“I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.” This was the soundtrack to my summers growing up in a small town in Kentucky. I would mumble through the words, then take a seat in a creaky church pew and wait to get dismissed to my assigned classroom for Vacation Bible School.
For my parents, Vacation Bible School was a vacation for them, and free babysitting for me. Every week a new church, a new group of kids, and a new Vacation Bible School. A couple summers I was lucky enough to spend a week at 4-H camp, since it was cheaper than Girl Scout camp, but the remaining weeks of my summer vacation were back to VBS. Every church in my quaint Southern town hosted one, and each one tried to outdo the others. I was sent to each one, regardless of religion, and by religion of course I mean Christian. We had every variety of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and several others. There were no mosques or synagogues in this town, and no need for them either. Whether it was the wealthy First Baptist church downtown, or a tiny brick church out in the county, I was in attendance for VBS.
Sometimes they were in the morning, others at night. The church my family attended had such a small congregation that decided to do VBS all in one day to save money, and entice more kids to attend. With these subtle differences, they all had one thing in common, the pledges to the American Flag, Christian Flag, and the Bible. I would sit in the audience and watch the three young volunteers, each displaying one of these relics. I never asked, nor received answers to my secular questions. Since when do we say pledges to the Christian flag and Bible? Why do we only do these at vacation Bible School? And why do we have to recite them every night? Are they just stalling for time?
The most different and memorable of all the churches was the Mennonite Church. They sang a song every night instead of the three pledges called “Come to Bible school.” It was a welcome break from the pledges, but it had upwards of 14 different verses, and they spoke in distinct Dutch Amish accents so it sounded more like “Coom to bye-bell skyool.” It was hard not to giggle watching men, women, and children sing it with such conviction. Theirs was the farthest out in the country, and lasted the longest. I’d estimate I spent forty days and forty nights there in the wilderness.
I was the only girl in pants, making me what they call English, or non-Mennonite. All the others wore solid colored dresses made by their mothers, and a thin white bonnet over their bun called a “covering”. If I thought I stuck out from my peers at public school, I was a flaming beacon of Other amongst these kids. There were no musical instruments, no flare, everything about their faith required them to be plain. The inside of the rooms were reminiscent of one-room schoolhouses in old movies, nothing but the basics; desks, books, and a chalkboard. VBS was a glimpse into their real school days since their church served double duty as their school. Although these kids only attended school through 8th grade, they were smart and well read. Instead of eating dinner in front of the TV at night, they read real books and actually studied the bible.
Other than that one, it’s hard to keep all those vacation Bible schools separate in my head. I’m not sure why my mom made me go. I wasn’t an outdoorsy kid. My ideal summer days consisted of sleeping till noon, watching TV, and definitely not doing any chores. Maybe she thought it would be good for me to get out of the house and hang out with other kids, or maybe she just needed a break from my mouth breathing on the sofa as I zoned out to summer re-runs. She was so committed to me going to VBS that I remember getting ready on the night OJ Simpson’s White Bronco was in a full-scale police chase on TV. While the rest of the country was glued to their tubes, I was reciting pledges with a new group of church kids.
As an expert, I can tell you All VBS’s start the same way. You’re herded into the pews of a musty sanctuary. Some would have cushions; others were bare wood that amplify every sound. Heaven forbid you had a heavy dinner and got a little gassy. Take my word for it, squeeze those butt cheeks during prayers, kids.
When I got bored I could stare at the baptismal pool where people went to have their sins washed away. I would watch for the stagnant water to ripple behind a small glass window where you could watch the person getting baptized, trying to act like a man in a robe holding them underwater was natural. It was almost a shame you only got to do it once. I think I could have done a much better job with some practice. I was totally unprepared for getting baptized. I was wearing the new dress my grandmother sent me in the mail; my bangs and hair were styled big because fashion-wise it was still the 80’s in Kentucky. My dad looked to me while I was playing with a doll during the sermon and asked if I wanted Jesus in my heart. Of course I nodded ‘yes’, and the next thing I knew I was getting into a pool of water with my clothes on. My dad let me know this meant I could take communion now, which for Baptists is a small plastic shot glass with grape juice and an oyster cracker. I always wanted to take those cups home for my dolls. While I’m pondering all this, wondering what happened to that cute dress, everyone around me in the pews stands.
It’s time for the pledges. Thankfully I’m not a member of any of these churches so I don’t get picked to hold the flags or Bible. They’re always the same flags. They even have the same stand and gold tassels, and even the same eagle at the top of the flagpole. Were those included in the church starter kit? You need bibles, pews, hymnals, and don’t forget the American and Christian flags. Those are included in the Gold and Frankincense packages, but not the Myrrh. Was there a warehouse or a catalog like Oriental Trading Company the preacher would order them from?
Those damn pledges. I bet I said them more times each summer than I got ice cream. Of course I knew the pledge to the flag. We said that at school every day. But what were these Christian Flag and Bible pledges? Where did they come from? Were they in the old or New Testament? The pledge to the bible was easier to remember because it was poetic and rhythmic like song lyrics. It must have been written by a woman. But the pledge to the Christian flag just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. It’s also sexist, “One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service and in love.” It could definitely be updated to be more gender neutral.
When you’re young, VBS is cool. You get to play with other kids, have sugary snacks, and eat glue. But when you get a little older, you go to the “big kid class”. That’s when you’re expected to actually learn things about the bible, and retain them. I just wanted to go in the basement with the little kids and string beads. They ask what grade you’re in. The grade I just finished or the grade I’m going into? It was hard to fake being younger since I was already my full adult height in 3rd grade, but they don’t figure you’ll fib in front of the life-size Jesus hanging on the cross. The older you get in VBS, the less fun it is. The less colorful your lessons are. At a certain point, there isn’t an age group for you and they ask if you want to help serve refreshments.
After your segregated lessons, everyone rushes to finish their projects and meet back up in the sanctuary. We say the pledges 10 more times, then wait for parents to pick up their kids. They always remind you to come on Friday for the big party. The Friday party was always a relief because it meant the weekend was just around the corner, and that’s when I started my real summer vacation, until Sunday, when I had to go to church. Then it would all start back over on Monday, a new church, and a new group of kids, and those same three pledges.