist churches. He created some summer schools that were taught by Union Theological Seminary students.
In 1912 in Chester, Pennsylvania, Dr. Abraham L. Latham of the Third Presbyterian Church started holding a summer Bible school. At its peak, the five-week, four-hour-per-day program had 650 to 700 students.
Meanwhile, in 1922, Boville of the Baptist Mission Society founded the World Association of Daily Vacation Bible School.
Standard Publishing produced the first printed VBS curriculum in 1923. It was a five-week course for three age levels: kindergarten, primary and junior.
Today, typical vacation Bible school programs have a theme, and last up to five weekdays. The programs tend to cater to young children, up to elementary-school age. Although some churches make their own VBS programs, many use a curriculum that comes from a company catering to a specific denomination. The company provides all the pieces needed for the programs: paperwork, videos, props. But some items can be added by the church to make it more tailored to the church.
St. Ferdinand Catholic Church’s VBS theme was “Marvelous Mystery: The Mass Comes Alive,” which focused on teaching students about the purpose of Mass.
The students were in different classes that focused on music, teachings and crafts. And through all of it, “we’re learning about Jesus,” said 7-year-old Eve Gatwood. “We’re going to show our parents what we learned at the end of the week.”
The students prepped through the week to participate in a Mass at the end.
“The kids really get into it,” said Raymie Buechlein, one of the adult leaders. “It makes my heart feel so good to see this. Working with the kids energizes me.”
Katie Eubank, 17, helped 5- and 6-year-olds with their craft project at CrossPoint Fellowship Church’s VBS in Jasper. The Tuesday night craft was creating a colorful sunset or cross using dry beans.
As she shuttled between a few kids, she used her voice as much as she did her hands.
“Hey guys, don’t eat the beans,” she said, while squirting glue. “Don’t do anything with the beans but put them on your paper.”
Craft teacher Jacqueline McQueary said vacation Bible school can have a massive effect on a child’s spirituality.
“For some kids, VBS is the only Jesus they’ll see. It was for me,” she recalled. “My family wasn’t very religious. And VBS is where I came to learn about Jesus, and that influenced me a lot.”
She is an active member of CrossPoint, and had helped with VBS for the past six years. “Every year, I can see the transformation in kids as the week goes along,” she said. “Things come together in their head. They begin to understand the impact Jesus has on their lives. It’s beautiful to watch that happen.”
The VBS theme at CrossPoint was country western, called “Giddy Up Junction: Taking God’s Love to New Frontiers.” The kids all wore matching T-shirts and colored bandanas. The color of their bandana indicated which group they were in.
Katie said she went to VBS as a young child and loved it. “I want to help other kids get something out of it,” she explained. “I want to help bring them closer to Jesus.”
As Katie worked with Will Patterson, a 5-year-old who was decked out in his boots and cowboy hat, they ran out of glue. Will watched Katie as she went to another table to check another tube that wasn’t being used.
She came back triumphant. “Got one,” she said aloud.
“Yea!” was Will’s response.
He chose to make a cross picture with his beans, and was very careful where he placed each bean. When he was done, he admired his handiwork.
“What do you think?” Katie asked him.
“This is fun,” Will told her, pressing on the beans as reinforcement. “I like my cross.”
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