Wednesday, November 23, 2005


The November 19 issue of The Boston Globe had a wonderful article on Beulah Land as used at the Church of the Advent, Boston (a historic downtown Anglo-Catholic congregation).

Since The Globe allows free access to its Web archive for only two days after publication, I scanned the print version (with pictures!) and published it on the web. The address is below:

Postscript, December 11:

The Boston office of The New York Times picked up on the Globe article, and called me last week to discuss it. The result was an article in The Times with much the same content as the one in The Globe, but no picture of the feltboard, and the picture of the babies isn't nearly as cute.

Postscript, December 20:

The link provided from the Times Index turned out to direct to the wrong article (one about snowstorms in the Northeast, by the same reporter!), plus the article went onto Times Select (pay per view) after a week. So I have pasted the entire text into this post:

Religion Journal; With Scripture and Cookies, Reaching Out to Very Young By KATIE ZEZIMA (NYT) 1213 words

Published: December 10, 2005

''May almighty God bless the mommies and daddies and brothers and sisters,'' the Rev. Patrick Gray of the Episcopal Church of the Advent here said to the Sunday school class. ''And us, so we continue to grow big and strong.''

Ezra Gray, the pastor's 21-month-old son, started clamoring for some cookies to help him do just that, while Matthew Murphy erupted into a big, gummy smile and cooed in response to the prayer.

It was another Sunday morning at Beulah Land, the church's worship class for children under 3. The 15- to 20-minute class teaches Bible stories and Christian tenets to children using songs and stories illustrated with characters that affix to a felt board.

Father Gray and his wife, Naomi, started the group in September, after a midweek church playgroup that had no religious content exploded in popularity with neighborhood mothers. Father Gray wanted to provide the children and their parents a more spiritual way to enter into the parish community.

''When you have kids you start thinking about church again,'' he said. ''I was thinking, What's going to make it easy to come to church? Why not have what they're used to?'' Father Gray said. ''What they're used to is story time at the public library, where you sing a couple of songs, tell a story, sing some more and play with blocks.''

Father Gray starts the group with a prayer and sings songs like ''He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.'' He then moves onto a Bible story, which is told in a rather grown-up way, as when he recited some of the Ten Commandments for the children. All the while he illustrates the story with the felt characters. After the kids sing a few songs, the toys come out of the closet.

Bible study classes for school-age children and religious educational activities for preschoolers are common. But classes for children who still have months to go in diapers are extremely rare.

Joan Lucariello, a professor of early childhood development at Boston College, does not believe that infants can process such concepts. Infants take vocabulary one word at a time, she said, but can't comprehend a narrative story. They can relate to literal everyday routines, like lunchtime, by age 2. They cannot, however, grasp abstract notions of God and religion.

''It's not plausible that infants could understand that,'' Professor Lucariello said.

Father Gray does not make any claims about how much the children learn.

''Do they have any idea what's going on? I don't know. Infants pay more attention than toddlers,'' Father Gray said. ''It's sort of evangelistic, but it's fun. We just want to have some fun with this.''

Father Gray uses the Beulah Land curriculum, which was developed for children ages 3 to 10 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, a New Haven religious educator.

The curriculum has teachers read traditional Bible stories in adult language to the children and illustrate them with colorful characters on a felt board. About 250 churches in the United States and Canada use the curriculum, according to Beulah Enterprises, which sells the materials.

Ms. Pritchard said that she had not heard of another parish using the curriculum with such young children, and she said that the company planned to reach out to that age group in the coming year.

''The goal of it is to make the scriptural stories accessible to children through a special vocabulary of visual forms,'' Ms. Pritchard said.

While some Biblical imagery could be considered too graphic for such small children, Ms. Pritchard believes children should be told all of the stories from Scripture, though their perspective would change as they grow up. Ms. Pritchard believes too many programs focus simply on the moral of a story rather than the story itself.

''I don't like the way Bible stories are prettified and cutefied for small children,'' she said. ''It's not about the moral, it's the story, and you need to present the story so they can process the story in a way that's right for them. If you tell them a preprocessed story, when they outgrow that version you've given them, they have nothing.''

