I Love A Parade
Sirens usually signal something gone awry, but back in the sixties and if it was June, chances are it was a Vacation Bible School parade. I can’t speak for other denominations, but my Southern Baptist church got the police and the firemen involved. Those two civic entities and their official vehicles would lead the way, Bible school teachers and other church folk following in cars and trucks, honking horns, balloons and crepe paper streaming from all radio antennas. White poster board was taped on the car doors with “First Baptist Church Vacation Bible School” in bold black scribbles. A local politician’s car top loudspeaker would be enlisted. Ear piercing proclamations of “Come to Vacation Bible School!” commenced. That would mark the beginning of two weeks of diligent Bible study, soul saving, and the making of toothpick, ice cream stick and macaroni crafts gaudier than anything Stucky’s ever thought of selling.
Back in those days, we didn’t have themes. At least I don’t remember any. No African safaris or treks in space were needed to find God. In the past, VBS was the place to be...at least for the first week. My enthusiasm usually waned after the first weekend.
The beginning week I saw children I had never seen before and never saw after. My hometown was small and I thought I knew everybody. Seems the church took proselytizing seriously, rounding up kids like a dogcatcher with a quota for the pound. Carpools were organized, newly acquired church buses run. Hilltop Acres, the town’s low-rent housing was ripe for the harvest. Not only did we help those without Jesus and a church home, but we always “saved” a few Methodists during the two weeks and once in a while, we snagged a Catholic.
My class met in a meager white classroom. You didn’t find many pictures of Jesus in a Baptist church and this one was no exception. Pictures of the Savior were considered pagan symbols. Furniture consisted of an ancient upright piano and hardwood pews, reclaimed renovation leftovers for the youth Sunday School. The classroom smelled of musty Broadman Hymnals and old Bibles stacked on ramshackled tables, the Good Books ready for draw in an impromptu round of “Sword Drill.”
“Attention...draw swords. Leviticus 24:2.”
The first to skillfully find and read the verse won the round. A bell signaled morning assembly and the procession into the sanctuary. The piano and organ played.
“Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus...”
The American flag came down one red carpet, the Christian on the other, then the Bible. The bearers of the holy symbols could have been Marines but were really the more mature dependable attendees. Sometimes, if there was an older problem child, the privilege was used as barter for good behavior. We filed in age appropriate classes. Small tots came in last, the older children pointing and laughing at the antics of the little ones. As younger sisters and brothers saw family and friends, waves and tricks good enough for Barnum and Bailey ensued. We pledged allegiance to both flags and the Holy Bible.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...”
“I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands...”
“I pledge allegiance to the Bible God's Holy word, and will take it as a lamp unto my feet...”
We noisily fell into theatre seats...plop, thump. A renovation had replaced the traditional pews. The River Jordan, looking like a dime store painting, vicariously flowed through the baptistery plaster behind the choir loft. A Bible verse was served up daily for memorization. After announcements and such, the preacher would “talk.” Our preacher was not known for his brevity. Being stuck stateside was not his choice. Due to his son’s illness he had to abandon his dream of returning to South America for mission work. First Baptist Church had “called” him to serve as its pastor and he answered. Long-winded sermons were his forte and he never let the opportunity to unleash the Holy Spirit go by. After what seemed an eternity, he would wind down. Halleluiah! But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal. He would then offer an invitation to become a Christian and ask us to pray. His post sermon invitations were legendary; “One more stanza,” his mantra. Those June mornings he put us in the mindset.
“Every head bowed and every eye closed. We have all sinned and need redemption. Raise your hand if you know you have sinned. Raise your hand if you want to know Jesus as your personal Savior and receive the Holy Spirit today.”
I had been baptized years earlier. Had it not taken? The way he worded things...I still felt lost, as if my total immersion was just a trial run. Those soul-seeking prayers made me question my salvation.
“Yes, I see you...yes, yes, there’s another.”
I knew most of those kids...they had all been baptized. Was I missing out on something? Preacher had said that if you ignored the call enough times, the Spirit would pass you by. Was the Holy Spirit giving up on me? Some said the devil could impersonate. Had I answered the wrong spirit? I prayed that I not be passed over while trying to save face. If I raised my hand someone would see and think I had done something terribly wrong! All those wiggly kids...squirming, giggling...which ones were asking for prayer? More than once I peeked with one squinched eye to reveal just who was bold enough to raise their hand. That act alone should have sent me to hell on the spot.
