Carnett: With summer comes vacation Bible school

It's that time of year across the Fruited Plain.

Yes, vacation Bible school season!

Though VBS is offered throughout this country — and the world — I've discovered that it's especially popular in the American South, traditionally known as the Bible Belt.

Hedy and I have just returned from a three-week road trip through Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. It seems that every little redbrick country church in every backwater hamlet that we visited had a sign on its front lawn announcing: "Catch the Spirit! VBS, June 25-29" — or words to that effect.

Vacation Bible school is probably a lot older than most people suspect. In 1898, Walker Aylett Hawes rented a New York City beer hall to conduct Bible classes for children to keep them off the Big Apple's teeming streets during the summer months. It was called the Everyday Bible School.

A national Christian publication reports that vacation Bible school is as popular now as ever. In 1998, more than 5 million U.S. children attended VBS programs.

Individual churches today offer Bible school once each summer, and the program generally focuses on a single topic. Kids are involved in games and crafts, and are taught biblical truths. Snacks are also part of the package. Christian kids are encouraged to invite neighborhood friends.

I recall the vacation Bible school of my youth. The year that I remember most vividly was 1955. I attended VBS at my home church, Newport Harbor Lutheran, which was then located on Cliff Drive in Newport Beach. I was 10 years old.

Following close on the heels of World War II and the Korean conflict, the two-week VBS program sported a somewhat martial theme: "Onward Christian Soldiers." A couple hundred kids attended.

We all began day one of the program as lowly privates. The goal was to conclude the two weeks at the highest rank possible. We each received points for attendance, good behavior and memorizing and reciting Scripture. Our points were tabulated daily, and the point totals translated into military ranks.

I invited Karen, a ridiculously smart 12-year-old neighbor girl. My mom taught Bible school that summer and drove us to church every weekday morning.

Karen finished the program as the highest-ranking officer in our VBS. She proudly wore the three stars of a lieutenant general. I studied long and hard, and tried desperately to keep pace with Karen, but could only make it to "bird-colonel."

In my youth, VBS was usually a two-week affair. In the 1970s and '80s, when my kids went to vacation Bible school, it was scaled back by most churches to a one-week activity.

Today, in North Carolina, where my daughter and four of my grandchildren live, at least one church offers vacation Bible school in the evenings for a week to avoid the suffocating Southern humidity. A church in Mississippi has scheduled its VBS program for five successive Wednesday evenings.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, I was a volunteer for seven or eight of those years at my church's vacation Bible school. Each year we created a first-century Palestine village on a large grassy area in front of our church.

Our VBS kids learned what it was like to live in the environment from which Christianity arose. Jesus "appeared" in the village daily and interacted with the children.

Many volunteers served as actors for the week. I was one. We portrayed biblical characters and, as the week progressed, we wrote, rehearsed and performed our scripts taken directly from the Scriptures.

My friend, who portrayed Jesus, was a former professional makeup artist, and he did a fantastic job with his costume and makeup. He presented a stunning likeness of the savior, and the children were drawn to him as he walked among them, taught lessons and interacted with other biblical characters in the "village."

We actors took our roles seriously, and learned a great deal about the origins of our faith.

In every season of my life I've thoroughly enjoyed vacation Bible school. As a grandparent, VBS continues to warm the cockles of my heart!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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