Parents say their kids are getting something out of Beulah Land, although they cannot quantify exactly what.

Lori Farnan, whose sons Matthew and Michael Murphy were among the half-dozen children at the Beulah Land session, said 2-year-old Michael was especially struck by the story of Noah's Ark.

''Michael plays with his toys and pairs them in twos,'' she said. ''He definitely got it from class. It's nice and short, 15 minutes, and it's enough to keep their attention. They really do pay attention.''

For Susie Maxwell, Beulah Land has been a way for their family to become involved in the church. They moved from Ithaca, N.Y., last year, and heard about the group on a local playground. Her two children, Audrey, 2, and Peter, 6 months, attend each Wednesday and love it, she said.

''It's not a long story, and Patrick doesn't dumb it down,'' she said. ''It's a real story from the Bible, and the bright images, and I know they get something out of it.''

This past Sunday, Father Gray started with a prayer and a song about how God made cows and creepy things. The story was about Moses and the Ten Commandments.

''Do you remember how Moses went out of Egypt?'' Father Gray said. Ezra picked at some cereal while Harriet Lewis-Bowen, who will turn 2 this month, stared at Father Gray from her mother's lap. ''Moses led the children of Israel to the shores of the Red Sea,'' Father Gray said, placing blue strips that looked like waves on the felt board. To their left was a cluster of brightly colored people. Behind them was a darkly colored group of people. ''The Red Sea was to the front, and the enemy was behind.''

Father Gray continued with the story, and placed a felt cutout of Moses, in a brown robe, on top of a mountain. Father Gray had Moses throw stone tablets, also made of felt, onto the floor.

''Do not lie, cheat, kill or steal. Live in fairness and truth. And again Moses brought the law to the children of Israel,'' Father Gray said.

A father added, ''Or commit adultery,'' to the parents' amusement. The children started to shift around a bit, and Father Gray had them sing a round where parents crouched down and lifted the kids high into the air on alternating alleluias. It was then time for cookies, juice and toys.

Photo: Toddlers and their mothers sang this week in a class for young children led by the Rev. Patrick Gray at the Church of the Advent in Boston. (Photo by Robert Spencer for The New York Times)

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Sunday morning: I have only two kids in Sunday School. In this urban parish it takes all the work we can do just to keep the numbers from shrinking. We graduated a cohort of middle-schoolers last June, then suddenly a whole cluster of younger children moved away over the summer. Our weekday programs with inner-city kids are full, but Sunday is another matter.

The two kids present are Malik and Danielle. Danielle is five, and still at the stage where what she wants to do in Sunday School is talk about her dress and her dolly and the card she got for Halloween. She's friendly and delightful, but it's hard to know whether she is tuned in to the story or the prayers. She loves singing.

Malik is almost nine. His family lives in the projects, and were regular guests at our food pantry when he was three and a half. They accepted our invitation to enroll him and his brother in our summer program. At the end of the summer, his family joined the Sunday congregation, and he was baptized on All Saints' Sunday of that year. He also began coming to Light and Peace. He has, therefore, heard most of our Beulah Land Bible stories around fifteen times each: once a year for five years in each of those three settings: Sunday School, summer program (daily for three weeks each year), and Light and Peace.

We are working on covenants this fall, and have gotten as far as Abraham. As I am putting up the story, Malik asks if he can tell a story. I abandon my plans for having them draw pictures of the covenants, and, after prayers and the offering, I sit down with Danielle, and hand over the storyteller's role to Malik.

Malik takes all the Old Testament materials off the board, leaving only the hands and heart of God, centered at the top of the board. He asks for the figures of Jesus and the Devil. I have three different adult Jesus figures: the "regular" Jesus and two slightly different risen Jesuses, made at different times. The "regular" Jesus has a removable robe so that he can be placed on the cross.

