During the last week of June, over one hundred volunteers assembled to welcome one hundred and fifty elementary school aged kids for our church’s version of Vacation Bible School. Prior to that, behind the scenes, crews ordered supplies, built the set, recruited teenage interns, modified pre-packaged themed scripts to fit their needs, rehearsed dance moves and spent time praying for the children they were to meet in their small groups.
When the children arrived on the first evening of the program, they entered a sanctuary totally transformed by the imaginations of the staff and volunteers and blessed with promise by the grace of God. For five evenings the children were engaged in lessons and activities that suggested how they could “Power Up” with God -- through knowing him by reading the Bible, knowing his son Jesus, inviting the Holy Spirit in (and living out the fruit of the spirit), and inviting others around them to know God too.
As the children were entertained and engaged in the lessons taught by interns disguised as popular video game characters, I decided to make my contribution by serving in the kitchen downstairs. For our church, this week of Summer Blast (our name for Vacation Bible School) is an all hands on deck type of affair, and with two children old enough to enjoy the program, I figured I better get with the program myself and help out!
This was one of those situations where you wonder how people make it work. How do they take the time to volunteer when...they work full time? When they have younger children to watch who can’t yet participate? When they have out of town guests visiting at the same time?
Or when they have a child in the hospital?
How do you commit to something when life is so uncertain? When the burdens of life make it feel like it’s a victory to just make it through a day, let alone add something to the schedule?
I had signed up to help with snack, figuring I could drop off a couple of my kids at the program, quickly stuff something crunchy into little baggies for distribution and leave to take my younger two kids home.
When the emails started flying a week before the program began, I realized I had gotten it all wrong. There were no small roles, and new jobs were popping up last minute begging for someone to volunteer to fill in the gaps.
No, they said, I didn’t need to attend the volunteer training program on the afternoon before the start date. But...I could come to the session anyway and serve lunch! No preparation necessary on my part to help with snack once the program began, but the woman in charge had been brainstorming for weeks on how to make each component of snack relate in some way to the day’s lesson. Some snacks took multiple days to prepare. Ingredients and pans and utensils flew around the church’s industrial kitchen, and when I didn’t know how to fit myself into the machinery of the execution, I hid by the dishwasher and washed and rinsed anything the other volunteers threw my way.
One evening I arrived early to help lay out one of the delivered meals -- because why just host a program when you can encourage community building by strongly recommending all (100+) volunteers also attend a nightly pre-program dinner? I had no idea what I was doing and had to fumble my way through cabinets to find paper towels, compostable utensils and rearrange leftovers in the oversized refrigerators. But since I was wearing a baseball cap and an apron, the traditional dress of the kitchen staff, people certainly assumed I did!
By Friday evening I was totally cooked. As were my kids. The nights ran late, and our days were full with summer camp elsewhere. I looked around and realized we weren’t the only ones burning out. One of the kitchen heads asked a pastor if he could bring some sangria to the after party on Friday night. He laughed and waved her off. “The pastor definitely cannot bring sangria,” he replied, leaving it open to interpretation whether she might want to ask a non-staff member to fulfill the role instead. Everyone wanted that little bit of relief.
It made me feel better about wanting to hide in a dark room and finish my book club pick.
Then why do it? Why make it such an extravaganza?
Because this was about the children. This was about showing them God and God-like love in a way they can understand.
As Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary, children “embrace enjoyment with abandon. They don’t feel guilty about taking time to search for feathers, invent a game, or enjoy a treat.” And they certainly don’t worry about pacing themselves through a race or through a day’s commitments.
My husband and I attended a wedding in Normandy this month, and as I described the experience to a friend, I pointed out that several French children, including babies, were still dancing and celebrating when my husband and I decided to leave the all night reception around two in the morning. I was completely surprised, but my friend pointed out that, from her own observations, children will just keep going, perhaps falling asleep on the car ride home from such an event.
At some point we lose that ability. We grow self-conscious. We grow aware of our limits. We grow aware of life’s other obligations that encourage us to pace ourselves, to turn off the TV and head to bed, to refuse that last drink at the bar, to anticipate what is to come.
But as I look back on my first volunteer experience with Summer Blast, I’m thankful for the chance to look through my children’s eyes, to return to the childlike faith that drew me to God in the first place.
I will need to figure out how to pace myself next summer so I’m not falling apart at the end and seeking my book, but you can bet that my kids and I will be back...and ready to celebrate with our wonderful, enthusiastic church community.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.