Some Southerners like to joke that there's a church on every corner in the Bible Belt. When I first moved to the South, I finally understood that saying – you couldn't walk more than a mile without seeing a church in my transplant town of Franklin, Tennessee. Those churches were especially noticeable around the same time each year – just as kids were leaving school to pursue the freedom of summer. Like clockwork: vinyl signs with flashy logos popped up on every church lawn. And, true to form, our region is once again dotted with colorful signs. It's Vacation Bible School time, y'all!
VBS (that's how we abbreviate it) is a Southern rite of passage. As a kid, I spent many summers in the mountains of Canton, North Carolina reciting Bible verses, building Noah's Ark out of popsicle sticks, and watching Veggie Tales next to a paper cup of Kool-Aid (sorry, Mom!). My Grandma Margaret – who was raised in those same Smoky Mountains – told me that Vacation Bible School played an important part of her childhood. She would go to VBS for two weeks at a time. That's right, two weeks of VBS bliss (for moms and dads, of course). I loved skipping around to a new Vacation Bible School each week and starting my summer days off with the WOW Hits 1999 soundtrack.
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One summer when I was in high school, I volunteered at VBS. I wanted to bring my beloved summer experience to others, and enrich the lives of kids, (and I needed volunteer hours to graduate). It was only then, as I looked behind the curtain, that I realized just how many cups of coffee these moms need to get something as absolutely chaotic as a week of VBS off the ground. Construction paper flying everywhere. Dozens of styrofoam cups lined up in preparation for snack time. Countless Bible lessons to learn and skits to memorize. And, to top it all off, there were 200 kids in tie-dyed shirts and macaroni necklaces to wrangle.
In honor of one of the craziest and most rewarding parts of my childhood, I've pulled together a list of some things that I learned from Vacation Bible School.
1. One can survive on Kool-Aid and sandwich cookies alone.
As a kid, snack time was my absolute favorite time of any group gathering. Anyone else? I'm not sure where the trend of sandwich cookies and Kool-Aid came from, but every VBS I've ever been to has given me a paper or styrofoam cup with red Kool-Aid. It's the sticky-sweet summer drink of choice that runs through the veins of all VBS kids. I've never had so much energy as I did when running around with a red-stained Kool-Aid mouth. And, of course, there's always a napkin with a sandwich cookie – for me, vanilla – waiting to be demolished around 10AM.
2. You must embrace the daily theme.
Chances are that you've been to a VBS that has either a color or theme of the day, and you are expected to dress accordingly. I have thoroughly rocked Pajama Day at every camp I've been too. I was quite partial to Wacky Hair Day, and I happily embraced twisting my hair up into Pippy Longstocking braids with pipe cleaners. Dressing up is one of the best parts of Vacation Bible School.
3. Daily themes aside, that weekly VBS theme becomes your passion project.
There are some hilarious and incredibly thoughtful Vacation Bible School themes that Southern churches deserve credit for. My group leaders always found a way to make memorizing Bible verses and writing out prayer requests memorable with the help of these clever ideas. Here are some VBS themes that deserve recognition for their masterful creativity (and clever puns):
Hero Central: Discover Your Strength In God
Over The Moat: Drawbridge To The King
Barnyard Roundup: Jesus Gathers Us Together
Pets Unleashed: Where Jesus Cares 'Fur' You
and, my favorite – Camp Out: Getting S'more Out Of Jesus.
4. Mastering the hand motions to the VBS theme song is the best feeling–ever.
I was a very energetic child, so it likely does not come as a shock that I volunteered for everything. Getting up on stage (because there's ALWAYS a stage) and singing, dancing, and motioning to that week's theme song was my specialty. I would practice the hand motions to "Our God Is An Awesome God" for, literally, the entire duration of camp. This was before you could just look something up on YouTube and practice at home. And, it all paid off on the last day of VBS when I could show off my skills in front of all the campers.
5. There's nothing wrong with a side pony and scrunchie.
Side ponytails are honestly the most playful and underrated hairstyle that summer brings (or, so I thought in the 90's). Their practicality deserves much more credit than it gets. Having a side ponytail at VBS proved to everyone that you were super down-to-earth and ready to volunteer to do hand motions on stage. I usually had a large scrunchie keeping my hair up, and that scrunchie matched my outfit.
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6. T-shirts are made to be tied to one side.
The cool kids wore the tied-off-to-the-side shirts. Naturally, I started tying off my shirts too. I'd always pick a shirt that was a little larger than necessary so there was ample room to bunch up the fabric on one side. I'd pick the flashiest hair elastic I could find, and it had to match my scrunchie or curly shoe laces. Unfortunately, my fashion sense has only gone downhill from here.
7. You can pull off a funny skit that also has a great moral.
This is a specialty of VBS kids everywhere. They would break us into teams, pair us with a camp counselor, and give us 15 minutes to prep a hilarious skit that also told an accurate Bible story with limited props. I think this is where my creativity and love of writing really started to blossom. That being said, my role in these skits was usually some kind of animal who recited Bible verses. No, really – I have been a dairy cow multiple times.
8. Tie-dying is required.
As my clothing donation pile taught me, Vacation Bible School meticulously hones the skills of tie-dyers. Tie-dying is an art form that I looked forward to every July. From what I've seen, most kids coming from VBS could create the perfect spiral of rainbow colors on their T-shirt or pillowcase without stained hands or that muddy brown color that happens when dye runs together. And, when you forget to bring your item of clothing on tie-dye day – which has happened a summer or two in my experience – there are always spare white socks that let you join in the activity. I've tie-dyed shirts, pillowcases, socks, soccer socks, and towels.
9. There WILL be a 'Water Day', so you can't be afraid of wet sponges.
We would likely all agree that the safest place for kids to be during a hot, Southern summer is inside an air-conditioned sanctuary. However, there was always one day of VBS that brought us outside – right before parent pick-up, of course – to be drenched in remarkably cold water. I waited nervously every camp week for the infamous 'Water Day', where we would be corralled outside with at least fifty other kids and armed with water balloons, squirt guns, pool noodles, and super-soaker balls. It was survival of the fittest. There would always be a few girls who would sit on their towels in the sun, pleading with the boys to not hit them with wet sponges, but they were inevitably drenched. I found, early on, that it was much easier for me to embrace the idea of having water balloons pop on my back if I prepared myself mentally. So, I was the one slip-and-slidin' my way through the relay race in my cut-off overalls and damp T-shirt.
10. The end-of-VBS party is the highlight of the summer.
I would like to personally thank all of the moms, youth leaders, camp counselors, and team members that spent their afternoons decking out the church sanctuary with streamers, filling up styrofoam cups for snack time, and purchasing prizes for the last day of VBS. I would look forward to the last day of VBS from the first day, on – and, not because I'd want it to end. On the last day of Vacation Bible School, every camper is so exhausted that they're running on Kool-Aid-fueled adrenaline and screaming out the lyrics to "Jesus Freak" by DC Talk. The last day of VBS, of every VBS, is the most exhilarating summer party I've ever been to. Plus, at the end of VBS, you could beg your mom to let you a have a sleepover every single night with your new VBS gal pals.