I was 4 when my aunts took me to my first vacation Bible school at the white clapboard church in Tonawanda, N.Y. With a toddler at home, my attendance provided respite for my mother and an exciting expedition for me. My memory of those days is vague, but does include singing, "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands" and eating pink-frosted animal crackers. Amazingly, nearly 60 years later, VBS is still alive and well, and making its presence known in neighborhoods across Ohio this summer.
Writing for Time Magazine in 1999, columnist Amy Dickinson remembered her own experience at VBS: "Kids would gather in the musty sanctuary for songs featuring hand gestures that seemed, for our brand of Methodism, dangerously close to dancing. We played Bible tag, memorized the books of the Old Testament and drank gallons of KoolAid out of waxy paper cups. Our teachers entertained us so well that we scarcely noticed that with every popsicle stick ark they helped us build, they were molding our little souls." As a teen of about 16, I volunteered for VBS with The Salvation Army in my hometown. With limited classroom space in that old building, I ended up with a table in the parking lot behind the building, assigned as the teacher of a class full of 8- to 10-year-old boys. It’s a miracle I wasn’t frightened away from VBS forever, especially when two brothers ran away.
I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Harry Emerson Fosdick, also a native of Buffalo, would one day lead Riverside Church in NYC, but began his ministry less auspiciously, teaching at a summer Bible school for children in 1901. He reflected, "I was thankful that no one could visualize what went on that first summer. The experience probably taught me more than it did the children; I am sure that it did not do them the harm it did me."
Can a program more than 100 years old still be viable? VBS creators have kept their eyes on the baby (the spiritual formation of children) even as they’ve changed the bathwater, trading in flannelgraph boards and filmstrip projectors for interactive videos. New songs encourage the children to jump around (as though they need any encouragement!). Themes for each year, chosen long before events in Thailand and Hawaii cast a pall on Cave Quest and Lava Lava Island, encourage congregations to decorate for Surf Shack, Pets Unleashed, Cowabunga Farm, Shipwrecked and Polar Blast.
When my father died more than a decade ago, his church had transformed their sanctuary into a massive circus tent for "Under the Big Top" VBS. Our family had to find an alternate venue for his memorial service, painful at the time, but I believe my dad would have been glad that children were being welcomed into the church he loved.
Fast forward to VBS 2018. I’m pleased to report that I survived my most recent VBS experience with no run-aways. My week of fun with seven precious 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, including the youngest in our group, the delightful and determined Elizabeth Holiday, was a grand adventure. Since only two of the children had been in a structured educational program before, by day two I gave up on circle time and any prolonged story-telling, and ditched the idea of making slime volcanos. Whose idea was that, anyway? However, they did love their play dough and snacks!
VBS 2018 proved to me that while my next career move won’t involve a preschool classroom, I can help small children learn to sit "criss-cross applesauce," even our little Lizzie. I can welcome a little one into my arms as he sobs for his mother, and can affirm children as they are kind to each another. Seemingly so simple — providing direction, comfort and affirmation — yet gifts we are all privileged to give to the little ones in our families and neighborhoods.
Since I can’t imagine a summer without vacation Bible school, I’m already looking forward to Roar! VBS in 2019, because even though life can be wild, he’s still got the whole world in his hands. Now to stock up on safari gear, play dough and pink-frosted animal crackers.
JoAnn Shade, author of "Only in Ashland: Reflections of a Smitten Immigrant," can be reached at email@example.com.