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Youth leading Vacation Bible School in West Central Spokane step out of their comfort zones

By Virginia de Leon

For a week in August, young people from throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane will share in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church’s outreach to neighbors in West Central Spokane.

They are coming to teach a vacation Bible school (VBS) for children to experience faith, fun and fellowship.

vacation Bible school
Child enjoys hopscotch at a past vacation Bible school.

While the focus is to involve West Central children, children from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist will also attend.

The VBS will be an opportunity for high school students from Spokane, Walla Walla, Omak, Pullman and other cities to step out of their comfort zones.  They will develop leadership skills and deepen their faith, while spending time with children and serving one of the poorest neighborhoods in the area, said Michelle Klippert, the officer of youth ministries for the diocese and the coordinator of children and youth ministries at the cathedral.

“Children and young adults gain much from the experience,” she said. “They realize they have gifts to give and that helps with their self-esteem.”

Organizers want to communicate to the children that God loves them and is with them at all times.

Every year, churches throughout the region offer VBS to children, not only for those who belong to their congregations but also for neighborhood children who may not go to church.

The tradition began in 1898, when Eliza Hawes rented a beer hall in New York City to teach poor children about the Bible. Now, an estimated 3 million children nationwide attend vacation Bible schools every year. 

In the Inland Northwest, the programs are typically held for half days for four or five days, often in the morning, but sometimes in the evening after dinner.

Some area churches will offer a vacation Bible school in June, right after the school year ends.  Others wait until after the July 4 holiday.

The VBS at Holy Trinity, at 1832 W. Dean, is a joint effort of several diocesan churches during the first week of August.

Although the 114-year-old church has offered vacation Bible schools in the past, this is the first time the effort will include young people from the diocese. 

“It’s a week of community service, engaging the young people with a reality that isn’t their own,” said the Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, vicar of Holy Trinity since 2007.  “Middle class assumptions about effective parenting may be set aside when survival is the priority.”

“Parents and grandparents of many West Central children hold down two to three jobs to pay the bills and have limited time with them. It’s hard to raise children in poverty,” said Paul.

Most of the children don’t attend Holy Trinity or any church. Only a few have a religious background.

In addition to talking about faith with these children, Paul, Michelle and others hope to show their faith through action. They want to make sure the neighborhood children are fed a healthful breakfast and later are accompanied to Holmes Elementary for the free lunch program.

They want to show the children someone cares about them by offering fun, educational activities and surrounding them with young adults who know the children’s names and ask about their lives.

The high school students who will lead the VBS represent about 10 of the 41 churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.

During the week, they will stay at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist’s youth center and community room, commuting to West Central each morning to work with preschoolers through third graders.

In the afternoons, the high school students will volunteer at a free art camp at the cathedral for children 10 years and older.

This VBS will serve as a model for future programs involving the Spokane Diocese and the Episcopal Mission Exchange, a nationwide program designed to match parishes and dioceses with mission opportunities.

Michelle hopes other teams from throughout the country eventually will travel to Spokane and do service work in West Central, where many live below the poverty level.

Funding for the VBS at Holy Trinity comes from several cathedral guilds and individuals in the area.  Julia Bertaut, a graduate of Swarthmore College, who served as an intern this year at the diocese, designed the curriculum.

“In terms of faith content, we focus on the big stories of who God is and who Jesus is and try to help the children connect their own experience of chaos and wonderment with the big story,” said Paul. “We will consider such questions as, Who is Jesus for you? How have you been broken and healed? How have you been lost and found?”

In the past, about 25 to 40 children aged six to 10 years have attended VBS at Holy Trinity. This year, organizers expect more because of relationships developed between people at the church and its neighbors.

For the past year, Holy Trinity has reached out to people in West Central.

On Wednesday evenings since January, the church has hosted a gathering they call “Dinner Table,” which provides a family-style meal for children and adults in the neighborhood.

Last fall, the church offered the meal every other Wednesday but decided to make it a weekly event this year.

About 75 to 100 people show up for fellowship and a free dinner, served by volunteers from Holy Trinity, St. Stephen’s and St. David’s Episcopal churches.

Some of the regular diners now plan to help with the community garden, which will provide some of the produce that will be served during the meals.

 “We’ve reached a new level of trust,” said Paul.

Holy Trinity’s other community building efforts include knocking on people’s doors to invite them to movies at the church; plans to develop affordable housing; strengthening connections with organizations such as Feed Spokane, Project HOPE, Our Place and others in the area that serve the poor and marginalized.

This summer’s vacation Bible school is an effort to help transform the neighborhood by sharing in the lives of its youth, helping them learn and grow, said Michelle.

“The best thing about it is that children come into a group of people who show God’s love,” she said. “It means something to be cared for and to see people who are happy to see you.

For information, call 326-6471.