VBS – with or without guardrails
If it's July, it must be Vacation Bible School. For those of us who were raised in the church or have been raising our kids in the church, Vacation Bible School in July is about as predictable as Christmas in December. Except that it is becoming less and less predictable. The The Barna Group reports that in the last decade some 38,000 churches in the U.S. have quit offering VBS. They site lack of leaders and being too busy as primary excuses.
One of the most important tasks church leaders face is the task of determining when a program or ministry has run its course. Our Session will be doing some of that hard work in the coming months. But I've got a hunch that VBS has a lot of life left to it, so long as we adults don't get too busy or too distracted to make it happen every July.
I have memories of Vacation Bible Schools when I was a child and can't begin to count the weeks of Vacation Bible School I have led and participated in during my time in ministry. I'm looking forward to being with our LPC kids and their friends every morning this coming week. Officially I'm the mission man and will be telling the kids about our VBS mission project at the opening and closing assemblies. But I also plan on making the rounds of lessons, crafts and games getting to know the kids and watching God at work.
For the past eight years, Vacation Bible School has had a definite Brazilian accent for me and Becky and a team of 15-20 Park Presbyterians. In addition to VBS at Park Church in Beaver, each summer brought a week of EBF (Escola Bíblica de Férias) for the children of Favela da Ventosa in Belo Horizonte Brazil. (click here and watch as the photos cycle through)
Just as most of life in the favela is lived on the edge, so EBF is VBS without guardrails. There are no permission slips or health insurance forms to fill out. There are no occupancy limits and no emergency exit plans. EBF begins at two in the afternoon and not long after noon children begin to flow down out of the favela towards Igreja Presbiteriana. Among the 300 or more kids who will eventually gather outside the steel gates of the church are seven-year old girls carrying two-year old cousins on their hips. That's daycare in the favela. The two year olds will stay with their cousins throughout the three hours of VBS. Among the eleven and twelve year olds are boys who are already running guns or drugs for the gangs and girls who are discovering that there is money to be made in selling their bodies to older men.
By 2:15 the steel gates will be locked again and a deacon from the church will keep watch – not to keep the kids in, but to keep the favela out. EBF begins much like American VBS – just without the guardrails. The 300+ kids and 50+ American and Brazilian leaders cram themselves into a sanctuary designed to seat 150. Some children poke the kid sitting next to them and have to be told to keep quiet (um, dois, três, zipe!). But the three hours of EBF are a time set aside, time different than any other time of the year. EBF is a safe place where adults love kids and there's plenty of food and joy to go around for all. EBF ends at 5:00 and most of the children head back up the hill to life in the favela. A few of the kids, mostly boys, stick around for a game of futebol americana played in the street outside the church. They may be great with a soccer ball, but it takes awhile for those street kids to get a knack for throwing a nerf football.
I'll be thinking about the kids of EBF as I'm getting to know the kids of VBS this week, especially since our mission project is going to help provide a year-round safe place for the children of the favela to come to. I'll think of Mateus, who doesn't know his father and whose brother was killed in gang violence. But Mateus always comes to EBF and through EBF has been coming to church, because there's something good and safe at church. I'll think of Jessica, a 12-year old in EBF our first year and now a committed follower of Jesus Christ who will be helping lead a class for younger kids. I'll think of Raul, an 11-year old we all loved, who died of tetanus a couple of years ago after he stepped on a rusty nail. I'll think of Junio, who is in jail because holding up a butcher shop seemed like an easier way to get rich than hoping against hope that he might make it to college. But Junio knows Jesus and I pray that he will discover that Jesus is doing time with him in that miserable prison cell. I'll think of those still-young girls who were EBF kids eight years ago who now bring their own three-year olds for a week at the church that is unlike any other week of the year – a place where adults love kids and there's plenty of food and joy to go around for all.
There are no guardrails in the favela. It's life with sharp edges and stark contrasts. At EBF, some of the kids meet Jesus for the first time and discover a safe place in his arms and a bright hope in his love. I'm going to miss EBF.
But I'm glad to be able to be a part of VBS at LPC. Our kids wear helmets when they ride bikes and seatbelts in the car. They're covered by health insurance and most of them have never gone a day without (too much) food. But they still need to meet Jesus and discover a safe place in his arms and a bright hope in his love.
I'm not sure about Christmas in December, but I'm pretty sure that VBS in July is a tradition we'll want to keep.