Directly after the gut-wrenching soul saving, came red punch and cookies. There was nothing here to calm the savage beast...only sugar and red dye #2. As if there wasn’t enough ADD running rampant, the refreshments filled the gaps. Most of the time there were butter cookies...you know the kind...holes supplied in the middle so goofy boys could ring several on each greedy finger. Sometimes there were graham crackers, sugar wafers with crème or assorted cookies from the cheap mega-sacks found at the grocery. Filled with chemical additives and sugar, the youngster boys, all future juvenile delinquents, ran amuck, chasing each other, knocking down helpless children in their path. Someone would invariably vomit for added entertainment.
What would Vacation Bible School be without tacky crafts? What would cover refrigerator doors or fill memory boxes? I can still smell the intoxicating odor of rubber cement; see the stretchy “boogers” rolled between grimy fingers. In the sixties there were no Hobby Lobbys with special departments for VBS supplies...no Oriental Trading Company to order from on the Internet. In a town the size of my South Arkansas community, we only had a Gibson’s and a Ben Franklin ten-cent store. Requests for craft items were posted in the church bulletin. Households saved egg and milk cartons, yarn, pinecones, fabric scraps, and one year empty bleach bottles...yes, bleach bottles. What idiot thought that up and more importantly, what stupid mother didn’t rinse the bottle out? That poor girl from Hilltop Acres...as if being poor, plump, greasy-haired and pimply wasn’t enough for her to handle, she got the bottle with the residual bleach. What were we making? Oh yes... kitschy piggy banks were the craft item de jour. She had worn a dark navy skirt and blouse, dressier than clothes needed to be for VBS. Nonetheless, there the evidence was...big colorless splotches on her best clothes.
“My mama’s goin’ to beat me!” she pitifully exclaimed.
The helping ladies didn’t know what to do or say. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach and worried endlessly for days about that poor girl’s plight. Did she really get a beating? Had her family scrimped and saved for that outfit only to have it ruined by clueless Baptists?
That same summer we had a freshly hired a cute youth minister; he made my twelve-year old body swoon. His Baptist college didn’t allow Pan-Hellenic organizations, calling them social clubs instead. His club was such a group, consisting mostly of clergy wannabees. That year some insightful church member arranged for wooden study boards to be cut. Each of us could design any tasteful decoration we wanted on our own board. Proud of his brotherhood, the youth minister carefully painted his club crest. Much to his chagrin, a plethora of poorly copied renditions appeared. Adolescent boys are seldom original.
Every time I hear honking cars I think of those hot summer days at First Baptist Church. In my head I sing out, “Come to Vacation Bible School!” I mentally eat butter cookies and drink red punch. I envision rubber cement boogers and clothes ruined with bleach. Modern thinking has influenced today’s Bible school. At the longest, the festivities last a week...most only a few days, leaving summer weeks available for cheerleading, dance, tumbling, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, computer, and scout camps. Prepackaged kits are available online and at craft stores with themes of fiestas, outer space, safaris, and hypothetical trips to the Holy Land, all with a spiritual twist. Perhaps celery and carrot sticks along with apple slices, grapes and whole-wheat pita bread are served with bottled water. I haven’t seen a VBS parade in decades. They are probably not politically correct, but if they exist, they might use hybrid cars or bicycles sans bird-killing balloons decorated with eco-friendly crepe paper.
Nita Risher McGlawn
Nita is a freelance writer and visual artist living in Katy, TX. Her most recent published work was in the University of Alabama Alumni Magazine. The piece, “Born to Be Bama Bound,” chronicles how she came to attend the University of Alabama during its glory years of the early 1970’s, even though she grew up in South Arkansas.
Prior to that publishing, Nita’s two Louisiana poems, “New Orleans Ambience” and “It’s Called Acadiana” were written. The poems describe two distinct cultures in South Louisiana. Her “Mardi Gras Madness” is a companion piece to compliment both poems.
Soon to be published, “A Bama Primer,” takes a whimsical tour of the University of Alabama. Children, university students, and die-hard fans will enjoy the alphabetical journey with landmarks, famous Bama folk, and trivia represented. Verse and graphics are original work by Nita.
In addition, Nita is working on her memoir as an expatriate in Indonesia and Oman. She has a plethora of poignant and hysterical accounts of life abroad. Another children’s book, “Butch, the Traveling Expat Cat” is in the works as well.
Visit www.nitamcglawn.com to view some of Nita’s original artwork.