Five-year-old Kara Mitchell can’t stop singing the Jesus songs or chattering about the Bible stories she’s learned this week.
The culprit is the Redeemer Lutheran Church Vacation Bible School program. Over the last five years, the free program has taught thousands of Inland Northwest children basic Bible stories.
This year more than 650 children are enrolled. Dozens more arrive every day. They are welcomed with a T-shirt and a nametag.
No one will ever be turned away, said Glenus Cooper, co-director.
“It’s a truly dynamic program,” said Kara’s mom, Barb Mitchell.
The number of children at this week’s Bible school exceed the number of worshippers attending Sunday services at the church.
Enrollment has grown by at least 100 children every year for the past four years. Families drive to the church at University and Dishman Mica Road from as far away as the Silver Valley in Idaho and Airway Heights.
One family from Louisiana, former church members, planned their vacation so their children could attend the Bible school. Another family came from Seattle for the same reason.
Except for a $10 ad in a Valley church newsletter, there has been no advertising. Mitchell, like most of the other parents, heard about the program from a friend with children.
Now she’s recommending it to every parent she knows.
There is no one explanation for the success of Redeemer’s program. Staff at the church are hesitant to take credit for the explosion.
“It’s a God thing,” youth minister Dave Noll and co-director Korlyn Luth said in unison.
“I really think Jesus is alive here,” Noll added, trying to explain the phenomenon.
More astounding than the number of children is the number of volunteers connected to the program.
Dozens of men at the church have been cutting wood for nativity set craft projects. Other volunteers assembled thousands of beads and strands of yarn for necklaces. Every day one woman types a newsletter.
More than 900 black T-shirts emblazoned with the logo “Online with Jesus” have been distributed.
“I’d wear mine every day if I could get home to do laundry,” Noll said.
It takes the skill of an air traffic controller to manage the schedules. There is snack time, music time, study time, recess time and craft time, all coordinated so no area becomes overcrowded.
The church itself puts up roughly $6,500 for the week. Businesses and individuals donate vast amounts of cash and goods to the program.
Mornings start with all 650 children, 240 adult volunteers and dozens of parents crammed into the sanctuary for prayer and singing.
From a treehouse specially built for the week, Noll interviews one child each day about how he or she has experienced Jesus.
“Who’s in the house?” the children and staff chant, giving the gathering a game show atmosphere.
On Monday, a girl told the story of how other people helped out her family after a fire in her apartment building.
Tuesday, a teenager talked about how stressful it was for him and his single working mom, until another family took them in. Wednesday, a boy told of his family adopting a baby girl from the Philippines.
The week culminates with the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus.
“The idea is you can always see Jesus, if you look,” Luth said.
More than a third of the children attending the school have never been to church, Noll said.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know who Jesus is,” he said. The religious experience is as much for the teachers and helpers as it is for children.
“We take a lot of junior high and high school kids, who may be rebelling, and give them the opportunity to be a witness to the little kids,” Cooper said. “It’s an opportunity to serve, for all of us.”
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