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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At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

How great to have a story in the Globe -- and a nice one, too. So, we start Beulah with babies? It's fascinating...

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's been some very interesting research in how much babies can take in - they just can't articulate it a way that we can underestand because we've lost the ability to 'speak baby'!

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

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