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Vacation Bible school for Unitarian Universalist kids?

By Michelle Richards

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Summer is here, and for many middle class families the annual quest for what to do to keep the kids occupied has already begun. Whether it is necessary child care while parents work or enrichment activities for children who are less likely to entertain themselves than previous generations were, there are many different camp options out there.

Local day camps can focus upon athletics, exploring nature, or just plain fun, and may be organized by a YMCA or other community organizations. Other day camps are religiously themed. Many churches offer Vacation Bible School (or VBS) day camp programs. Should a Unitarian Universalist parent enroll a child in a VBS?

While I am a firm believer in teaching Unitarian Universalist children the stories of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts, and I know several Unitarian Universalist parents who have sent their children to VBS programs to educate their children in this fashion, I believe a word of caution is in order.

Most VBS programs presented by Christian churches are carefully crafted and designed with the specific goal of bringing in un-churched families to worship Christ and are often couched in seemingly secular environmental or popular themes. A few years ago, a dinosaur-themed VBS was advertised in my area. Seeing the billboard, my son was eager to attend, but when I called to inquire about it, it turns out that this particular program presented the idea that humans lived at the same years as the dinosaurs! Had my outspoken 8-year-old son actually attended, I have no doubt that he would have likely caused a real problem when he told them in matter-of-fact terms that dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years—long before humans inhabited the earth.

The summer VBS program has become a big-budget industry in recent years. Churches pour lots of money into curricula and other resources, which are sold by Christian organizations to evangelize children who are unaffiliated with a congregation or strengthen children’s ties to the church they already attend. Sending Unitarian Universalist children to many of these evangelical programs could confuse children who are in a very critical stage of faith development that involves identifying with the particular qualities of what makes their religious tradition unique and special.

One alternative, of course, is sending your child to a Unitarian Universalist church sponsored VBS or some other weeklong camp presented by UUA affiliated organizations (such as RE Week at Star Island, MountainCamp at the Mountain, and many district or regionally planned family-oriented summer camp opportunities throughout the United States). More and more UU congregations are learning about the importance of offering summer camps for children and are developing their own programs or purchasing curricula (such as Chalice Camp, written by two Unitarian Universalist religious educators). These congregations have come to understand that through a summer program of their own, Unitarian Universalist children could develop deeper connections with one another, deeper understandings of themselves as Unitarian Universalists, and a greater capacity to be articulate about our faith. In a weeklong camp, children are also able to create relationships and to explore subject matter (such as oppression and anti-racism work) on a deeper level that is just not possible in a traditional weekly Sunday school model.

If no such program exists in your area, and you want to send them to a summer Bible program, it’s prudent to do some investigating to find a program that is compatible with your family’s world view. Or send your child off to a VBS program armed with the knowledge that many people believe in the truths presented by this program, even though we as Unitarian Universalists understand there are many truths out there.

Photograph above © Agnieszka Kirinicjanow/iStockphoto

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