Malik takes out all three of them, and arranges them on the hands and heart of God--the regular Jesus in the center, on the heart, and the two risen Jesuses on either side, one on each hand. Then he takes out the brown felt cross, places it below the three Jesus figures, and moves the regular Jesus onto the cross, setting the robe aside . He steps back to consider, then moves the other two Jesuses to stand flanking the cross.

"The two from heaven come and ask, 'Why are you on the cross?'" he explains. "And he says, 'I wanted to be 'cause I didn't want to join the devil's team."

Malik has always been fascinated with the temptation scenes in the Bible--the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Jesus. When I tell the story of Jesus' temptation, I have the devil say to Jesus, "Join my team. You’ll have power on your side. You won’t have to do it the hard way. You’ll get it all, just the way you want—nice and quick and easy. It won’t be scary, and it won’t hurt. It’ll feel good. You’ll be the best." Always, if I ask the children, "What did the Enemy say to Jesus?" Malik is the first to call out, "'Join my team!'"

Now Malik looks again at the scene he has made: Jesus on the cross, flanked by two risen Jesuses. He takes the figure off the cross. "So they got him down off the cross and got him some clothes."

"Now the devil comes back. He says, 'Join my team. You'll have power.' Jesus says, 'No.'" Malik holds the two figures, Jesus and the devil, in front of the board, and jiggles each one, like a puppet, when it's that figure's turn to speak.

"Jesus says, 'No.'" Malik flips the devil figure to the floor. Then he bends over and picks it up again. "He says, 'OK, but don't come cryin' back at me when you lose all your power.'" Malik slaps the devil onto the board, high up and far away from Jesus. "He's goin' away to watch and wait."

Malik replaces Jesus on the board, and, with some difficulty, smooths his robe back onto him. He turns to me. "Where's the table?" While I am looking for the table, in the New Testament set, Malik finds the twelve disciples, and begins putting them up, one by one, on either side of Jesus. "Peter ... and Matthew ... and Thomas ... " he is reading their names off the backs of the figures. I hear my own voice patterns echoed back to me in the way Malik recites the names. Danielle gets up and asks if she can help. Malik gives her a clutch of disciples to add to the board, and prompts her with their names.

I find the white felt table, with its chalice, paten, five loaves, two fish, and two jagged-edged semicircles that represent the two halves of a broken loaf. Malik sets the table in place, across the Jesus figure, so that Jesus is now standing behind the table. Meanwhile, Danielle has found the rising sun from the Easter set and is laboriously placing golden rays around it, off to the left side of the board. Malik places the two broken loaf halves on Jesus' hands.

"He separates the two breads. He says, 'There's one for you ... and one for you ... and one for you ... and you ... and you ...'" Again I hear my own voice echoed back to me in Malik's voice. One by one, he places the broken loaf halves, then the five whole loaves, on the disciples' hands. "And you ... and you ... " There are no more loaves, but this does not stop Malik. He continues down the line, miming the action with imaginary loaves. "And you ... and you ... " Then the two fish. "And more fish, for you and you and you ... "

The usher comes out from the church, to tell us it's time for communion. It's an easy transition to make. There's bread for you ... and you ... and you and you and you. Thinking back, a few days later, I find myself wondering--if we'd had more time, how long would he have gone on? What story would he have picked next? Would he have eventually broken the spell, by getting silly?

From Malik's feltboard story I discovered, to my delight, that Scripture is as accessible to his imagination as professional wrestling, the latest rap song, and the names of fast-food restaurants. Constant daily exposure to the signs and symbols of consumer culture assures that the vast majority of children recognize McDonald's golden arches long before they can spell their own names. It's easy for us to despair: there is no way we can match the saturation level of popular trash culture in the lives of children. But five years of repeated multiple exposures to the Gospel story, presented via a consistent set of scripts and visual images--along with weekly presence at the altar with the parish family--were enough to make these stories real for Malik, so that he was drawn to do with them what all children do with their stories: that is, to play with them. He had captured their visual patterns, their cadences, and their vocabulary, and made them his own, to play out his own spiritual drama.

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