The Fountain and Root Prairie vacation Bible school participants gather in the Celebration Tent.
The Fountain and Root Prairie vacation Bible school participants gather in the Celebration Tent.
When Charlie Brown of the "Peanuts" comic strip went back to school in the fall, his first assignment was to write a 50-word essay about "What I Did This Summer." He thought and thought, but could only come up with about five words: something like "I played with my dog."

Children in the area of the Fountain and Root Prairie Lutheran churches did not have the problem of having nothing to write about. Shortly before school started - in August when kids can get really bored with summer - 46 kids and youth from Fountain, Chatfield, Spring Valley, Lanesboro and Wykoff participated in a unique vacation Bible school experience titled "Babylon: Daniel's Courage in Captivity." For five nights (Aug. 12-16) from 5:30 to 8 p.m., the group gathered at the Fountain church where they joined "tribes" made up of children of similar ages, including a pre-school tribe with nine members.

A trip back in time

According to Geri Schmeckpeper-Hanson, co-director of the program, along with Rachel Glende and Louanne Hamann, the kids "traveled back into Bible times to learn about Daniel and his friends who were captives in a strange land. Each day kids became a part of history."

And each day they dressed up in costumes as they explored what it was like to live in ancient Babylon. The tribes were Benjamin, wearing the color purple, Gad in teal, Simeon in red, Reuben in orange and Judah in brown.

At first, wearing the costumes from Bible times was a challenge for some of the kids as they were "different" or "funny, like a dress." But everyone participated and wore their costumes all week, even getting to like them.

Everyone, the 46 children and 43 adult and teen volunteers, ate together, and went in their tribal groups to the marketplace, enjoyed doing crafts, and stopped into Daniel's place where they heard his story.

Another popular spot to visit was the Royal Animal Courtyard where they could ride a donkey, and the Palace Playground where they could use catapults and trebuchets. They could even visit the lions' den during feeding time. Of course the only way to get to the lions' den was through a tunnel aqueduct under the Hanging Gardens! And every evening the smaller tribes joined together for a large group celebration in the outdoor tent.

Relationships and perceptions made and changed

The main characters in the story of Daniel and the lions' den were played during the week by adults. And those adults said they loved the relationships they developed with the children. In addition to the time spent in tribe activities, they all went to celebration time together. One of the staff said he found himself singing the VBS songs the next week while he worked out in the fields.

The kids got to see another side of the two churches' minister, the Rev. Paul Forde. He played Daniel's sidekick, Ashpenaz; Daniel was played by Mark Kotteman. According to Schmeckpeper-Hanson, every day Forde made everyone laugh, showing up in goofy slippers and holding a stuffed lion he named "Fluffy" - because Forde woke up late. He came out of the fiery furnace with soot all over his face, and he jumped up on chairs squealing because he was afraid of the lions. That was quite a different image from the one they see on Sunday mornings.

The children obviously had a lot of fun while they learned, since everything was experiential: "not like school where we have to sit in class." All the places they visited in the marketplace, the stories that Daniel told them and what they saw, the Bible verses they learned, and the songs they sang and the dances they did, even the food they ate, were part of the learning experience.

Community resources garnered for the occasion

A lot of creativity was required for the physical layout, and most of the space, indoors and out, was in use for the week. But also a lot of community resources were made available.

The "sets" themselves were, according to Schmeckpeper-Hanson, "a combination of bought, built and borrowed!" Some were walls she had painted for last year's vacation Bible school; some were Lenten sets that were re-purposed. For example, Joseph's jail became the lions' den. Some new walls were constructed for this year, and a backdrop curtain was purchased for the celebration tent, which was used when the entire group was meeting together. The party tent used for that had been donated by Chad and Jami Wangen.

Marion Church of Christ had used the same theme for its vacation Bible school just a week earlier, and that "celebration set" was donated for re-use in Fountain. It also was a result of local creativity: it was made of refrigerator boxes painted to look like a version of Ishtar's Gate in Babylon. And when Fountain was finished with them, "those boxes moved on to yet another home as harvest backdrops."

An ambitious production always brings challenges

"The mixed weather had us moving those boxes, signs and plants in and out of the church!" said Schmeckpeper-Hanson. On nice evenings, the celebration time was out in the tent. That meant hauling the set outside and then taking it down due to the wind. Then, "Oops! It is raining...haul the set into the sanctuary. Now it's nice again, haul it back out again! But a couple of adults were up for the challenge and made sure it was perfect every day."

Due to the seemingly elaborate staging, paying for it could have been a challenge. But the donated resources and people's generous time commitments helped to overcome any financial concerns.

Also an experience in giving for the children

The experience was free for any children interested in attending, and the kids could bring a "loose-change" free-will offering each day. But that offering went to the Evangelical Lutheran Church's Malaria Campaign to purchase mosquito nets for people in Africa to help prevent malaria. Each $10 donated would purchase one net; each day their offering numbers went up and more nets were purchased.

The hope was that by the end of the week, enough would have been collected to buy one net in each child's name. At the closing celebration, Schmeckpeper-Hanson asked one child to stand up for every net they were able to buy. Not only did every one of the children stand up, but some adults stood too, because sixty nets had been purchased with the collection of $598 during the week.

"Many families in Africa can share a net, so many more than 60 people can now fight malaria because of these kids' efforts," she added.

Charlie Brown may have had a boring summer. But, given this experience and thanks to Fountain and Root Prairie Lutheran Churches, 46 area children had plenty to tell about what they did during the summer, not just fun but learning too