By Mary DeTurris Poust
My 5-year-old daughter, Chiara, just arrived home from Galactic Blast Vacation Bible School, where she had, well, a blast (as promised in the space-themed promotional materials). In fact, she's upstairs right now dancing and singing God-focused songs with the take-home CD that was provided as part of the week-long, three-hour-per-day program, along with a T-shirt, a daily snack, and individual sessions that focus on the Bible, arts and crafts, science, music and outside play. The grand total cost of this program: $25 per child. It's a parent's dream come true. At least it's this parent's dream come true.
I'd like to be able to report that this innovative, inexpensive, enticing faith-centered camp program was sponsored by my own parish. But, alas, there is no such program there and, up until now at least, no interest in starting one. As is too often the case in many Catholic parishes, programs like Vacation Bible School seem like more trouble than they're worth -- all those little children running around, and loads of volunteers required, and an investment in space and materials and time. But what I saw today confirmed what I've been saying when I speak at conferences around the country and when I write about the Catholic Church's inability to connect with a "lost" generation of adult Catholics. Summer Bible camps and other child- and family-focused programs go a long way toward making people feel welcome and giving them a non-threatening way to return to or explore a church.
We were lucky enough to land a spot in the Vacation Bible School at our local Methodist church, where we greeted by smiling faces and invitations to attend an upcoming children's book sale and an end-of-camp performance on Friday night with a free ice cream social. To top it off, Chiara and her fellow space cadet campers will be helping to bag up 175 lunches for the Capital City Rescue Mission food program, and they're collecting school supplies, clothing and toiletries for the poor. When Chiara came bounding out of the church today, she didn't tell me about the snack or the outside playtime. She told me that she was going to help make lunch for someone who doesn't have any food.
Right about that time I was thinking that if I was new to town and unattached to any particular faith, I would absolutely sign on the dotted line at this Methodist church. And THAT is why programs like Vacation Bible School or the wildly popular and successful thrift store that this same church sponsors each week are so important. No, they don't teach the faith, but they get people in the door and make them want to know about the faith of those who are willing to host such great programs -- and with a happy smile and kind word to boot. This is how we evangelize. This is how we reach those adult Catholics who don't know whether or why they should come back to the Church of their birth or perhaps consider it for the first time.
As I waited to sign Chiara into the camp this morning, I stood among so many of my fellow Catholic parishioners it was a little ridiculous. Obviously there's a need for a faith-based summer program for children, but we had to go outside our own faith to find one. What's wrong with this picture?
So today I want to hear from all those folks out there who run or help at summer Bible camps for their Catholic parishes. Tell us why they work, what they've done for your parish, and how to get started. Or, if you, like me, are not lucky enough to have such a program in your parish, tell us what you've found at churches of other faiths in your area. Are you seeing this kind of thing done effectively elsewhere?
I always hear how our parish is too big and we have too many children. As Mother Teresa said, "How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers." Sure, it's a lot of work, but so is faith formation and RCIA and all of the other programs our parishes manage to operate. We can't afford to ignore families -- children AND parents -- any more. We need to welcome, invite, smile, inform. If we're lucky, we'll end up with a whole bunch of new parishioners. Happy ones.