This academic year, I have taught Scripture lessons to groups of public school kids in an after-school program known as the Sunshine Bible Club. The Club is ecumenical in nature, and is held at a downtown Presbyterian church. I was invited to be involved with the group by the man who has spearheaded this and many other city-wide ministries to youth and teens in our small town. It was a Holy Ghost appointment, because at the time of his invitation, one season in my life had closed (when friends leading another youth ministry I'd been with moved away), and a desire for deeper involvement in my town outside of my Catholic bubble was already growing in my heart.
Initially I had prayed about offering music, but when I was told that one of the teachers had backed out just a few weeks before beginning, I decided I'd take a chance with teaching. Frankly, I've never, ever enjoyed teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School or Parish School of Religion sessions, and I didn't expect much of the experience.
As I prayed about what to teach, I landed on the idea of presenting the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary. I wanted some kind of structure that gave me direction without being too restrictive (because that desire is the story of my life).
The kids who come to this Club are registered for it by their parents, guardians, or caregivers, and that registration and the bussing is handled by the various public elementary schools in town. The precise format had undergone tweaks in the preceding couple of years of its existence, and at the suggestion of the schools, in order to help curb some of the wild discipline scenarios that had been experienced, the kids were split into two groups: 3rd and 4th grades during the first semester, and 1st and 2nd grade kids during second semester. (In this town, 5th grade is included in Middle School.) Friends who operate a Christian martial arts school volunteered to run through some very basic energy expenditure/self-defense movements with kids as they arrive off of the school bus at 2:30. Then, they sing praise music (or at least listen to it). Then, with the assistance of several adults and teens, the kids are divided into three groups of perhaps 7-12 kids each: one comes to my Bible lessons, the second goes to another teacher, and the third eats snacks. We rotate all three groups around, and then their caregivers come to take them home at about 4:00.
We have brilliant conversations some days; other days everyone is shouting, talking, moving around, and/or everyone is telling everyone to be quiet. (That's always my favorite. Five kids shouting over each other telling everyone to be quiet.) Sometimes it is a mixture of these two. I have generally 15 minutes with each group of kids.
Our town has significant pockets of poverty, especially among the population that has children in the public schools. There is also a strong presence here of drug activity, crime, violence, and all of the fear and hopelessness that tends to accompany these things. And the children are definitely affected. Children are good at slipping comments out about their personal lives in between all the chaos. And so I hear how they have witnessed domestic violence or known homelessness, how parents have been in prison, how they and their siblings have been separated by foster care, how they are bullied, how they are scared, and how they themselves are violent.
Some of the kids go to a church. Some of them know almost nothing about God and have never read a Bible. Most of them have detailed questions to ask me about the devil or magic or the nature of evil. To my knowledge, not a single one of them is Catholic.
The first thing I began to notice as I taught, starting with the Joyful Mysteries, was how much I was accustomed to presuming. My past experiences had taught me to presume that because I was teaching kids in a church, surely they already know who Jesus is. My past reference point had been kids I regularly saw in church.
So as I stopped presuming, I began enjoying the freshness of introducing Jesus to them. And, using the gospels of the mysteries to systematically walk through God's plan unfolding in history, I also saw the freshness of the gospels through these new eyes of theirs, these new hearts that I was getting to know. I was instantly sensitized to details about Jesus' life that resonated with them: Jesus had a "foster father," lived a materially poor life, had to flee from those who wanted to kill him. Mary had to trust, she went to serve instead of glorying in herself. They lived a simple life of humility. They were not powerful by worldly standards.
I have never mentioned the rosary to the kids. But I have seen the logic of the mysteries pop into 3-D. Everything can speak of God's plan of salvation: how Jesus came to reveal God's love, to make clear to us that the misery we all feel comes from separation from God, and to love us to the point of laying down His life so that he could open heaven, and we could all receive His life through baptism, faith, repentance and following Him. Jesus had his mind always on His mission to lay down His life out of love. Almost every week, I illustrate that to repent means to turn from walking toward a sin that I love to turning my back on it and walking away from it and to God who loves me. I also frequently illustrate how Jesus opens heaven, then calls us to follow Him and be with Him. I repeat how to believe in God really means to believe God loves me, and to know that God does not stop loving us when we sin. I teach them a very simply morning offering prayer: "Jesus, I give you my day," and I encourage the kids to start every day by asking Jesus in this way to be with them. He knows well what to do with that invitation.
When I pray in the time before the crowd descends (after drawing one of my famous white board Jesus illustrations -- she who cannot draw), I think often of the image of planting seeds. Who knows where these kids may go or what may happen to them, even in the next 10 years. But I know from my own life that it does not take anything big and fancy to secure a seed of truth planted deep that sprouts to life when it is ready. It takes only the Word of God spoken and anointed by the Holy Spirit. So, I do not tire of telling them the same things, and even of struggling sometimes to be heard over verbal skirmishes between kids.
I have benefited so much from teaching these kids by getting to "see" how Jesus loves them, and loves getting introduced to them. Peeling back to the basics and presenting the kerygma has made me realize that Catholics stupidly often skip this step, assuming that because kids have been baptized, they don't need to meet and come to faith in Jesus. I would also be stupid to think that the kids in Catholic schools or in homeschool settings have no tastes of the pains of life that these kids as young as six or seven are facing. We have to deal with the reality of kids' lives, and if we think we can represent God or speak the gospel at a determined disconnect from the lived reality of our audiences, we are sorely mistaken.