When I began my ministry at ABC in 1972, the family and I arrived in Altadena one afternoon in July, after our 3,000-mile trip west. We were welcomed by Church Secretary Nita Stankey, and she informed us that Youth Pastor Mike Guerrero was in a poolside VBS planning meeting with some of the college-age young people. We went to the address she gave us, and there they were, kicking back on patio chairs, in bathing suits and thongs, doing some serious Southern California planning. That was when it struck me for real that I wasn’t in New England any more.
It also made clear to me that ABC was serious about working with kids through VBS. I found myself immediately at the center of a whirlwind of activity, helping with planning the program, recruiting volunteers, praying, partying and more planning. And every year since then, it’s happened at this church; the energy level, surprisingly, seems to peak for that week in the middle of summer. The leadership group has changed over and over, and yet the level of commitment and enthusiasm is always there. It amazes me.
This year was no different. We enrolled 65 children, kindergarten through grade 8, and led them in organized worship, Bible study, crafts, recreation and world outreach education. Believe it or not, it took 55 volunteers, adults and young people to pull it off. Think of it, that’s close to a one-to-one staff/student ratio.
You can read more facts and figures below, but I want to point out one thing I observed this year which had never occurred to me before. I could feel it in the staff planning session Saturday, and then it really became obvious on the first day when the kids arrived. ABC’s VBS is like a small, temporary society, with its own culture, law-and-order and well-organized infrastructure. Everyone seems to understand his/her role, strong personalities give way to the values and expectations of the group, and the program appears to move forward with a life of its own. Each child appears to feel secure and nurtured, even those who may at first seem isolated. By the end of the week, each staff member looks entirely worn out, but also very fulfilled and satisfied. The staff cleanup Friday afternoon, in preparation for the evening’s closing program, showed as much enthusiasm and dedication as the first day’s activities had. I heard several staff members thanking and congratulating each other, and I heard not one harsh word or complaint.
As I was thinking about this mini-society created for one special week, my mind kept flipping to an old memory, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. Suddenly, the image came to me of the cover of the book I read in my college literature course, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954). For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s the setting and plot. It’s wartime, and a plane evacuating a group of boys from private schools and a boys’ choir crashes on a remote Pacific island. All the adults are killed in the tragedy, and the boys, the oldest of which are young teens, have to try to survive. They realize they must organize, and a couple of natural leaders emerge. They try to shape a mini-society. They discover some food sources – fruit trees and a herd of wild pigs —, so they seem to make a hopeful beginning. However, petty jealousies and power struggles soon emerge, and this escalates to the point where there are two tribes. Gradually, the idea emerges that there must be another force on the island. This notion crystallizes into a belief in the Beast, a threatening being who lives in the caves in a hilly area. In an attempt to solidify his influence, the leader of one tribe takes the head of one of the wild pigs they had killed, pokes a stick into it, holds it up and proclaims that it is the Beast. He sacrifices to it and worships it as “Lord of the Flies” (since scavenging flies were all around it). The struggle between the tribes becomes so dark that two of the boys are savagely killed by the others. Remember, these are young teens.
You may be wondering what kind of a strange mind would wander from innocent kids at VBS to boys turned into savages who kill each other. Answer: mine.
Two societies of children are shaped by their circumstances, and the outcomes are radically different. What made the difference? My first thought was that it was the presence of a number of stabilizing adults at VBS, and that was certainly very important. But ultimately, I realized that the difference was God. He was acknowledged as the center of and the reason for the mini-society we were forming. From the very first session, Director Robo Rob taught the kids to shout “WOW, GOD!” And they did it several times a day, all week long. When a group of children are taught to approach life with a “WOW, GOD!” attitude, there’s no room for them to think of petty squabbling, an imaginary Beast or other dark thoughts within them.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
VBS 2017: A Solid Success!
- Number of children enrolled: 66
- Staff: 50 plus (including setup and cleanup crews, more than 65 were involved as volunteers)
- Key Planners and Leaders: Jill Zobrist, Rob and Lori Ottaviano, Loren Roberts, Sarah Fiala, Chris Vogel, Pastor Connie
- Mission Offering, designated to help Lynette Young organize a VBS in her church in Uruguay – $420.71