MIDDLE RIVER, Md. (BP)–Remember the heydays of bus ministry? The kids noisily bouncing along while Sunday school teachers scurry around getting the classes ready for the onslaught, and the sigh of contentment when the last child was dropped off at their home.
Even more exciting was when those unchurched wild bus kids who turned the Sunday school upside down walked the aisle to accept Jesus as their Savior. It made it all worthwhile.
Middle River Church knows the feeling. Their bus ministry has been chugging along for the past 30 years and even has one of the original drivers still driving. They’ll celebrate the ministry’s anniversary this month with a special worship service and luncheon.
Long-time member Hassell Vass began the bus ministry in 1972. At the time, independent churches were having quite a success with bus ministry and the North American Mission Board began holding training sessions in Georgia to help Southern Baptist churches develop their own bus ministries.
“I went to Atlanta and learned a great deal more about it and thought it was something we could really use,” Vass said. “Fortunately the church gave me a free hand. I was a sales manager and promotion oriented, so it was a challenge to me but also it was a great ministry.”
Vass came back fired up. He recruited volunteers and headed out to knock on doors.
“Door knocking is the only way to have a bus ministry,” Hassle said. “It’s hard to get people to have the toughness to go out and knock on doors now, but it was one of my favorite things to do,” Vass said.
Along the way, Vass would find children playing and he would join in.
“I’d go out in the community and find kids playing games and I would play with them and talk to them. I had some favorite tricks they liked. After awhile, I’d ask them where they go to Sunday school and if they didn’t go anywhere I asked if they wanted to ride the bus to church.”
The bus ministry was growing — really growing. Hassle said after the first Sunday of door knocking, the buses brought in 70 children. Soon they added another bus, then another and before long they were up to seven buses and bringing in 300 children.
“One of the interesting things about our bus ministry is that we agreed in the beginning that we would start at our church door and work out, not go out far distances from the church to pick up kids,” Vass said. “Even with seven buses, the farthest we went from church was less than a mile.”
“We had contests,” Vass recalls. “One was a steak and beans contest. In four weeks the bus crew that brought in the most new members got to eat steak. The rest of us would eat beans. We made the pastor eat hot dogs and beans. Different things like that really kept the interest high.” Vass also used the teenagers and puppet ministry to help recruit children.
Seven buses ran for over six years, but as the population changed, and there were less workers, the buses dropped off one by one, but the ministry never stopped. It still goes strong with three buses, plus a van that picks up some of the senior adults. Members Tom and Cindy Cardarelli head up the bus ministry.
The Cardarellis minister through continued contact with the children who ride the buses. Crewmembers call the kids every Friday or Saturday to see if the children plan to come to church that weekend. This allows for continued interaction. The children get puzzles to work while riding and pencils for bringing friends. They also get special treats for Christmas and Easter. Children encourage visitors. They give out candy and other treats to the newcomers and hugs and best wishes for the week.
One of the big events throughout all of the bus ministry’s history is Vacation Bible School. That’s when the buses are full and outreach the greatest.
Keeping workers involved has been one of the problems that has plagued the ministry. Driving a bus makes for a long morning and burnout is common. Drivers arrive before 8:30 a.m. and don’t get home until 1:30 p.m. The Cardarellis have solved the problem by alternating drivers on each of the routes.
Bill Baker has been driving since the beginning and he makes it easier for the other drivers to head out on Sundays. He arrives before anyone else, warms up the buses and checks them before the other drivers head out.
Yet with all the hard work, everyone involved seems to think it’s worth it.
“It’s a great ministry and the whole thing is worth it for us to see one of these children go forward on a Sunday morning,” Cindy Cardarelli said.
“We did bring in some fantastic kids,” Vass said. “It was, and still is a great ministry.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BUS KIDS and REACHING OUT.