Conveying the “I AM” … Teachings of Jesus to Kids of all Ages
By Natalie Meeks
Let’s paint a picture. Are you ready?
Our canvas – Community.
Our tools – Story, Art and Music.
Our colors – The Truths of the Gospel… Jesus Christ… The great “I AM”
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GREENVILLE, SC – It was a rainy midsummer weekend.
Seventy-five children (including ten from local orphanages) were gathered in rural Latvia at a 17th century Baron’s estate called Brukna Manor. The plush landscape was idyllic, isolated from urban Riga.
The Bridge Builders International team made the trek to the Latvian countryside in July of 2017 to lead a children’s art camp in conjunction with the summer camp organized by the Old Gertrude Church in Riga. Our team included 15 leaders and volunteers from BBI and Partners.
The chosen theme for the week were the words of Jesus in the gospel of John when he said, “I AM…”
I AM the bread of life. I AM the living water. I AM the vine and you are the branches.
BBI President Chuck Kelley led daily devotional lessons to the group of children, aged 5 to 17. The difficulty of teaching to such a broad range of ages and backgrounds cannot be understated. Jesus’ metaphors are powerfully deep. It is a challenge to meet the spiritual and cognitive needs of such a wide span of young disciples.
But, art acts as a common language – speaking to the soul regardless of age, knowledge or experience.
Perhaps the little ones don’t grasp the nuances of the deepest concepts. Perhaps the teenagers, in their hormonal angst, build walls against hard truths. Still, art speaks. And when given the opportunity to take the words, the teachings, and the ideas given to them… when helped to deposit them onto canvas and material in color and texture, the truths come alive. They find ownership in the eyes, ears and hearts of the young.
Every morning and evening, Chuck taught the children on one of the I AM teachings, beginning with how God identified himself to Moses, and continuing with how Jesus described himself in the book of John, first unpacking the metaphor in the light of the gospel, and then illustrating with a story or object. The lessons were then reinforced during the art activities. Our teachers and volunteers prepared thoughtful assignments that the children could paint, each representing one of the I AMs.
I AM the vine and you are the branches…
After explaining and illustrating what this teaching says about both Jesus and us, his children, the lesson deepened to analyze the potential of what we gain and become when we are connected to Christ. We are dependent on Him for spiritual life while He is dependent on us for spiritual fruit. Following the afternoon lesson, our artists asked children to paint or draw the theme. The children were thrilled, and many very interesting and creative paintings resulted.
Several of our team members actually lived and worked with the children 24/7, throughout the week, serving as counselors and caretakers. Naomi Strauser, BBI Vice President, spent her time assisting leaders from Gertrude’s Church, meeting practical needs, helping with crafts and working to forge bonds with the kids. Several of the children in Naomi’s group came to camp from nearby orphanages. By nature of the tragedy and trauma of their life experiences, these children are in particular need of community, connection and consistency.
Naomi shared, “Because of the language barrier, I tried to smile to show them I cared. We played, crafted together, shared meals together and I helped ready them for bed. It truly was life changing for me in the respect that you never realize how a child is going to respond to you; some might distrust you, some times are harder than others. The key was showering them with love every day, no matter the response. But inevitably, the children lost their timidity. When I prepared to leave, many of the children came up and hugged me. And the one boy that struggled the most… he even gave me a high five. We won’t forget him.”
CHALLENGES: One particular hardship of the week was the daily downpour of heavy rain. A children’s camp filled with contained and active little people can be a tricky business. Impromptu solutions were required; our team responded with creativity. During one afternoon downpour, Partners’ Madara Molnika led and directed a skit for the kids. Board member Stephanie Norman’s daughter, Kalina, acted as one of the main characters. This was a fantastic way to engage the kids, familiarize them with the staff and volunteers, and ease them into the remaining days in comfort. Much laughter was had – that greatest of all connectors.
Thankfully, the end of the week afforded clear skies. The beautiful setting now offered opportunity for additional creative activities outdoors. In addition to Bible lessons and sessions with our artists, our team organized a special prayer walk for the children on the last evening.
We began by setting up four prayer stations amidst the sprawling flower and vegetable gardens. Each station was manned by one of our leaders, who gave a brief devotional to the kids about his/her specific topic of prayer. They discussed who to pray for and how to pray. What is prayer? Why do we pray? Who ought we to pray for? As children, what kind of prayers do your parents need?
Six groups rotated through each station. Questions by little ones that began with prompts and practical matters reached higher into the domain of spiritual discussion. After all, is there really a veil between the spiritual and the practical? The sacred and the ordinary? Certainly, not for the children.
The week was not without trials. Little sleep was had. Volunteering in Latvian camp is a difficult venture all around. But ultimately, the Lord Jesus was there. The same Jesus Christ who tells us that He is the Vine, the Living Water, and the Bread of Life.
It was our privilege and joy to paint a picture of these truths for the children.