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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At 1:26 PM, Blogger Grace said...

Yay Malik!

- Grace

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Margaret said...

Oh, that is WONDERFUL. "Saturation" is really the best word for it; it implies both the process of full immersion and the resulting sensation of being awash in and familiar with the images and stories.

I'm sure you've heard the story of the guy on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. A guy comes by and asks him what he's doing, and he says, "if they stay and dry out on the beach, they'll die." The passer-by says, "but there are so many starfish, and the tide keeps rolling out more. How can you possibly think you can make a difference?" The guy picks up a starfish and throws it far out to sea. "It made a difference to that one," he says.


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