Beyond Vacation Bible School: Summer-long programs spark curiosity

Krista Ehst, Perkasie
with Jessica Walter

During summer months, it sometimes feels like every other corner church has the same acronym posted boldly on their sign. “VBS,” otherwise known as Vacation Bible School, is an annual event many parents and kids look forward to once school lets out. Every Vacation Bible School has a different theme or approach, but most of them are valuable week-long programs that invite church and community children to spend five or so days learning about the Bible, playing, and fellowshipping with one another.

This past summer a few congregations held programs that took a different shape than the typical form of VBS. Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, a Partner in Mission in Philadelphia, PA, New Beginnings Community Church in Bristol, PA, and Plains Mennonite Church in Lansdale, PA, offered extensive summer programs in attempts to connect more deeply with their surrounding communities and neighborhoods.

The Summer Education Program at Oxford Circle has been up and running for the past four years, reaching its highest numbers this year with an enrollment of 36 children. From late June through August many children from the neighborhood walk over to the church every Tuesday through Thursday for a free afternoon of fun and learning. Each year has a particular theme, and summer ‘07 was focused on “Walking the Path of Peace.” The children explored what it means to be peacemakers through many creative mediums, discovering that peace is not just an abstract idea, but something they can live out in their everyday lives. Whether through an art project, an interactive drama, or an afternoon spent listening to local Christian rapper Cruz Cordero, the children found many exciting ways to engage with the theme of peacemaking and apply that theme to their daily experiences.

“I’ve been moved by how the kids have jumped in with many ideas of how to spread peace in the community,” says camp director Peter Koontz. Koontz, a Summer Ministry Inquiry Program participant from Goshen, Indiana, who had, had some hesitancies about heading up the program. But as he got to know the campers, he grew to deeply appreciate those relationships and found inspiration in their free-flowing and simple ideas for spreading peace in the community. As Koontz sang, read, and created with these children he listened to their suggestions to cook for the poor and sing and dance for sick people and realized he had “been blessed by seeing God’s face in a place [he] didn’t necessarily expect to.”

God’s face has been evident in the Bristol area this summer as well. There, in the Venice Ashby neighborhood, New Beginnings Community Church offered its third year of summer camp. During the months of July and August, local children met from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday and Friday to play games, have Bible study, memorize Bible verses, make crafts, and spend time with the other children and volunteers.

Felicia Moore is a college-age member at New Beginnings and has devoted her past few summers to making this program happen. She sees it as an invaluable resource not only for children, but for the parents and broader community.

“The children [of Venice Ashby] cry out for activities and camp all year around,” Moore says, “They love the counselors and volunteers that give up their time and energy to help out. Most of them just want attention and a safe place to hang out and have fun. The community center in this area has been closed for a few years and so our members are trying to fill in that gap. The program helps parents by providing affordable camps and other resources. The children receive breakfast, lunch, and take home any arts and crafts projects they do. Having Bible lessons and reading programs reach the educational side that most events don’t offer. Above all we give parents a chance to go to work without worrying about leaving their children at home.”

There were ups and downs as Moore worked hard to pull off another summer of camp using fairly limited resources. Some days seemed to stretch on forever as she faced the kids’ exuberant energy and tried to answer their endless questions about God and life. But like Koontz, she felt blessed by her experiences and the many things she gained from her campers’ “examples of love and curiosity [as they] live out an everyday child-like faith.”

As Plains Mennonite Church reviewed their busy summer on a late August Sunday morning they joined in thanks proclaiming, “Let all the peoples praise you, God!” With unquenchable energy for celebration, outreach, and peacemaking Plains fully utilized their adjoining park facilities, Plains Park, this summer with outdoor movies, community events, and programming for children and youth.

For five Wednesday nights in mid-summer Plains hosted an evening program entitled “Peace in the Park” where children enjoyed music, games, crafts, and Bible studies focused on issues of day to day peacemaking. Plains also welcomed junior and senior high youth, for four mid-summer Sunday evenings, to their “Get Psyched” program. During their recent Sunday morning review one 7th grade youth, Taylor Mirarchi, commented on how fun her first summer with the program was. She enjoyed the games and Bible studies as well as being able to invite her friend Amber to join the group.

Plains was able to not only provide meaningful summer programming for youth but also provided times of fun and outreach to their surrounding community. Their community celebration “Party in the Park” drew over 600 people from the surrounding community where neighbors played games, ate food, and enjoyed fellowship with each other. They also held several family movie nights. As the warm weather persisted Plains continued to host events in their park.

When next summer rolls around, there will undoubtedly be many exciting options and opportunities for Vacation Bible School. Keep an eye out, though, for those programs that may not have the flashiest themes or the most resources, but are quietly and diligently working to reach out and offer something to their communities.

Peter Koontz (standing) helps a Summer Education Program participant with a craft project at Oxford Circle; Summer camp. Participants play a game at Plains’ Get Psyched program.