By Jeff Brumley and Olivia Williams
Two Waco, Texas, Baptist congregations learned firsthand this summer that vacation Bible school can be a catalyst for bringing down cultural and racial barriers in a community.
That lesson puts them in the company of other churches around the country who have seen their VBS program become tools also for healing divisions within their own congregations.
“Sunday is the most segregated day in America,” said Amos Humphries, the senior pastor at Park Lake Drive Baptist Church. “We are so concerned with promoting our own agendas, we forget that we work for the same Guy,” Humphries said. A shared commitment to ministering to other people can bring churches together, he said.
‘It was … very profound’
These and other lessons have been learned by Baptist and other churches around the country — often with surprise that VBS can be a powerful agent of transformation in ministry.
“We always think of VBS in terms of children rather than in terms of adult community,” said Jason Coker, the pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn.
“But … if you go to all the pre-planning meetings needed to get to that week, you have gotten to know a lot of people in a deeper kind of way,” he said.
The events themselves can deepen relationships across communities, Coker said.
One instance of that came in 2013 when youth from South Main Baptist Church in Houston visited Shaw, Miss., to lead a VBS program for several local churches. The program was credited with helping break down barriers between racially separated churches in Shaw.
Coker, a native of the Mississippi delta town, helps direct visiting churches and other ministries to the area through Delta Hands of Hope, a ministry that helps school-age children in the region.
“When you are doing that with multiple churches, that can be a much more enriching experience,” he said.
Coker saw something just as rewarding occur at his church this summer, when a young group from North Carolina came to lead VBS.
“This was another example of North Carolina and Connecticut coming together,” he said. “It was something very profound for the college students and for the children.”
Even just the readiness to take on a joint VBS program is a sign that the churches involved are mature in their relationship, said Scott Dickison, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga.
Dickison’s congregation and nearby First Baptist Church recently signed a covenant of action through the New Baptist Covenant. The two congregations already have identified a major ministry focus, which includes working with children, family and staff in local schools.
Dickison said he hopes they’ll also be able to jointly host a VBS program in the near future. That’s because it shows the churches involved have moved past being territorial about roles and responsibilities.
“Anytime we can work against that mentality, it’s a good thing,” Dickison said. “If churches can do that around something as importand and as big as VBS, I think that’s really impressive.”
The experience in Waco has been considered impressive by some.
Last year after VBS, Humphries at Park Lake Drive Baptist Church challenged his staff to think outside the box for ways to minister to the community and to promote unity between churches in Waco. The congregation decided to partner with a black church for this year’s VBS.
While searching for a partner church, Children’s Minister Lori Moore met Lynell Snow, the wife of Pastor James Snow at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.
“They immediately saw the bigger picture and were on board,” Humphries said.
The VBS, themed “Safari Adventure,” took place at the Greater Shiloh campus, and members of both churches volunteered to lead children in activities.
“It was amazing. We shared Bible stories and through stories, music, crafts, games and prayer, we had a huge success in outpouring of love,” Moore said. “Their church is small, but it was filled to capacity with believers and love.”
Because barriers between churches of different ethnicities still exist, it’s important to keep an open mind regarding unfamiliar worship and preaching styles, said Robert Johnson, associate pastor of Greater Shiloh.
“It’s not just white or black. When we get to heaven, we’re all going to be there,” Johnson said. “If churches come together, it challenges the both of us. I believe in different, and I serve a living God who doesn’t do things the same every time. We decided for the greater good to come together.”
The timing couldn’t be more fitting. During the week of VBS, tragedy struck the nation when a gunman opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, killing the pastor and eight church members.
The partnership between Park Lake Drive and Greater Shiloh not only benefitted the children who attended VBS, but also reminded the community that the bond between Christians transcends race and is crucial to maintaining harmony between cultures.
“In light of Charleston and the racial unrest this past year has revealed, I feel an urgency to get on board with this ancient concept of unity and love,” Humphries said.
Planning for the future
The fellowship between the two churches did not end at VBS. Both congregations met together at Cameron Park in Waco for a July 4 celebration.
“I love those people as if they were lifelong members of my own church,” Humphries said. “We have a common experience of living in the same community, and the love that is shared because of our faith creates a brotherhood that is easy to embrace.”
To further embrace the sense of community and fellowship of churches, both Park Lake and Greater Shiloh plan to connect with a Hispanic church as well.
And even though it may be challenging, the prospect of a growing partnership is exciting, Johnson said.
“I think it was a success,” Johnson said. “All parties were active and accountable, and everybody did their part. I was impressed with the effort, the love and the commitment. God was in it.”
— Olivia Williams is a Baylor University student serving as an intern currently with the Baptist Standard.