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VBS program promotes faith, community and heritage

7/2/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photographs are available with this story.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert*

The squirming circle of energetic 5-year-olds fell out of their chairs laughing every time their vacation Bible school teacher tried to get them to recite their memory verse.

"Wisdom is like a baobab tree: no one person can encircle it," Earline Clark says, trying again.

Every time she says "baobab" it comes out a little more mangled than the last time.

"It's bowbob tree!" the children shout in unison after every mispronunciation.

The kids had it down. Clark, like most of the grown-ups, was still having trouble with the word at the end of four days of teaching and learning the new VBS program, "Under the Baobab Tree," at Edgehill United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

Baobab (which is pronounced bow - as in "wow" - bob) is just one of the African words children learn in the program written and produced by the United Methodist Publishing House.

The new resource combines the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with African, Caribbean and African-American traditions.

"In years past, we have had to adapt VBS curriculum because it didn't reach our children," said the Rev. Diane Luton Blum, pastor at Edgehill.

"The children really responded in ways that were far more peaceful and joyful than in years past."

Blum said the curriculum gave the adult leaders, African American and white alike, the chance to learn about the culture and experiences of African-American Christians.

"It was enriching for all of us," she says.

The concept for the new curriculum came after two years of research and a renewed commitment by the Publishing House to produce "quality, scholarly resources that are relevant for the African-American community," says Fred Allen, communications director for the agency.

Marilyn Thornton has been living "Under the Baobab Tree" since she came on board at the Publishing House last year. As one of the primary writers, she has overseen the production and conducted most of the training for the program. She was also on hand at Edgehill to "beat the drum," teach the songs, direct the skits and hug the kids.

"As a person who has come out of the black church all my life and one who has used a whole realm of different materials, I just did not see the heritage perspective in any of the materials being produced," she says. She has combined the concept of "standing on the shoulders of our ancestors" with theology in a way that is fun and exciting for children as well as adults, she says.

"In so many vacation Bible school programs, the adults are separate from the children or the adults are not there at all," she says. She has found churches have wanted to pull the two groups together, but the thought of writing and figuring out how to do that on their own was just too daunting a task.

"When they see it all here in this resource, they are finding that really exciting."

The genesis of "Under the Baobab Tree" came as a result of partner relationship with a local church in Kansas City, Mo., Allen says.

St. James United Methodist Church developed and has been conducting a variation of the traditional VBS called Vacation Liberation School.

"Our contention at St. James is that Christianity is a liberation movement," says the Rev. Emmanuel Cleavor, church pastor. "Jesus introduced his earthly ministry with the words of Isaiah: 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me. ... He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives ... to release the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).'"

"Rev. Cleavor really spurred the development of our program," says Susan Salley, director of New Ventures for the publishing house. "He told us to focus on liberation. He said it goes back to history but it all goes back to Jesus Christ."

As research was done for the project it became clear that the baobab tree was the perfect image to use for the new curriculum, Thornton said.

In Africa, the baobab is a large tree that grows in the grassland, which covers about 65 percent of the continent. For three-fourths of the year, it is leafless and stores water. Animals and sometimes people live in its large branches. In villages, it is a place of community gathering.

"I remember the first time I went to Africa and actually witnessed the baobab tree as the center for gathering," Allen says. "I saw children and elders, men and women, all gathering around the tree during the midday hour to share a meal.

"When you see the richness of how a culture has taken a part of God's creation and placed it in the center of poverty and despair and great anguish, it becomes more than a metaphor," he says.

In the VBS curriculum, spiritual songs are combined with contemporary music to build on the heritage theme. Children play traditional African-American games such as "Little Sally Walker and Little Johnnie Brown" as well as learn new games like the "Underground Railroad."

"Underground Railroad" is a version of tag that gets the players from slavery to freedom.

"You have your stoppers and your helpers," Thornton says. "Somebody will get free but somebody else is not going to be free because that is reality."

More than 750 churches have already reviewed the project, Salley says. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which has never before endorsed a VBS program, has endorsed "Under the Baobab Tree," she says. The Disciples of Christ Church as well as the Presbyterian Church (USA) have also endorsed the program.

Allen says it is important to note that the program is not exclusively for African Americans.

"It is broad in its information and will help the whole church see how connected we are in these common human realities."

More information is available by calling (800) 672-1789 or visiting

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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