Boom Pop Park has managed to stay below the radar most of the time, and when the residents of Westside do notice it, it’s because of the occasional Zumba class held there. The park has become especially quiet since the pandemic started. However, in mid-June 2021, the grounds were vibrant with the sound of scuffling feet and excited shrieks. It’s Vacation Bible School season for Bayshore Christian Ministries!
On the far side of the park, tables were set for VBS attendees to have their meals at the end of the two hours. In the middle, an open space for maximum mobility during game time. And lastly, on the other end, a shaded spot under the trees where the students sit, facing the VBS volunteer this year — Dan — and his teaching doodad, the Preach-O-Matic.
Dan, with his cap and his tendency to lock eyes with the students as he strides across the front, looks like a sports coach prepping the team for their next game. Behind him, his Preach-O-Matic props up a board with circles and figures on it — the lines drawn in such a way that he could be explaining a field play-by-play. The Preach-O-Matic itself is as tall as he is; a wooden structure with big sturdy wheels on the back end, and two shelves to hold Dan’s visual aids.
With the distinct air of passion and intensity one expects from pre-game prep, Dan is introducing his attentive attendees to a fundamental aspect of the gospel, the fact that God forgives. He wraps up a point and invites questions. A hand shoots upwards. The question:
“How do you know you’re going to heaven?”
As he begins to answer, Dan eases himself down to sit on the step closest to the front row of his audience. He puts his elbows on his knees, laces his fingers, and leans forward: “You know if you trust in God. And you can use your own words, you don’t need to use my words… You can tell God you are sorry for your sins, you can ask Him to come into your life and come into your heart.”
Another hand goes up: “Are we still going to have this program in heaven?”
After his session has ended, Dan explains, “I have worked quite a lot with students. When it comes these topics, there is the serious side, and I try to be really careful in the way I express it. I can’t water it down, but I have to make it accessible for the students. I want to really impress on them that it is OKAY to ask questions, any question. Questions that they had, that maybe never got answered. One other group I teach is young adults, and a lot of them feel like they’ve tried church and it didn’t work because they didn’t get answers to many of their questions. It’s heartbreaking because there are good answers to all their questions! Ask, and you will get answers!”
On this front, Dan feels that the soft heartedness that makes people more willing to ask questions is characteristic of the students in East Palo Alto. “Folks in neighborhoods like East Palo Alto are more familiar with difficult times. Sometimes you get students in desperate situations; they feel like they have no hope, and they need hope! Children need to see hope. It's amazing — children who you think have a toughness, have a tremendous openness to the gospel.”
Carmen, another leader at VBS this year, can attest to this openness that she sees in the students. Carmen is an alumni of BCM’s VBS herself, and has done it all — from volunteering, to now serving on staff. She was part of the team who extended an open invite to the students in the Westside community, knocking on doors and introducing VBS. As a result, a lot of the students at Boom Pop Park knew each other beforehand. Some of them even grew up together.
Carmen talks about how God has been working in VBS, in the way these students are able to immediately apply the lessons they’ve learned to their own lives: “Sometimes children’s way of speaking to each other, the way they act around each other… especially if they grew up together in the same apartment… might not always be the nicest. One of our VBS themes this week is ‘How God Comforts’. It sticks to them. I was walking with them after, and I see one of the students say something not so nice to another. Then, one of them interrupted and said, God doesn’t like that. He comforts.”
She also talks about how after hearing about sharing the gospel, some of the students brought along two new friends to VBS the next day. She is amazed at how quick they’ve put what they learned into application. She is also enamored with how they engage with the material, and the questions they ask. “I love the way they think. They find solutions for everything, and they even suggest ideas to me when I talk about my day with them.”
Other staff and volunteers can attest to the particular perceptiveness that they appreciate in the students. As they packed up the food and the props at the end of the day, they traded their favorite quotes and questions from VBS that week. Here’s one for you to think on:
“When good things happen, does that mean we have good luck?”
If you want to find out the answer, maybe join the next VBS!