During summer break from school back in the 70s, there were plenty of things to do. My mother ferried us to the YMCA for swim lessons and free swim, and we also played on a Y softball team. She took us to Story Hour at the library where afterward we could check out ten books for the week. In summer as in winter, my Southern Baptist family went to church: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. I grew up in a medium-sized Texas town that was said to have a church on every corner.
I didn’t particularly look forward to church because I had to wear dresses and sit absolutely still during long sermons, and because Wednesday night service sometimes conflicted with important events like the airing of the Charley Brown Thanksgiving Special, which could only be seen once a year in that technologically primitive time. When I think back on mandatory church attendance during childhood, less would have been more.
Vacation Bible school was different. I looked forward to it immensely. All the churches on all the corners hosted a vacation Bible school. The summer I was ten, I attended four vacation Bible schools sponsored by various Protestant churches in our town. Attending Bible school gave me a sense of autonomy, offered me opportunities to be a leader and community organizer, and to learn about the Bible as literature and art.
One of the Bible schools I attended that summer was at a church called Ardmore Baptist, I think. I can’t verify the name because the church closed its doors many years ago. It was on Wesley Street in Greenville, Texas on a large lot between two businesses. A bus delivered us children to church, where we sat in the sanctuary for opening announcements and prayer. This particular Bible school had a competition with a prize I wanted desperately to win: a giant stuffed lion with regal paws that seemed as large as the real thing.
To win the lion, which was first prize, I had to bring more guests to Bible school than anyone else. I knew what I had to do. I knocked on doors up and down the streets in my neighborhood and recruited every kid I’d ever met and their siblings. By the end of the week, I had twenty-eight guests to my credit. The giant stuffed lion was mine. I surprised my mother and also myself. Even at ten, I had failed occasionally in life. Success lent me confidence.
Another competition at a different Bible school pitted girls against boys to see who could bring in the most offerings. The number of girls (or boys) participating counted, as well as the weight of the offerings, which we tossed into buckets, pink and blue, that were balanced before the altar like the scales of justice. Whatever money I had finagled from my parents, I made sure to pass it around so that every girl had a coin to put in the bucket in order to keep our numbers up. I don’t remember what the prize was—maybe an extra cookie during snack time—but the girls won every day.
The opening ceremony at vacation Bible school was brief, and then we were released to our classes. We learned the same stories at vacation Bible school as we did in Sunday school: the widow and her mite, loaves and fishes, Noah’s ark, Jonah and the whale, Zacchaeus who was a wee little man, Daniel and the fiery furnace. My early introduction to Biblical tales came in handy when I began to study literature; it allowed me to identify allusions in prose and poetry and to appreciate exegesis like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. When I began teaching as a graduate assistant, I was surprised at how many students had no knowledge of the Bible’s stories, from Abraham and Isaac to the prodigal son. Maybe they never went to vacation Bible school.
The summer after fifth grade, I attended vacation Bible school at Reavilon Baptist Church, where the music director taught us a song that listed the books of the New Testament in order. A song can function as a mnemonic device; how many people can recite the Preamble due to School House Rock? Recently during a team trivia competition, we were tasked with the following question: “Not counting the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, can you name five of the six books in the New Testament named after people?” Singing through the Bible school song in my head, it was a cinch to name all six: Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, Peter, and Jude.
Along with stories and singing, vacation Bible school had craft time and snack time. We turned strands of egg carton cups into caterpillars and traced handprints into flowers. We learned how to decoupage colored foil onto plaster of Paris plaques with raised Bible verses. We learned how to macramé hanging plant holders. We ate cookies and cupcakes and drank Kool-Aid, either grape or orange. Vacation Bible school was primarily organized and taught by women from the church, though there were also men, like the pastor, the song director, and the occasional father who got roped in. They were a volunteer work force, including my mother who worked in the nursery with the infants and toddlers because they were easier to deal with than excitable six- or nine- or twelve-year-old kids.
At the close of each day’s activities, we children were herded back into the sanctuary of the host church for a brief lesson on salvation, an altar call, and a final prayer. The song most often sang during altar call for my entire church-going life was, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” with its melodic lingering on the word “home” meant to draw the unsaved to the altar to make their surrender to belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Many children were saved during vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t one of them. I was saved and baptized at eight years old and saved and baptized again at the age of twelve because I didn’t think it took the first time. At twelve, I felt eight was far too young to make that decision. What kind of church-going child would I have been if I didn’t choose to be saved? It wasn’t like I was going to choose hell as a child, though I would have chosen to stay home and watch the Charlie Brown Special on Wednesday nights before Thanksgiving. And I would choose to make vacation Bible school part of my childhood summers if I had to do it all over again.