Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Children sing and dance during vacation Bible school at St. Anthony Parish in Portland.  
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Children sing and dance during vacation Bible school at St. Anthony Parish in Portland.
It's before 9 a.m. on a summer morning, and three dozen children at St. Anthony Parish in Portland are raising their arms, dancing and singing praise to God.

Welcome to vacation Bible school.

An invention of U.S. Protestants, the tradition now has a solid footing in Catholic parishes, including those in Oregon. Most big Portland parishes host a week or two during the summer when grade school children hear or watch Bible stories, then take part in skits and even musical numbers. Often, they learn to apply the lessons of biblical history to their everyday lives.

At St. Anthony on this morning, a fourth grader describes how he feels that God protected him from being hit by a car. If he were not at church, he says, he'd probably be watching TV or playing a video game.  

Theme of the St. Anthony School has to do with the Babylonian Exile and the prophet Daniel, who was courageous and faithful despite all kinds of threats. Volunteers and staff built a replica of a magnificent Babylonian gate from 2,500 years ago. High on the wall is a screen on which videos play, teaching children dances and songs in ancient Hebrew style.

"Stand firm when life changes," one lyric goes. "Stand firm through the ups and downs. For you know God is in control."

When each song ends, children holler for more.

After walking through the gate into a smaller room, children sit at the feet of Daniel, portrayed by high school student Jerome Lisua. He tells the youths that he is lonely in captivity and that he tries to pray whenever he can. But the Babylonian culture makes it hard, he explains, in a seeming reference to modern times.  

Later divided into small groups named after the tribes of Israel, the youngsters explain how they have experienced God recently. They write these "God sightings" on small Babylonian lions, which are then pasted on the gate. The message is that God exists in all parts of life, not just in sacred symbols.

"It shows them that God is still active," says Roselyn Mulkey, a volunteer from St. Ignatius Parish who has come to help. She and the other volunteers are dressed in ancient garb, as are most of the children.

St. Anthony is located in a low-income neighborhood. Many children come from immigrant families, including households from Micronesian islands.

"This offers some stability to families," says Steve Cunningham, a member of St. Anthony who volunteers at the session. "It reinforces what they are learning from parents. When they go home, they will ask parents questions."

Vacation Bible school has ripples that go beyond the children, says Rosemary Childress, who has volunteered since St. Anthony began the summer session three years ago.

"It's important that they are in an atmosphere of prayer with people devoted to God," Childress says. "Then we send Bible verses home for them to memorize. The parents learn and see."

"What I like is that it brings a diverse group of generations together in the parish," says Glenn Rymsza, director of religious education at St. Anthony who heads the vacation Bible school. Volunteers range from their 80s to teens.

Other parishes have large groups for vacation Bible school. Hundreds attend not far away at Holy Family Parish, for example.

At Christ the King in Milwaukie, religious education director Stacey Pinder not only runs her own large event for 100 or so children, but helps parishes like St. Anthony get their summer schools off the ground. Pinder, the benevolent godmother of vacation Bible schools in the Portland area, shares materials whenever she can. Her daughter Emily, about to start at Central Catholic, helps direct the sessions.

Christ the King, St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie and St. Philip Benizi in Oregon City teamed up this year to offer a medieval-themed Bible school complete with drawbridge.

Even with all the images and spectacle, Pinder says the goal of vacation Bible school is simple: Kids need to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Pinder sees the session as an evangelical tool. Curious neighbor kids come. One neighbor girl said she did not have a Bible at home. Pinder gave her one.