Photo courtesy of Malesheia Jones
Photo courtesy of Malesheia Jones

The United Baptist Church in New Carrollton, Maryland, was filled recently with the sounds of roaring lions and bears and singing children on the first night of V.I.B.E.S., a high-octane version of the traditional vacation bible school.

The V.I.B.E.S. (Vibrant Intentional Biblical Encounters) program, which ran from July 14-19, was much more than sitting in the pews, as it offered outdoor events and spiritual aerobics.

The program was themed “In the Wild,” as participants were broken into seven groups with names that came from jungle animals such as the Lions, Bears, Sharks and Eagles. After class, everyone gathered in the sanctuary, where people danced and stretched to spiritual videos.

Pastor Everett Pope struggled to keep up but was all smiles because in the past decade, the former NASA engineer has grown a church with a dwindling flock into congregation of nearly 200 people.

“We just want to make the invisible God visible to our world,” Pope said. “So many people today are so ‘churched,’ but we want them to encounter God through his word and the love of his disciples at our church.”

Similar vacation bible school programs are ongoing at churches across the area, giving young people — many of whom are often tied up with school demands or playing video games — a chance to engage in physical activities.

At the University Park Church of Christ in Hyattsville, church officials hosted a program titled “Marooned,” in which the entire sanctuary looked more like a South Pacific island — complete with straw huts, plastic blue water and Hawaiian leis — and members taught classes focused on stories from the Old Testament.

Malesheia Jones, coordinator of V.I.B.E.S., said their curriculum comes from LifeWay, which provides material to many churches across the country.

“The material is an awesome foundation and structure for the biblical curriculum that we then take, use, and modify/customize to meet the specific needs of our immediate urban community,” Jones said.

“At United, we are grounded in God’s word and our primary objective each night is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone that we may encounter in each night in each of our unique and special ways,” she said. “We accomplish this by showing love, having high energy and excitement for the nightly lesson, and preparing for V.I.B.E.S. weeks, months in advance.

“Most importantly, we as volunteers are on the same page and start and close each night in prayer,” she said. “It’s all about serving God and this is what continues to fuel us.”

Pope said that he has “decommissioned” traditional church auxiliaries such as the usher board for a new way the church is organized that maximizes spiritual growth.

“Now we gather to worship and encounter God as one and as the future unfolds we will train people to encounter God in a new and creative way,” he said. “Too many people become complacent in serving but now growing.”

At the end of the first night, Yehmayah Calloway, 12, asked Pope for the email address for V.I.B.E.S. When asked why, she said, “I want my friends to come.”

Crystal Johnson, Yehmayah’s mother, said she really enjoys United Baptist because the church supported her when she was burned out of a New Carrollton apartment complex.

“I was going through a lot but Pastor Pope and my church family really supported me,” she said.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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