Once Digger and Butterfingers started coming to church barefoot, Vacation Bible School was never the same.
I was twelve years old the summer that pastor let the hippies run Vacation Bible School. "Long-haired trouble-makers," pastor used to call them. Then, when his own son was 17 and ran away with the trouble-makers, pastor started going to the bars to talk to the "kids" about Jesus. The church didn't know what to think about their pastor going into bars. Pastor was a broken man, my mother said. Then some of pastor's new friends started showing up at church. I remember looking up at their multi-colored clothes and down at their bare-feet and thinking it was cool.
It was the early 1970s. There were frowns from the mothers in cat-eye glasses and short pants who stood in a group in the back of the sanctuary that first day of VBS. Then the next day, maybe it was the middle of the week, the church couldn't hold all the kids coming, so a big top tent was put up in the gravel driveway. (Which was a better place for all the kids who had stopped wearing shoes to church anyway, I heard said.)
The group of frowning, cat-eyed mothers who now stood in the back of the tent was dwindling. A lot of them were sitting in the audience, next to the singing and clapping that could probably be heard three blocks away on Main Street. We rocked that tent singing songs like "Stop, and Let Me Tell You," "Apples and Bananas," and a version of "Jesus Loves Me" like I'd never heard it before.
But you could have heard a pin drop down on the gravel when Digger stopped to pray. They all had nicknames, and Digger was the leader. He played the guitar and prayed like no one I had ever known. He started every prayer by saying, "Hey Father, we LOVE you." Most of the time, he would pray by repeating the words to a song we had just sung, and we all listened like it was the first time we'd every heard it. Because he was saying the words like he'd never heard them before.
"You forgave my sins and you cleansed my soul, and touched my heart and You made me whole." He would often end the prayer with a minute of silence, like he was trying to collect himself, I thought, then would start up a song that rocked the house again. Pretty soon the group of mothers gathered in the back were gone and the only ones standing were the ones who couldn't find an empty seat. And pastor. He always stood, smiling. But I remember wondering how someone could be smiling, yet look so sad at the same time. Once, I went to stand next to him and I put my arm around him. He bent over and kissed the top of my head. There were tears in his eyes.
Me and my younger sisters and cousins would always arrive early, packed like sardines in our long, wood-paneled station wagon with the middle seat down. We'd climb out the back window and run straight to the tent where Digger and Butterfingers would be tuning their guitars and Echo would be playing with her tambourine. We'd sit on the metal chairs in the front row, swing our legs and grin any time one of them looked up.
Digger was always talking about Jesus. To Butterfingers and Echo, to us between songs, or to pastor. He would invite kids to know Jesus in a real way, and I would often see him throughout the morning, on my way to crafts or the refreshment table, praying with groups or two and three kids. Pastor was always with him.
Over the years, I've seen few people accept the Lord and continue with the enthusiasm that the hippies had that summer.
Today, when I'm on my way to work in the morning, I often see teen-agers standing out by the curb near the high school with their piercings, multi-colored hair and grunge clothes. And I know that God desires them to know Him, to hear them say, "Father, we LOVE you."
My earthly father longed to hear it from all of his children, including my brother, who ran away in 1969 and was never heard from again. My father, the pastor, prayed for years that someone would walk up to his son in a bar, on a park bench, or on a curb, wherever he was, and bring him back to the love of Christ. He still prays it today.
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In the early 1970s, my pastor brought "hippies" to church that he recruited from a bar. They were born-again and soon led the music at VBS. I don't think any VBS had so much spirit or so many kids. While the setting is taken from my memories, the plot is fiction.
Copyright 2000 Jill Olson. All rights reserved.