Terri Braman leads a station for younger children at First Baptist's vacation Bible school on Wednesday. The school, and church, has seen a significant increase in participation over the past year.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — First Baptist Church was buzzing on Wednesday night — and pretty much every night this past week.
Ostensibly, a lot of those in the church were there to learn about some weird animals. But the real lessons were in faith and community.
"We're a close church, we even do things together outside the church. We're a family," said Lora Peck, co-director with Peg Chartrand of this year's vacation Bible school. "It's a wonderful, wonderful group of people."
The numbers don't lie. Peck and Chartrand estimated that some 140 to 160 people of all ages were participating each night in this year's weeklong school, including some 40 volunteers.
"We had about 40 to 45 people here last year," said Peck. "This year, we have about 140 or more here every night."
This is only the second year of the evening Bible school, and both women believe last year's played a significant part in boosting attendance at the nearly 200-year-old congregation, along with word of mouth about the church. (The church has also operated Camp Ashmere in the summer for years.)
"I think it's the experience of what they had last year," Chartrand said, noting that the evening Bible school is free and open to all, and that a number of parishioners of other churches had attended.
Peck said about as many people in the church these past evenings are now attending Sunday services.
"We've gained a lot of people in this church," she said.
"This really blew us away. We are probably at what we are at on a Sunday morning ... new people started coming to Bible school and kept coming to worship."
This week's school included a nursery, a "Critter Cafe" with food donated and prepared by volunteers, different stations of activities and lessons for children, and an adult class in the sanctuary — along with a waterfall. Older children were across the street playing games on the lawn of First Congregational Church and teens also had activities off-site.
The theme of "Weird Animals" was selected last year with planning beginning in April. It took a lot of hours — and helping hands — to transform classrooms, offices and meeting rooms into jungles and seascapes. Volunteers are also manning the stations, taking care of the children, cleaning up, cooking and teaching.
A fabulous tree in the Critter Cafe with, of course, a serpent (albeit a friendly looking one), was created by Melanie St. Pierre. The Rev. David Anderson dressed up as exotic animal hunter Nigel Weatherbottom — when he wasn't teaching with the older kids.
"One of the prayers was for the endurance of the volunteers," joked Peck.
The "weird" animals, such as a frilled dragon and axolotl salamander, were used to explain to children about being different. They learned about a different animal each night and collected a card with the creature on it to show they had attended.
"It's about being unique, and God made you unique in your own special way," Peck said.
The school isn't just a baby-sitting service, Chartrand said. It's a family activity that included a lot of parents.
Terri Braman was washing her son Samuel's feet and other children's at one of the stations before sitting them down to explain another tradition.
"It's shows how Jesus washed the feet of the disciples," Braman said. "It's about doing unto others what you want done to you. ... This has been an awesome time."
Next year, First Baptist hopes to reach new heights of participation with the theme of Mount Everest ("Taking God's Love to New Heights.") For the younger parishioners, the thematic activities may be the draw, but for others it's the simple fellowship.
"The joy of watching everyone else having fun ... I just find joy in serving," said Chartrand. "I just love to be in church."
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