Just before the school year began, children in North Portland got a fresh look at Catholic faith.
For two weeks, about 30 youngsters came each day to Immaculate Heart Parish. There, they attended Mass, acted out parables, sang songs of faith and even strung rosaries.
Miacha Scaife, 6, held out her pink and green prayer beads with pride just before heading back stage to perform in a shadow puppet show about Jesus’ Parable of the Yeast.
“Parables are cool,” Miacha said.
The Immaculate Heart Vacation Bible School, which just finished its 30th year, began when Catholics in Portland’s troubled inner city decided to evangelize in their own community, starting with youths. Parents saw that Catholic children were not getting the catechesis they needed and were being drawn instead into rising violent street gangs.
In 1983, a team of African American moms decided to offer the treasure of faith in a new way — the very mission of the New Evangelization, a movement announced by Pope John Paul that same year. The sessions the women led would include pithy themes, skits and hands-on projects.
“We don’t want the school to be a sheltered environment,” says Edna Hicks, who started the project with fellow Catholics Mary Harvey and Emma Ford. “We want what the children experience to go home with them and be a part of their lives and their hearts forever.”
The women are longtime members of the Ladies of St. Peter Claver, a service group of African American Catholics. An association called the African American Catholic Community of Oregon saw the value of the school and offered financial backing.
“During the summer, kids were at their wits’ end,” Harvey says. “There was nothing for them.”
The women have heard parents using memorable terms like “Stay on the Vine” from past summer Bible schools when trying to correct wayward children.
This summer, the theme was “Open the eyes of my heart.” Each day, children sang a song with those words and worked on understanding parables.
Helpers included Dan and Michele Ticknor, longtime Immaculate Heart parishioners. They brought mustard seeds and a mustard plant to help explain Jesus’ parable about how small things can have a big effect — a story often associated with the New Evangelization.
Dan, a 48-year-old former computer systems administrator who has Parkinson’s disease, wants inner-city children to see the importance of faith. He and Michele had the youngsters cut out paper silhouettes of their hands and hang them on a big cross.
“They’re putting themselves on the cross,” Dan says. “And that’s when we called out the sins that society says are OK — too much booze, drugs, cigarettes. It’s trying to live out the gospel by bringing the gospel into everyday life.”
Each year, puppeteers Reg and Trish Bradley of St. Andrew Parish volunteer to help youngsters produce puppet shows about Bible themes. The performances come near the end of the week and parents, pastors and friends are invited.
This year, children wrote and performed plays based on the parables of the yeast, the priceless pearl and the wheat in the weeds. They included modern touches: Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, appeared as a villain.
“They definitely remember their parables from year to year,” says Lucinda Tate, a member of the African American Catholic Community of Oregon who helps with the school. “They don’t want it to end.”
Some students appreciate the summer school so much they return later as counselors. “I like hanging out with the little kids,” says 13-year-old Kendall Harvey, who attended Bible school for three years but now helps his grandmother Mary as a counselor. “They can learn a little more about church and the Bible and have fun,” Kendall says.
Hicks and Harvey slate the session for the last two weeks before school with a purpose. That helps children become accustomed to rising early and learning.
The summer learning always includes encouragement for children to consider priesthood and religious life. As inspiration, the two women tell the story of St. Peter Claver, a 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who ministered to slaves aboard squalid ships in harbor at Cartagena.
On the wall of the parish hall are posters showing some of the many African saints: Perpetua and Felicity from the 2nd century and Charles Lwanga, a Ugandan convert who died for his faith in 1886. There is also Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who escaped slavery in the in the 19th century and became a Canossian nun.
Hicks and Harvey had black hair when they started. Now they are gray and hoping for help. “We are trying to pass the torch,” Harvey says. “We are looking for some younger bodies. We know this is very valuable and that it should continue.”