Thursday, October 26, 2006

How This Started

When Leah asked my husband and me to cover her Sunday school class, we thought she just meant once. Then, as we were taking roll, Pat bustled in. “You guys are okay to teach for the rest of the summer quarter, right?” she said.

JC’s eyes slid toward mine. “The rest of the quarter?” he said, trying not to sound confused.

“It’s only five more weeks,” Pat replied. JC looked at me. I shrugged, and so did he. “Good,” said Pat, and left before we could find the words in our vocabulary that might indicate negation.

“It starts with an n,” JC said, as if he could read my mind.

“You didn’t say it either,” I told him.

“I was waiting for you to.”

We turned back to our class. One of the boys was stapling into a pencil. Another was pouring glitter across the table. The third was aggressively blacking out all the words on his colorful handout. The oldest girl giggled with her best friend, and the youngest stared sleepily at the wall. We looked at our teacher’s manuals, trying to get our bearings. The night before, we had read the lesson carefully. The children were supposed to be studying the moment in Acts when Peter sees a vision of all different kinds of food—clean and unclean—and a voice from Heaven commands him to eat it. “Do not make unclean what the Lord has made clean,” the voice tells him. It’s a simple enough story, and the curriculum even drew the parallel to the incident with Cornelius the Roman (Gentile). The children took turns reading from the excerpted story printed in their handouts. When they finished, I said, “So, what happened?” No answer. “Do you guys know what it means when it says that some of the food was clean, and some was unclean?”

“It was dirty?” asked one of the older boys.

“Not exactly…” I looked to JC for help.

He cleared his throat and paged through his Bible. “The Jews, you see, couldn’t eat certain animals, like pigs or lobster—“

“Why not?” asked the boy who was scribbling.

“Because, God commanded them not to. They also couldn’t eat certain foods together, like dairy and meat at the same time.”

“They couldn’t eat cheeseburgers?” asked the youngest girl, focusing in.

“Very good,” I told her. “They definitely couldn’t eat cheeseburgers.”

“But could they eat the cheese part, and then eat the burger later?” she asked.

“Yes. But not if they had been cooked together.”
JC jumped in. “They even had to use separate sets of pots and dishes so that meat and dairy never touched.”

“Does everyone know who the Jews are?” I asked.

The oldest boy peered out from under his ball cap. “They were God’s chosen people.”

“Okay. Can anyone name a famous Jew?”

The kids stared at me.

I tried again. “A famous Jew who was born in Bethlehem and fed thousands of people with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread and died on the cross for your sins?”

Silence. Then a look of comprehension dawned on the glitter boy’s face. He stopped glittering, looked up at me. Jesus was a Jew?”

Driving home, we were silent. I was still stunned by what the children had said. Were they just messing with us, or did they really not know that the Jews were part of the Christian story—and not just any part, but an important part? When we got home, we looked through our teacher’s manual again, this time starting at the beginning, with what they should have learned the month before. The curriculum jumped around, three lessons on Peter, then three on the Epistles, then a couple of stories from Jesus’ life. There seemed to be no logic at all. At their age—all rising fourth and fifth graders—surely the kids were ready to stop learning one random Bible story after another and instead, begin to piece together the narrative. Our church practices youth and adult baptism, and in the next class up, “Miss Cathy” begins to talk with them about this concept (she also, rumor has it, forbids staple wars and excessive glittering). How can someone understand the Crucifixion without understanding animal sacrifice, or the various covenants God has made with people? How could they experience the New Law without knowing the Old? What prophecy is fulfilled if you don’t know the Prophets?

On top of that, the kids were clearly bored. They might not have known it, but they needed a challenge. They needed to be taken seriously as Christians waiting to happen. The curriculum wasn’t helping. It suggests asking the kids to memorize the books of the Bible, but prints whatever verses they need for class in the handout. The best way to keep the order of the books fresh in one’s mind is to have to use them to navigate one’s way to a particular verse. The curriculum also contained activities that might help entertain kids for an hour, but wasn’t going to get them to ask really hard questions about their spirituality. For example, the lesson on the fruits of the spirit suggested having the kids take Sharpies and write the names of each of the spiritual fruits on an actual, physical, plant-type fruit (it also helpfully pointed out that thick-skinned fruits would be best suited to this purpose), putting them in order according to the verse…and then eating them.

When Pat asked us if we would be teaching in the fall quarter, we answered her with a “Yes, if.” We presented her with our own curriculum—a detailed study of the Pentateuch, including concordances, timelines, maps, and, yes, even looking things up in real Bibles. Pat was dubious—she felt she really had to stick to the curriculum. I would have given up right there, but my husband has a stubborn streak. As he talked to her, I could see Pat’s eyes beginning to tear up a little. “You’re the first ones the whole time I’ve been coordinating education who wanted to do anything different.”

At first, our students resisted. I think they missed their coloring sheets. Only a few weeks in, we saw a change. They argued over who got to write the long names on the family tree (thanks to the vagaries of chance, the same kid got to write both “Mahalalel” and “Methuselah”). They all wanted to be the one to read the verse. We had a class of nine- and ten-year-olds who were excited about the Bible. This was very cool.