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Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Year of Yes: The Chronicles of a Church Volunteer

This month marks the completion of a year-long experiment in my spiritual life to engage more deeply with my church. It began last June when I accepted Rev. Erika's (that's right, I'm naming names!) invitation to participate in my church's annual Vacation Bible School program - a one-week religious day camp filled with daily worship, classroom instruction, and fun activities for children 4 years old and up. It seems my ADD was a good match with the high-energy demands of the pre-school set, and so Rev. Erika asked me to continue on, this time as a Sunday school teacher for the September through May cycle of classes. Well this I really had to think about. I mean one week during summer was easy-peasy, but the thought of having to turn up every Sunday morning was a challenge to me. And while I'm not a serial church-skipper (among my group of friends, I've definitely logged more in-church hours than most!), I have that Gen-X Existentialist streak which makes "obligation" a four-letter word. Saying yes would mean having to consistently think up something to do, something interesting and educational.

And did I mention that the class would consist of 3-year-olds?

That's right, toddlers - the most feared group of children, well, other than teens. Known for their cunning and guile, 3-year-olds (known in the Sunday school biz as "3s") were notorious for their short attention spans, pre-verbal run-on sentences, and their inability to color inside of the lines and use scissors. It would be like entering into the lions' den, you know, if all of the lions were just above your knees. But Rev. Erika offered me some assurances - the kids would be potty-trained (check!), I'd be part of a team of teachers for my class (check, check!!), and, I wouldn't be responsible for planning a lesson every week (check, check, check!). So, I said yes.

Any good journey into uncharted territory begins with, of course, the right accessories, and so a series of shopping trips was in order. I found a wonderful religious bookstore in my neighborhood. I'd been there before on a mission to find birthday cards for some of my born-again relatives, but I'd never really hung out there. I found the children's section and hit the jackpot, scoring Bible story coloring books, as well as a book on creative projects for toddlers. I found a children's Bible with a cartoon Moses and cartoon Jesus, and an interactive, magnetic big book that told the Advent and Christmas stories. The next stop was the craft store where I went hog-wild in the felt department, and found sheets of construction paper featuring every color under the rainbow. By the time I finished, my shopping cart was full and I was on my way.

I quickly met with the other two teachers in my team and we set about planning for the first part of the Sunday school year. It was then that I realized that, oh my God, I just signed up to teach Sunday school - what the hell was I thinking??

Soon the first day of class arrived and in a brightly lit carpeted room in my church's parish house, the 3s started to arrive. One by one, they arrived, clutching their mommy or daddy's hand, bottom lip quivering and then, you guessed it, the crying began! I wanted to be like Tom Hanks in "A League of Their Own" and tell these kids, "there's no crying in Sunday school!", but, instead, I sat down on the floor and started to talk to them, and I knew I was hooked. I felt such empathy for these little ones, I mean, here they were on a Sunday morning, and instead of just being able to play and watch TV, they were forced to get dressed and go sit in a building with a bunch of adults, oh, and they had to be quiet AND not pee their pants. And, to top it all off, they had to go to another room and pay attention, (whatever THAT means!) and be separated from mommy and daddy!!! It was almost inhuman.

Soon, we were getting to know each other and we developed a routine that consisted of free play and coloring, then group clean-up, an opening prayer and story time, a craftivity (my word!), snack time with a closing story, and then the arrival of mommies and daddies. Some days, it felt like "Daddy Daycare" when the kids were especially revved up and suffering from a case of the "can't-sit-downs". On other days, I felt like "Auntie Mame", a pied piper with unconventional ideas and a dedicated following.

In this Year of Yes, I learned a lot - like the finer points of glitter application and I also (hopefully) settled the debate between glue stick vs. liquid glue. I learned that 3-year-olds are a handful, but they're also honest and bright and yearning to understand how this world I take for granted fits together. I learned that on days when I felt overwhelmed and feared that I wasn't perfect, that 3-year-olds don't care about perfection, they care about moments and consistency and commitment. I also learned that when a 3-year-old refers to "yesterday", they mean last week, but let's not quibble:)

Anyway, with the completion of my Year of Yes, I'm keen to find another project. While I'm not term-limited to one year of the Year of Yes, I have a lot to consider. But, I must admit, I'm going through a weird Pepperidge Farm Goldfish withdrawal, so you never know...I'm just saying:)

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