A staple of summer, Vacation Bible School is a weeklong camp in which many churches use crafts, food and music to teach children all about Jesus. Many churches rely on VBS “kits” created by companies that come complete with a week’s worth of instruction, songs, knick-knacks, often following a specific theme.
Cokesbury, a popular Christian company, sold a 2018 themed kit called “Hero Central.” The literature taught kids they are all God’s heroes. To reinforce the concept, they received bright yellow capes to wear during the week.
That’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t resonate with kids who grow up in poverty or are exposed to gang violence at a young age, said Liv Looney Cappelmann, the director of youth education at Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston.
“God is not a genie who always makes things better,” she said.
Second Presbyterian, a self-described progressive church, is one of the Holy City’s oldest bastions of Christianity. Its large white stone facade faces Meeting Street, slightly north of Marion Square. Its steeple is within view of the East Side neighborhood, a historically lower-income area home to affordable housing projects and many African-Americans.
That geographic juxtaposition is not lost on pastor Cress Darwin, who, since the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME, has viewed his church’s location, a block north of Emanuel and a few blocks south of the East Side, as integral to the city’s pursuit of racial reconciliation.
The church has tried to diversify its traditionally white congregation by creating a relationship with the East Side’s Shaw Community Center. Felicia Sanders, one of two survivors of the Emanuel shooting, joined Second Presbyterian.
Revamping the VBS program is just one way to break down barriers to the church, Darwin said.
“There are different ways to break the 1950s mold,” he said. “Nothing is going to change the world except love.”
Cappelmann, a native of Fountain Inn, knew what she wanted to change about the church’s VBS.
Firstly, she wanted to dispel the idea that Jesus was a blue-eyed white man. She also wanted to use the Bible’s stories of women to teach lessons about love and leadership, since she had learned that many of the kids she had met who live on the East Side either live with one parent or live with a grandparent.
Because these families often struggle with gang violence and drug addiction, in addition to poverty, the curriculum also needed to shake the cheery representation of God.
“Children in the inner city do not relate to the idea that God is a ‘fixer,'” she said. “You can’t exactly tell them that everything is sunshine and rainbows.”
Cokesbury once created a VBS kit popular with churches in inner cities, but it’s no longer for sale. The company gifted an old kit to Second Presbyterian, and the church built on that.
Volunteers from Second Presbyterian as well as Redeemer Presbyterian Church on Wentworth Street came together during the last week of June to run the four-day program. To get more children from the neighborhood into the classroom, the church collaborated with the Shaw Community Center and rescheduled VBS from daytime classes to later in the evenings for the convenience of single working parents. The school began with a free dinner each night of the week and was followed by study, games and music.
One of the main teachings focused on the story of Ruth and Naomi from the Old Testament Book of Ruth. During a deadly famine in Israel, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, emigrated to the nearby country of Moab, where Elimelech died. The sons married Moabite women; Mahlon married Ruth, and Chilion married Orpah. Then the two sons died.
Naomi wanted to return to Bethlehem and told her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers and remarry. Orpah did so, but Ruth did not. She returned to Bethlehem with Naomi and helped support her mother-in-law by working in the barley fields, owned by a man named Boaz. Naomi, dedicated to helping Ruth and herself survive, guided Ruth through a plan to convince Boaz to fall in love with her and marry her. It worked.
Simply put, the story teaches believers to have faith even in the most difficult of situations. Some contemporary feminist scholars interpret the story as one that shows the dignity of labor and female self-sufficiency. This story resonates to today’s “#MeToo” movement, Darwin said.
For so long women have been dismissed and violated, and yet, through their own actions or because of the grace of God, they have persevered, he said.
“It’s important for these little girls to hear that,” he added.
At the end of the VBS week, the church hosted a block party. White and black kids jumped around in bounce houses together and played life-size checkers on the steps of the church.
Nearby, Second Presbyterian member Charlotte Leslie, 8, pulled a wooden rectangular block out of a life-size Jenga tower. Mikyla Cooper, 9, pulled another. The two girls had not met before that night. Once the final block holding up the tower was pulled, the remaining blocks came crashing down. The girls shouted and laughed with glee.
As they rebuilt their tower, Charlotte asked Mikyla if she had seen the movie, “Leap.” Mikyla said she hadn’t. Charlotte told her she moved from Las Vegas with her two dads. Mikyla said she lived in downtown Charleston her whole life with her dad.
They talked about their pets. Charlotte has a corn snake named Paranormal. Miklya had a corn snake named Gucci.
Pamela Rice, who works for the Shaw Center, was thrilled to see the diversity of the children playing. Racial reconciliation takes many forms, she said, and this was one of them.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said.