Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Red and Yellow, Black and White

As I was driving around running errands on Saturday, it seemed like every church I passed had their big banner staked in the ground promoting their VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL. Nothing symbolizes summer break more than VBS – ‘tis the season indeed.

We certainly went to VBS at First Baptist in Helena and I remember enjoying the unusualness of it all. Church for five mornings straight was certainly different! The group consisted primarily of the kids who went to our church, but every year there would be those 10 or 12 “new” kids who came just for VBS. They might have been friends of church members, or someone’s grandkids visiting for the week, or maybe they were from around the neighborhood and their parents were looking for things to keep the kids busy. It was all kind of exciting.

We would gather in the sanctuary for the general assembly – singing, pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag and then to the Christian flag and then to the Bible. Mr. Luebeck would deliver a short kid-friendly message, then we’d break off into our classes for lessons. Each year usually had a theme around which each day’s lesson would revolve. We’d go from class to SNACKS and ARTS & CRAFTS – two of my absolute all time favorite things in the whole world. After enjoying a little red Kool-Aid and sugar cookie is there a kid anywhere who hasn’t made a painted macaroni necklace, string and Popsicle stick cross or praying hands candle at Bible School?

After arts and crafts we’d gather back in the sanctuary for a special message from a guest speaker and some more singing. I think we’d practice our “program” then, which would be delivered on Friday evenings when the parents would come watch our little production.

I can’t say that I had any huge spiritual awakenings in Helena’s VBS, but I had fun and learned some more about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Shadrack, Meshack and Abednigo, and Jonah and the Whale.

However…I experienced a HUGE “spiritual” moment, or perhaps it’s better called a “moment of awareness”, at Lochwood Baptist Vacation Bible School in Lakewood when I was 17.

I never really embraced Lochwood. Maybe it’s because I was so socially awkward at that time but I never really fit in, so I don’t carry too many memories about the place with me other than this one I’m writing about and that absolutely horrific musical play we did where Jill Campbell was so embarrassed to be a part of it that she completely hid her face in the hood of her cloak through the entire production – it looked like the Ghost of Death that led Scrooge through the Christmas Carol had a bit part in our extremely bad rendition of “The Promise”. But I digress…

I was obviously too old to attend Lochwood VBS, but they did ask the teenagers to assist teachers, which I did.

The guest speakers for this particular day happened to be missionaries who were working in Africa. Now I had certainly heard about missionaries and I sort of knew what they did, but I never really paid them much mind, until that morning. As they talked, I became RIVETED on their every word. Their slides of the little dirty natives with their ribs showing who were eating their bowls of gruel. The straw hut schools with the dirt floors and no-electricity-having clinics. The little naked babies who had such sad looks in their eyes and the women who carried water on their heads. They told of these people’s suffering, poverty and lack of the most basic amenities.

The fact that these missionaries were there to expose these people to Christianity and convert them from their own belief systems into something totally different didn’t enter my mind, at that time. All that seemed to register with me was that there was all of this Poverty and Disease and Hurt out there and these two people were trying to make it better. This was the first time that I truly realized in a real, feel-it-in-the-gut kind of way that there was a great big world out there full of people who didn’t have it nearly as good – not even a fraction as good – as I had it. I still get kind of choked up thinking about it.

For some reason that I still can’t fully explain, their talk really affected me and I was filled with this overwhelming sense of sadness.

I left the auditorium with big tears in my eyes. I couldn’t concentrate on helping the 5-year olds make their macaroni necklaces. So I snuck back up to the sanctuary where these two people – a man and a woman – were packing up their slide projector. Being the self-conscious social cripple that I was, it was VERY hard for me to approach them, but I did. I introduced myself and tears just started rolling down my face. It’s a little bit embarrassing, but I just started to cry. I tried to explain that their talk had really moved me and I wanted to do something about it and why did people have to suffer and maybe I should be a missionary so I can help….

And, while they were kind enough to this strange, gawky girl who was blathering on in front of them, they kind of ruined it when they started in with their judgemental “church” talk about how these people were heathens and nothing in their lives would be right without Jesus Christ and their job was to save souls. The waterworks quickly shut down and I got out of the sanctuary pretty quickly, because even then, I was skeptical about the idea of “converting” people or they would go to hell (I just didn't understand why God would condemn billions of people to an eternity in hell just because of where they were born...).

For me, these emotions hadn’t been about God or Jesus or Christianity. My feelings had something more to do with humanity and social ills and the realization of a “greater awareness” that I still can’t quite describe. My sadness passed fairly quickly, but something inside me changed that day as I became more aware of the larger world and how “insignificant” I really was. It's like some scales fell from my eyes.

Years later, when I heard that Jill Campbell, who had been sitting near me that day, became a missionary, I thought of this experience again and wondered if it might have affected her, too. Who knows...

So here's to all of the Vacation Bible Schools happening this summer all over the world and to all of the mothers who will be getting spray painted macaroni necklaces on Friday.


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