HOUSTON, TX – There’s a great TV commercial that runs every August. A mother with an insane smile on her face rides a shopping cart up and down the aisles of a Staples store, tossing school supplies into her basket. Meanwhile her kids stare at her, not understanding what she’s doing or why she’s so happy. The background music? It’s the Most Wonderful time of the Year – the Christmas carol made famous by Andy Williams.
What has driven this mother – or Staples’ marketing people – to such a level of glee at the prospect of children returning to school? Trust me, their motives are not noble. This commercial satirizes what many parents think but are ashamed to articulate. It’s been a long, hot summer. And my kids have driven me crazy. For over two endless months, it has been a cacophony of “I’m bored.” “There’s nothing to do.” “He’s looking at me!”
So how do we spend quality time with our children without losing our minds? Well, before they are old enough to get jobs, we have to be creative. And, thank God, there are angels among us who are inspired to be just that. They are called Vacation Bible School coordinators, specifically Irene Cassis and Susie Sobchak. Irene has directed the program at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston since the 1980s, when she became Director of Religious Education, though the program is older than that. Susie Sobchak, of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, got involved in her church’s Vacation Church School (VCS) program in 1998, but St. George was already collaborating with Annunciation.
Vacation Bible School (VBS) is designed for children between four and twelve, and runs for three hours a day for a week. Its purpose is not to give harried mothers spa time. It is another opportunity for the Church to teach children the Bible and their Orthodox Faith. According to Susie, “The cross jurisdiction partnership of our churches makes the program the success it has been and also I feel one of the most wonderful messages that we can send to our young people. We are truly one church. It doesn’t matter what our ethnic background may be, we work together for God for our One True Orthodox Church.”
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Irene and Susie use a Protestant, Bible-based VBS program by Group Publishing as a foundation. “We go through the program and look for opportunitiesto incorporate Orthodox traditions, sacraments and teachings whenever possible. For example, when the Bible verse is about forgiveness, we add confession. We also add appropriate hymns along with the Christian Songs.” Irene describes, “When we have a special feast day, we begin the program attending the Divine Liturgy. The kids participate by singing the hymns and one of the teen leaders reads the epistle. Afterwards we go into the main area where the main character (i.e. Moses), dressed in O.T. times, tells the story of that feast or saint. Then the kids return to their tribes to discuss what they heard.”
Even the Group Publishing themes have evolved over time. “They are now producing the Holy Land series that is really Old Testament Bible-based and easy to connect to our Orthodox Faith. The Holy Land series is set up like a marketplace, with different scriptural themes. Singing, drama, games, crafts, and charity are experienced daily in small group settings with teen and adult leaders.” Group Publishing even provides training for volunteer leaders, about 50 teens and 25 parents from both church communities, who return each year because they have fun while they are doing important work for the Church and their families.
The program alternates between the two churches as hosts. This year it was held at St. George’s in June. But the work for each year’s program begins in January. “Susie Sobchak and I work diligently to surpass the previous year’s program. We average 200 participants, and I would say that they have fun while getting a great learning experience. The children do not understand why it is only offered one week. Every church in the south, Protestant and Orthodox, offers Vacation Bible School,but many are formatted like regular school in the classrooms. Susie and I chose the Protestant program because it is not like school. There is more interaction, moving, singing, and doing. The kids have fun and learn a lot during the week because it is interactive. From what Susie and I have seen, each summer we offer the most elaborate VBS. Kids continue to return and bring their friends, teens love their roles as leaders of small tribes, and adults, usually parents, want to help us as shopkeepers, actors of Biblical characters, and creative snack preparers.”
The kids who attend Vacation Bible School at Annunciation and St. George’s spend a week in June learning and living their faith. So what do they do for the rest of the summer? Do they complain? Possibly. But now, when they whine, “Are we there yet?” they are anxious to get back to church.