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FIRST-PERSON: Impacting generations at VBS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Hurray! It’s time for Vacation Bible School! Over half of my 36 summers have included VBS, as either a student or a teacher.

It’s been said that children learn in a week’s worth of VBS what it takes Sunday School six months to accomplish. For five straight days, kids are immersed in the culture of the church — songs about God, crafts about God, stories about God. God is good! He loves children, and for this special week in the life of many churches, we honor God, celebrating Jesus by spending quality time with these precious little ones.

My childhood memories of VBS hinge on the crafts we made. I remember beautiful wastebaskets created from recycled Baskin Robbins’ ice cream tubs. Then there was the wall hanging of ceramic corn I painted that my mother actually hung on the wall in our kitchen. One year my class made a picture frame from Popsicle sticks.

My adult VBS memories, however, are not of the crafts or even of all the preparation time spent gearing up for the week. No, for the rest of my life I will remember a group of kids in Paducah, Ky., whenever I think of VBS.

When my husband, Rich, and I lived in Paducah, I had the privilege of teaching the fifth- and sixth-grade students one summer in VBS. On my volunteer application, I had marked that I would serve “wherever needed.”

I later learned that my application was quickly tagged. I was assigned to teach the fifth and sixth graders. Known for being a rowdy group by every other adult on the planet, I had no idea what I was in for! I found that they weren’t too bad, actually, just loud. They were living at that horribly hormonal in-between stage. In truth, we had a great time together.

For parents’ night, the culmination of VBS, I had chosen a popular Steven Curtis Chapman song for the kids to sing. Chapman is from Paducah, and most of the kids would be going to his alma mater, Heath High School, when they were freshmen. We practiced singing “Heaven in the Real World” for five days.

The kids did a great job performing for their parents. I knew that if they hadn’t learned anything else that week, they had certainly learned that song, which they sang from memory.

Rich and I moved our family to Nashville, Tenn., later that summer. Several years passed. On a day when the last thing I was thinking about was tie-dyed T-shirts and macramé key chains, I received a phone call from a family member in Paducah, informing me that there had been a gunman at Heath High School. A student had opened fire on the school’s morning prayer group. As he listed names of kids from my former church who were students at Heath and involved in this informal prayer group (which had been something of a tradition for years), I recognized the names of several freshmen because they had been a part of my VBS class.

I quickly turned on CNN and waited for news reports of the shooting. Suddenly, Chapman’s song began to play in my head. In my mind’s eye, I saw those kids singing it with their big smiles and great enthusiasm. Muting the television, I popped the CD in the stereo and began to listen.

It was as though I had never heard the words before. “Heaven in the Real World” begins, oddly enough, with the voices of news commentators reporting crime statistics, illegal drug use, and gang activity. They are interrupted by the voice of Chuck Colson who asks, “Where is the hope?”

As I sat in my living room and wept, my children began to wander in, asking, “What’s wrong, Momma?” Their little pudgy, dimpled hands were patting me on the back as they tried to comfort me. As I pulled them close, I thought about the five days I spent teaching VBS in Paducah. I had no idea of what the future held for those kids.

For many like me in our nation, the next five days were a Bible school of sorts for us as we watched via television how these students and their community responded to the tragedy. Crafts of forgiveness hung in the windows of the high school as students made posters proclaiming to the shooter, “We forgive you!” The memorial service for the three slain girls was broadcast on C-SPAN. There were songs of faith and even a dance of testimony for a worldwide audience to witness.

Where is the hope? Chuck Colson says, “The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us or what laws are passed or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people….”

If you are working in Vacation Bible School this year, please keep in mind that these five days are influencing a future generation. If you can’t offer your time, offer your prayers. The One who holds their future — and yours — is listening.
Rebecca Ingram Powell is a wife, mother of three, author and speaker. You may visit her website at www.rebeccapowell.com.

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  • Rebecca Ingram Powell