Nearly 1,000 children wiggled and giggled and tried their best to contain themselves Sunday morning as they crowded under the cross at Spokane Christian Center.
After singing a song, talking about God and being admonished at least 100 times, “Don’t open your presents yet,” the children tore into their gifts.
Many in the congregation looked on through tears as every child opened a new toy.
These were not the children of the church members. Nor were they the children who attend the church’s private school.
They were children of Spokane. Their connection to the people in the pews was tenuous at best.
Every Saturday, 14 buses fan out in the city and Spokane Valley, picking up kids ages 3 to 15 and delivering them to the Bigelow Gulch Road church.
Once there, they spend an hour each week learning about God and Jesus. For many, “Saturday Sunday School” is their only connection to church.
“We think every child ought to have God in their lives,” said Linda Sharkey, a pastor at the church and director of the program, started several years ago.
“Most of these children are not going to church because their parents don’t have cars or are too busy.”
Many of the enrolled children are low-income, she said.
“I would come to church more often if I had the money for gas,” said Linda Clift, who was on hand Sunday to watch her three children open presents. “But it’s important to me that they learn this stuff, about God and the Bible.”
Clift’s children, 9-year-old Jesse, 8-year-old Robert and 6-year-old Sara, have been going to the weekly school for several months.
“I’ve seen some difference in the way they act,” she said, noting that they are nice to each other.
Linda Norton’s daughter, Monica, 10, gets picked up at her mobile home in Mead. Normally shy and insecure, Monica has learned to participate in activities with other children and make friends, her mother said.
“She’s learned that God cares, and that prayer is always there for her,” Norton said. “There’s no down-time for God and praying.”
Most of the children went home Sunday with new basketballs, Barbies or similar toys. The presents, each worth at least $10, were donated by members of the congregation and area businesses.
Several dozen children were selected to receive special gifts - neon-colored skateboards or BMX bicycles and helmets.
Volunteer bus drivers, who get to know the children and their living conditions well, selected the children to receive the special gifts.
“We were looking for kids who we could bless in a special way,” said Cheryl Gade, assistant director of the school.
Nine-year-old James Smith faithfully rounds up other children in his Liberty Park apartment complex every Saturday. His bike was stolen several weeks ago, so bus driver Michelle Nolette picked him for a special present.
Steven Brown, 14, has been coming to Saturday Sunday School for years.
Last month, his mother died. He and his brother now live at the Hutton Settlement, but they still attend every week.
“It’s really cool here because they really care,” Steven said.
No one at the church talked about the enormous effort it takes to organize volunteer teachers, aides and bus drivers every week. No one complained about the hours spent wrapping presents.
As Sunday’s service dissolved into piles of crumpled gift wrap, bouncing balls and gleeful squeals, Pastor Rick Sharkey announced one rule: “No skateboarding in the sanctuary.”
Earlier in the service, he preached about the meaning of Christmas.
“There are so many things revolving around church life that have nothing to do with joy and gladness,” he said. “They have a lot to do with business - but no joy, no gladness. That’s not what God wants.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo