Tears are streaming down my face. I’m sitting in the Richmond Hill United Methodist Church (RHUMC) pew watching 300 children sing praises to God. In unity, thousands of little fingers stretch to the rafters, point to their hearts and use sign language for words like Jesus, love and equality. The movements flow from one to another in the kind of fantastic sing-song harmony that would melt the heart of any breathing human, but especially that of a relative. Mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers are all holding up cell phones and iPads recording the event like lighters at a 1980’s rock concert. It’s absolutely, spiritually overwhelming.
The tears have blurred my vision, but I can make out my children’s outlines as they jump and twirl around on the stage. They started vacation bible school (VBS) with the rest of the group of 300 on Monday. It’s Friday. How Jeanne Wallace, the church’s music instructor, has been able to teach every last one of these children multiple songs, complete with adorable little movements and hand gestures in one week is beyond me. She has a true God-given talent.
I peel my eyes away from the singular mass of God’s little children in front of me to take a look around the chapel. Every pew is full and then some. Relatives pour out into the aisles like too much jelly on a PB&J. All eyes are fixed ahead. Smiles galore.
It seems like the entire Richmond Hill community is here. Most of us have taken the afternoon off for this grand finale; the culmination of approximately 200 volunteers’ hard work organizing children’s bible study, singing, arts and crafts and pure, unadulterated joy in the name of God. This is ministry. This is the Christian missionary field: a grassroots campaign. Reaching Americans, one take-home craft project at a time.
I watch for the moment registration is announced for VBS on RHUMC.com at the beginning of each summer, around May 1st. I couldn’t imagine my little ones not experiencing this program, which is available for children up to 5th grade. Within three weeks VBS registration is nearly full; a waiting list for some of the grades is substantial. At the end of June the week-long program begins.
As awesome as VBS is, this program only scratches the surface of the children’s ministries at RHUMC. Janine Blakeborough, Director of Children’s Ministries, leads multiple programs throughout the year. Aside from VBS, she also heads the Jesus and Me (JAM) program for children 3 years to 5th grade, as well as Joyful Jamboree, or as Janine likes to call it, “training for big church,” which is held every Sunday morning in partnership with worship for children 3 years to 2nd grade.
During the school year, around 4pm each Wednesday afternoon approximately 95 children flood into the youth wing at RHUMC. They’ve come for JAM. The first order of business is quiet time to complete homework assignments, but that isn’t why they’ve come. The age-appropriate Bible studies and lessons, arts and crafts and singing calls them as nectar calls butterflies from across the miles. But the life-sustaining fruit here is meant for more than the body; it also fulfills the soul. Such physical and spiritual exercise works up quite an appetite, which is why you’ll find Janine, the approximately 25 volunteers who run JAM and nearly all of the 95 children in the cafeteria around 5:30pm, chowing down on some of the best home cooking you’ve ever had. I know. Last week I had chicken casserole, green beans, salad, a roll, lemonade and more chocolate chip cookies than I care to admit to.
Janine tells me that her role at RHUMC began in 2009, when, after moving to Richmond Hill from St. Louis for a job opportunity for her husband, she became a volunteer at the church. Her background in the hotel industry, including catering, customer service and extreme organization seemed a natural fit for the position she accepted as Children’s Ministry Director, which became available shortly thereafter. Janine’s two children, Ella and Connor, have grown up at RHUMC, and have personally benefited from the programs their mother has either created or enhanced there. Janine views this relationship between her church and her family as a faith journey as well as provides spiritual education for her loved ones.
But Janine couldn’t stop there. With her oversight in the children’s ministry at the church, Janine found new ways to expand this spiritual education outside of her home. Over the last four years she has exponentially grown the children’s programs to the benefit of the entire community. But this is no easy feat. I asked Janine how many hours per week she felt was devoted to the preparation of her multiple programs. At this, I could tell I had caught her off guard. It seemed clear to me that she hadn’t ever given this much thought. After a quick calculation in her head she said, “Maybe about 30 hours per week?” followed by the outline that these hours are comprised of. “There’s scheduling for the hundreds of volunteers, checking and responding to e-mail, following up with the volunteers, creating schedules, establishing positive relationships with the community, families, children and volunteers, creating outlines and prep work for the weekly adult bible study, providing curriculum for the children, ensuring supplies are stocked and keeping our Facebook site up to date.”
I looked up from my iPad where I was furiously taking notes. “Only 30 hours?” Janine shrugged her shoulders, smiled her usual warm and friendly smile and awaited my next question. “Let’s talk about the impact the children’s ministries have had over the years amongst the Richmond Hill community.”
I knew Janine, the volunteers, the families and the church’s impact was great, but to what extent I hadn’t a clue. Janine says the children regularly put their faith into action through many forms of community outreach. In fact, by the time this post is published, the children will have already been to Bryan County Health and Rehab in Richmond Hill to sing Christian songs to the elderly residents there. This will not have been their first field trip to the home to visit and entertain those who may need this kind of attention from our youth the most.
In addition, the children’s programs partner with the church’s Way Station Food Pantry for monthly food drives, overseen by Terri Peterson, Director of the Way Station. JAM children recently went on a tour of the facility, which also serves as a holding point for clothing and toys for the needy in our local community. After the tour, some of the children told Janine that they would like to bring their own toys for the children the Way Station supports.
Throughout the year, Joyful Jamboree collects money for various mission projects, including Operation Christmas Child. Money raised goes toward buying items for the Christmas Child shoe boxes. In the fall, the children get together for a “packing party,” putting these boxes together in mass quantity, complete with little notes they have written before being sent to children all over the world. Janine says the children’s ministry “has provided an average of 150 boxes to this cause each year and they find it more meaningful when they get to carry out the mission at the packing party.”
Just recently, the children also participated in multiple fundraisers to help build a new playground on the RHUMC property. This playground, dubbed “Matt’s Back Yard,” has benefited the children’s programs at the church as well as the children in our local community. The playground was constructed in honor of Captain Matthew Freeman who was killed serving his country in Afghanistan in 2007. Matt practically grew up at RHUMC.
The local community isn’t the only missionary field that children’s ministries and the church support. Eight families just returned from a trip to Blue Ridge, Georgia, where they aided the work of Harbor Ministries. “We painted fencing and classrooms, cleaned up their playground and provided fellowship and dinner for low-income families there.”
The outreach of Janine’s programs and RHUMC would not be possible without the support of hundreds of volunteers, including 6th graders who have graduated from the children’s ministries but can’t bear to leave the spiritual community fostered there. Instead, they’d rather give back to the programs by offering their time to assist the younger children in any way they can. In addition to the volunteers, other leaders of the church are critical to the support of these programs. Jack Caldwell, Director of Youth Ministries, oversees the youth volunteers. Glenn Martin, Senior Pastor, fosters the growth of these programs by encouraging and supporting the staff and volunteers. As Janine says, “(Glenn’s) emphasis on the importance of children’s ministry and his guidance are crucial to the success of our programs.”
I asked Janine what the mission and core values of the RHUMC and her children’s ministry program are.
Richmond Hill United Methodist Church is committed to the faith journey of our children. We believe that through parent involvement and communication as families, we can foster the love of Jesus Christ and the peace that transcends all understanding when you have a relationship with Him. Through building the Biblical foundations, we strive to put our faith into action through outreach and encouragement of each other as the body of Christ.
As I pack up to head out for our military move abroad, I think back to moments like that of this past summer’s VBS end of week performance. I’ve never lived in a community so connected or cherished by all residents. We are tied together through our churches, through our personal missions, through our schools and through our relationships. We see each other on the streets, at the gas stations, in the grocery stores and in our church pews. We are Richmond Hill. We are here for our children, for our families, for the betterment of our community. I am proud to have been a part of the Hill congregation. My family will take with us the spiritual blessings and growth we have experienced here, most especially from the fruits of RHUMC’s mission work in this community. You will be missed.