It was that time again this week: time for Ecumenical Vacation Bible School. In the Bethany Beach area, ecumenical means several churches working together for this annual vacation tradition, and the time in the middle of summer that some kids look forward to all year long, where they will once again meet new friends, meet new teachers and, for some, be introduced to Jesus Christ for the first time.
For the EVBS that takes place at Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church, the main planning is done with assistance from St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bethany Beach. The organizing starts as early as January, with selection of the curriculum, choosing songs, organizing crafts and snacks and, of course, getting the volunteers together.
“There are 63 volunteers this year,” explained Kristie Van Zee, who does children’s ministry coordination for Mariner’s Bethel, along with her husband, Andy. “And about 175 children,” she added, from pre-K through the teen helpers. “It’s incredible. Every year I pray for more. The bigger the better.”
Van Zee went on to say that it couldn’t happen without all of the volunteers. The moms and grandmoms and aunts and uncles and friends that shepherd the children from station to station, to the volunteers that help with crafts, to the ladies feeding them at snack time, to the storytellers that make the Bible stories come to life – they all play a part in making up the backbone of the five-day operation.
“We have so many volunteers,” she said. “And so many recurring volunteers with such a serving heart that come back every year, and we are so thankful for that. Without them it wouldn’t happen.”
Among those volunteers are Lori Smyth, who does the music; Jennica Kwiecien and Melissa Fadden, who plan crafts; Dawn Jarmol, who works the technical aspect of the overhead projectors and microphones; Patti McCarthy and Kerri Travalini, who do the snacks; Gayle Downing and Pat Sherman, who do the Bible story time; and Don Lake, Kathleen Seilers and Mandy Savage, who work as just a few of the many crew leaders, making sure all the children are accounted for and guiding them through their day.
Van Zee also said she was grateful to the churches for making Bible school a priority budget-wise, as EVBS is partially funded by a grant from the Southeast Sussex Ministerium. That, plus assistance from the churches directly involved, such as St. Ann’s and Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist, make it possible for Bible school to run on donations of only $5 per family.
Jeannie Fleming, the director of religious education at St. Ann’s, who coordinates with Van Zee the funding, publicity and organization for EVBS, loves reminding neighbors that vacation Bible school has been a tradition of life in the coastal Delaware area for more than 25 years.
One sign that this is the effort of churches working together is that a minister comes each day from a different church to preach about the passage of the day and lead prayer.
“It is good for these children to hear the many different voices and celebrate the beliefs we hold in common as Christians,” Van Zee said.
Van Zee said this was just her second year as the coordinator and it was such a pleasure to go through all of the planning to pick a theme, like this year’s “High Seas: Exploring the Mighty Love of God” and to see it all become a reality for one short week in the summer.
“There is so much pre-planning from the crafts to the Bible stories to the snacks, but to see it all come together it is so magical.”
And, of course, the music is a big part of the week. Children are greeted with songs at the start of the day and end at noon with a group singing, as well, and performed for parents and friends at the culmination of the week on Friday, July 16, in the sanctuary.
For Abott, a pre-kindergartner, that is the best part. Michaela, a classmate, agreed. “I like singing the songs,” she said. Ruthie, another pre-kindergartner in the bunch, said she liked the songs as well and added, “I think I’ll come back tomorrow with my daddy.” Christine, who is 4, added when asked if she was coming back next year, “Oh, yeah!”
“I love the fact that we are able to come together, different churches working as one body for Christ,” added Christina Wilson, youth ministries coordinator at Mariner’s Bethel. “The adults work together and the children learn together, and that’s important for the community.”
And not only can the churches and the children and the volunteers come together to share one message, but they are reaching people they might not otherwise have reached, and making lifelong connections and impressions explained Van Zee.
“It’s another way to introduce families that might not have a church or go to church regularly to all of our family and children’s programs that we have throughout the year,” she said. “And we are planting seeds of a relationship with Jesus Christ with kids as young as 3 and 4 years old. To see them at the end and to hear them humming the songs, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about building a relationship.”