It was 5:45 p.m., and Lindsey Feldman made one final check of the contents of her minivan. She was in a rush. Gray clouds were looming, and Feldman knew that the coming thunder and lightning might keep her from her appointed rounds: supervising a campaign to teach the children of Prince William County about the Lord.
“It can’t rain. It’s Salvation Night, the most important night of our vacation Bible school,” said Feldman, children’s ministry director at All Saints’ Church in Woodbridge, as she pulled out of an empty church parking lot.
Feldman’s vacation Bible school wasn’t located on church grounds. Along with five other Prince William churches, All Saints’ holds week-long sessions of vacation Bible school in the suburban back yards of parishioners and on their porches and driveways.
Last month, Feldman was the leader of a cadre of volunteers who visit dozens of homes, bringing supplies with this year’s theme — “Facing Fear! Trusting God!” — to assembled children throughout the county.
“God is all over this,” Feldman said as she pulled up to a townhouse where a dozen children, all wearing blue Bible school shirts, were singing under the direction of three church staff members.
“Change my heart, oh God, I want to see your glory . . . change my heart, oh God,” the children sang in the carport of a suburban rambler.
In the past, when children went to vacation Bible school, they spent a week on church grounds, singing songs, coloring Bible characters in workbooks, memorizing scripture, enjoying punch and cookies while learning biblical lessons.
For decades, vacation Bible schools have been a rite of passage for children in many households, which counted on the programs to provide religious instruction to their children and occupy them for a short time during the summer.
But five years ago, the leaders at All Saints’ decided to change the congregation’s vacation Bible school.
Members of the mostly white congregation noticed that attendance at its traditional programs was dwindling. They also noticed their the vacation Bible school did not reflect the cultural diversity of the community, which had become more and more African American and Hispanic. All Saints’ formed a partnership with another church, and together they took their lessons and activities to the suburban cul-de-sacs. They called the new program “Community VBS.”
We “wanted to break down all kinds of walls . . . whatever keeps people from Him,” Feldman said. “In going out into the community, we had the opportunity to reach people of different backgrounds who had never stepped inside a church. People from not just racial backgrounds, but from all backgrounds as well. That is what Community VBS is all about: No walls between God and his people.”
Now the program has expanded to include a half-dozen churches in Prince William County, including a predominantly African American church. Feldman said the program has not only increased attendance at vacation Bible school but has also helped enlarge the churches’ congregations.
Community VBS is part of an effort by some churches to collaborate and expand their work in nontraditional ways.
“The goal of vacation Bible schools is to be a bridge between the church and the community,” said Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of communications for the D.C. Baptist Convention and a member of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria. “There are lot of ways people are trying to reach outside the walls of the church, and VBS is a way to bring a lot of people together.”
Church leaders said the Prince William community Bible school has been so successful that they are expanding the range of venues. On Tuesday, sessions will be held at a homeless shelter in Woodbridge. The Prince William program is also sponsoring Bible schools at an orphanage in Jamaica and a village in Sudan.
Feldman said the program is drawing many participants from outside Community VBS churches. “This year, 300 of the 500 children who participated were not affiliated with any of the six churches involved,” she said.
Antonio Mason, a Community VBS leader from Reconciliation Community Church, said the attempt to foster diversity among churches is working. In a county that is now 20 percent Hispanic and 21 percent black, he said, it is important for everyone to embrace racial diversity, especially on Sundays and in church communities.
“Community VBS really brought people together from different races and religious backgrounds,” said Mason, who is African American. “We are supposed to go out and preach the word to people of all nations.”
Joyce West, who hosted an All Saints’ evening camp at her home outside Woodbridge, agreed. “In this society people are scared to go to different churches, but we live in a world where we are all different,” she said.
West, who is African American, said she joined the church about two years ago and never looked back. “Why can’t our church be like that and we not be afraid of another culture or other races?
The Community VSB is a highly organized operation. Feldman said church leaders split up the county, with programs taking place throughout the day. Last month, brigades of leaders drove to 36 sites, equipping Bible school teachers with snacks, booklets and other materials.
This year’s theme was based on 2 Timothy 1:7: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”
Students watch a video called “Colossal Coaster World,” in which children are taken on a virtual roller coaster ride that is intended to teach them about facing fear.
During her journey around the county, Feldman dropped by a vacation Bible school location in a residential complex known for drug and gang activity. Scott Reicher and his wife, Heidi, weren’t letting urban realities discourage them. Some children, black and white, played on a grassy patch across the street. Others sang songs in front of the Reichers door, while neighbors looked on from a distance.
“God calls us to be lights in the neighborhood,” Feldman said. “This is mission work.”