I sat and watched again on TV last spring as a teen turned violent and shot and killed his peers. His teachers said he was "disconnected" from his community. I felt glad that couldn't happen in our small (but growing) tight-knit community because everyone feels involved here, right? I mean, Southern Living loves us, so we're perfect!
Then, I started volunteering for an after school program at a large apartment complex and realized many of the parents there are single, busy and stressed out from supporting and raising their children alone. They live in the shadow of our own neighborhoods, yet in a totally different world than my children grew up in. It's difficult for their parents to find time and a few extra dollars to take them to the parades, concerts, or even for ice cream downtown. There's often no connection with the community and many of them have never even visited the bay, which is only a couple of miles away. Church activities are non-existent because of work schedules or just plain exhaustion at the end of the work week. Many of the parents have second jobs, so there just isn't time to "plug in" to the community.
This isn't inner-city housing I'm talking about — those kids are provided for by local agencies, civic groups, school groups and federal funding. The children I met in these nicer apartments were falling between the cracks because their parents worked so hard they don't qualify for many extras or "needy" status.
I first volunteered for the weekly "Snack Day" at the apartments which was a secular program that met the kids as they jumped off the school bus one day a week and gave them a little snack, a quick hug and asked them to tell me about their day at school. Many times they wanted to talk to someone — just about things in general. Often, they'd sit in the shade on a blanket and do their homework or color a picture while nibbling cookies or fruit. It was a good way to connect and gave them someone to chat with at the end of their day.
Asking to host an on-site Vacation Bible School was a big step, but the apartment managers wanted to provide opportunities for their residents, so they graciously agreed to give us space. Our churches in this area of the country are important parts of our communities and help people feel connected, so if we wanted to help the children feel involved, we'd just have to bring the churches to them.
Taking Vacation Bible School out of the church and into the community isn't a new idea. I've been working in "Backyard Bible Clubs" since I was in high school when my youth group would organize events like this in parks, campgrounds, and neighborhoods. We even held one Bible school in an above-ground cemetery in Louisiana — no kidding. It was kind of the neighborhood park for them. Here I am as a tenth grader leading my first Backyard Bible Club in Canada. I'm the one kneeling with big giant hair.-ha!
After posting only one plea to my friends on Facebook, offers of help immediately started pouring in. People from all different churches and denominations wanted to help. We ended up with about 12 ladies from 6 different churches on our team and enough monetary donations to cover snacks and craft items.
This summer event needed to be different from what we've come to know as Bible School. Regular VBS in church buildings seem to focus on big, loud, over-the-top activities. There's an erroneous theory that convinces some teachers and directors of children's programs that they need to compete with the flashy video game culture, when in fact, the opposite is true. Children are so burned out on the loud, flashy, brashness of society, they are actually craving peacefulness. These children in the apartments didn't need wowing, they needed soothing. They needed kindness and soft voices and someone to listen to them.They didn't need overstimulation, wildness and crazy costumed ladies leaping around to bad loud music. We found one older boy, somewhat embarrassed, curled up in the corner, coloring a picture of Joseph and his coat of many colors. He carefully tore it out of the book, folded it neatly and tucked it in his Bible. The last day, we gave all the children coloring books, crayons, and the Fairhope Police Department distributed backpacks loaded with school supplies.
We scheduled a Monday-Friday plan, with each day only lasting two hours, 10am-12noon. There was no recreation, no science station, no dancing around and no goofy cartoon characters that children confusingly think can be found somewhere in the Bible. I wrote my own curriculum — well, actually, I lifted it straight from the Bible (I didn't think God would mind), since I think the main-stream denomination curriculums are sadly watered-down these days. My team of volunteers helped fill in the blanks for the stories and activities. They had brilliant ideas and we finally realized most of us, but not all, were former teachers. YAY!
Participation was voluntary, and the parents had to sign a permission form. My friends at Yeager Law Firm in Daphne helped me with the wording to make sure in this day and age everyone was safe and protected.
We sang some cool songs, told a story, made a craft to support the story and made a tasty snack which also went with the story. Then we retold the story in small groups while sitting on the floor and led them in discussion questions. Since many had no church experience at all, we focused on the New Testament and stories about Jesus. "Stick to the basics" was our only theme! We laughed, acted silly, got glitter on our fingers (yes, we were brave enough for glitter - and didn't spill a speck!) and watched as new friendships between the children grew.
When I tell you these children were mesmerized, I mean, they hung on our every word and asked the best questions. They were well behaved because they were engaged and loved all the one-on-one attention we gave them. They'd return the next day with questions about what we'd previously discussed, proving they had gone home and thought about what they'd heard.
