In the midst of a come-back year, you might be interested to know that VBS is back. We missed it altogether last year due to the Covid Monster. The whole viral pandemic just sucked the air right out of us. Church calendars everywhere were marked through with bold black lines. Plans put on hold. Summer turned out to be one big blob of nothing going on.
VBS supplies were stashed away like relics. Bottles of Elmer’s Glue landed up on the top shelf of some storage closet. Popsicle sticks and tongue depressors wrapped up in bundles with rubber bands. Glitter hidden away in dark corners where the sparkle was lost. Songs put away that were never sung. Smiles that were never shared. Cookies that were never made, and sadly never eaten. It was a miserable affair.
VBS used to be the highlight of my summers. Going to church took on a whole new feel for us kids. Normal church going required that you be quiet and sit still. You had to behave in a world meant for the proper expression of faith. Us kids knew nothing about that. The preaching was boring. The service was boring. My buddy, Steve, and I perfected our paper airplane making with bulletins printed on Mimeograph machines. Heavyweight paper ideal for loop-d-loops. Waiting for the final Amen so we could run outside and take them for a test flight.
Nothing was exciting unless you happened to spot a wasp circling over the crowd looking for a place to land. It darted up and down. Disappeared beneath pew level on the left side. Then it rose upward toward the lights and swarmed around the room. A red wasp in search of a home. When it finally started crawling around on top of Miss Erma’s big-flowered hat, you wanted to giggle and point, but if you did, you got thumped on the ear for being too rowdy.
Church was Dullsville for a young boy.
When VBS came around, all that changed. The place belonged to us kids. We marched into the sanctuary and did the pledges. Then we’d sing ‘Deep and Wide’, making our best effort to exaggerate the motions. Miss Betty, who we all knew to believe in fundamentally well-behaved children, would say, “Louder, I can’t hear you.”
It was like having permission to misbehave in holy song.
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” We were practically bouncing off the wall.
“Where?” she’d shout.
“Down in my Heart!” Still too timid.
“DOWN IN MY HEART TO STAY.” And we’d try to rip the roof off the place.
Beth and I are standing behind the kitchen counter in the church fellowship hall. It’s our night to feed the VBS volunteers before the kids arrive. One of the big changes since my day in VBS is that most Moms work fulltime jobs. Back in the day, we held VBS at 9:00 in the morning and went to noon. You can’t do that anymore.
The womenfolk are the backbone of any VBS I’ve ever seen. You can’t have VBS, or much of anything in the church, without them. They don’t have time to get off work, cook a seven-course meal for the family including gravy and biscuits, wrestle their own kids out the door and make it to church by six o’clock.
I’m taking requests and pouring drinks. A small blonde child with bright eyes and curls asks for the hard stuff. I pour a glass of lemonade.
I converse, like any good bartender. “So, why did you come to VBS tonight?” I’m thinking that maybe it’s the games, the songs, the crafts. Maybe the cookies. That’s the stuff that got me motivated.
“Because I’m old enough,” she says. Good point.
Two women are working on an inflatable pool. The air pump is small, and the uptake of air is woefully slow. “The first one leaked and went flat,” they said. These gals know how to improvise.
“You gonna put water in that thing?” I’m a male. I would put water in it. They almost spit out their cookie crumbs with laughter. “Are you nuts? Not with these kids we’re not.” Spoken like true VBS veterans.
I’ve not been around VBS much in a long time. I played a part a few years back, dressed in a robe and sandals. A really pale-legged old man trying to look like a leather-worn Biblical character. I’m not sure that old men belong in VBS. This requires energy and movement that is not suitable for a guy whose back feels like it’s held together with Elmer’s Glue and popsicle sticks.
The atmosphere is electric as the kids start to flow inside. The stage is set with scenes from deepest Africa. A huge Baobob tree stands in front of the piano. I’ve actually seen these trees in Zimbabwe, and this is not a bad replica. Crumpled brown paper in the shape of the trunk with roots that run out across the floor. Scarred by the Elephants that rub their trunks on the soft wood. Short, stout branches of cardboard tubes at the top. Everything works perfectly, even the green balloons for leaves. This is VBS where the imagination runs wild.
All the chairs are stacked to the side in the sanctuary. A herd of children swarm the room. They have come to Africa in their bare feet. I told you. Normal church rules are not in play for VBS. And this is not your old fashioned Deep and Wide kind of music. The video screens and sound system come alive. The kids sway and sing, reminiscent of the Steppenwolf concert I attended at the Georgia Tech Coliseum in 1970, minus the funny smoke floating near the ceiling.
I walk back to the kitchen to clean up. The ladies are prepping for snacks. There are strawberries on hand. I want to stay because I love strawberries. I’d wear a robe and sandals for these snacks. And talk about creative. A sliced strawberry for the head with beady little eyes on top. A half tangerine for the body with pretzel sticks for legs, and you’ve got fruit spider snacks.
In 1963 we had sugar cookies with sprinkles and Kool Aid. All the cherry red Kool Aid you could drink. The smell of sweaty kids wafting around the table. We’d come inside from playing Red Rover, Red Rover, send Patty on Over. Patty could’a played football for the Jr. High team, and she busted through the line every time. We needed to rehydrate.
I am struck by the beauty of the return of VBS. No one talks about it much. The ladies making spiders comment. “Boy, it’s been a long time since we’ve done anything in this kitchen.” Yep, too long.
This is the essence of summer for kids. This is what they should all be doing this week. No cell phones. No video games. No laying around doing much of nothing like kids are prone to do. No boring TV for a change. You put the words ‘vacation’, ‘bible’, and ‘school’ in the same sentence and what you get is a magical week of crafts, crazy skits, laughter, and good times.
They won’t forget it. Old VBS kids never die.