One volunteer raised funds from her church's small group and purchased Bibles for all of the children. We passed them out the first day and let them decorate tote bags to hold the Bibles, and every single child remembered to bring their Bible back every day. We showed the kids how to use the Bibles and gave them bookmarks so they could find the stories we told. We also gave them a list at the end of the week with other stories they may have heard about like Christmas, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Noah and the Ark, the 23rd Psalm, and other well-known stories.
1. We anticipated the children would just show up without registering and hoped and prayed for at least 10 children. 8 did register ahead of time, but 23 showed up! We had it covered!
2. Our volunteers only met 4 times at my house before this started and we only got the ball rolling two months before the start date. Email communication and amazingly gifted ladies helped us sail through one of the easiest and most productive weeks I've ever had.
3. Most of our volunteers were going through some type of personal crisis - cancer treatments, moving, sick relatives, caring for special needs family members, upcoming surgeries . . . but somehow, it didn't matter. Our excuses were thrown out the window and we all worked together like a beautiful symphony with absolutely no drama or grief.
4. We had a total of 23 children attend, and many made big decisions at the end of the week to further explore their relationship with Jesus. We plugged them into local churches with great children's programs and even helped a new family from India find English speaking classes and school uniforms for their three children.
5. We stretched the age range because we decided if they wanted to hear what we had to say, they were welcome. We ended up with students as old as high school sophomores who were drawn in by the crafts and stayed to be "helpers." (Future teen program??)
6. When I panicked one night before the week started and thought, "If we only have 20 Bibles, what happens if we have 22 or 23 kids?" The next day, one of the volunteers called to say her husband had found a box of brand new small Bibles someone had thrown away. (I know! who would . . .???)Things like this happened all week long as miracles just knocked us down.
7. At the end of the week, we realized many of the children were coming to us without having had any breakfast, so if we do this again, we'll plan on a fruit snack when they arrive and a heavier theme-based snack before they leave.
As many churches struggle with membership, perhaps they need to reevaluate their focus. Sharing the love of God with our own squeeky-clean priviledged children is essential and needed, but isn't where it should stop. Isn't the point of outreach to reach out? Go into all the world. Just go. GO! Go to everyone - even the invisible kids who secretly sit home alone while their parents have to go to work.
By breaking my heart many years ago, God planted the seed for this project and I'm sad it took so long for me to do anything about it. I remember the morning I watched as a children's minister turned a little girl away from big-church Bible School because the minister didn't have the common sense to plan ahead for extra space for last minute drop-ins who weren't church members and didn't know they needed to preregister their children. The stranger, who held his little girl's hand was told there was no room for his daughter and he should "try another church." The little girl left with tears in her eyes and her father looked almost as sad. I was mortified at the lack of planning and compassion, and it was the seed that stuck with me for years and finally grew into doing something for the kids who aren't the "preregistration" type of people. Their parents are figuring things out as they go along and just need a little help. They need someone to care about them when they are too overwhelmed with the basics in life to think about things like preregistering for church activities.
The love of God should reach everyone. We absolutely need to find people in the far corners of the world who need hope, but "Go ye into all the world" can also mean to go ye into all the apartments, trailer parks, neighborhoods and communities right under our noses. We don't want to turn on the TV again and see the tragedy of someone who didn't feel connected . . . when we were right here next to them all along.
For those of you who have read this far and are thinking, "Hey, that's a good idea" I challenge you to grab a friend and see what you can do to help some single parents or struggling families in your own communities. Reading to them once a week or taking craft items to a shelter or starting a music class . . . it all adds up to connecting with each other. I promise it will be easier than you think. God is already there, you just need to show up.
*** update: A church within walking distance of the apartments, Celebration Church, invited these children to participate in their Vacation Bible School the next summer. Many of the children are now regular attenders of their youth programs. — due to the COVID Pandemic in 2020, many of the children whose parents were employed in the service industries have relocated, but there are always more children out there somewhere who need us.
***ALSO - My Dad passed away one month after we held this VBS, but I had told him about my plans while he was sick and confined to bed and he kept saying, "good! good!" He had been the Youth minister at our church who trained us to do the backyard Bible Clubs all those years ago. He loved knowing so many of his former youth group members were carrying on the goal of spreading God's love - either through full time ministry, as over 12 of them are, or like me, on a volunteer basis. Daddy was thrilled to hear about this project. It all happened in God's perfect time.