Summer vacation is just around the corner, and many of the parents & kids I know are talking about camps. Sports, science, theatre, dance, you name it. Prices of camps vary from “reasonably affordable but that’s because it’s mostly free play loosely-supervised by teenagers” to “you will need to take out a second mortgage but your eleven year old will be scouted by the NHL”.
And then… there is Vacation Bible School, or VBS.
When I was a kid, the VBS bus would pull into town around mid-August. This is not a metaphor. It was a literal bus, painted in blue and white with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” emblazoned on the sides. Following behind it was a caravan of RVs, converted Dodge Econoline vans, and wood-panelled station wagons. They had a huge tent – one of those big old canvas jobs that could easily seat fifty people or more – and a stockpile of folding metal chairs. They always set up in someone’s field or unused back pasture.
For a few days before the start of the week-long camp, they would drive around to as many houses as they could within a 30km radius, knocking on doors with pamphlets in hand, inviting all children aged 5 – 18 to come to camp. They would pick everyone up in the morning! We’d drive to the tent in the bus! We’d stay ALL DAY and they’d bring us home in the late afternoon, and all the parents had to do was pack a lunch. IT WAS FREE AND THEY PROVIDED TRANSPORTATION.
In rural Nova Scotia in the 1980s, camps and other summer activities were pretty limited, especially if your parents didn’t have much money. All of my friends went to the “Gospel Tent” camp. It was like school, if school was run by Ned Flanders. My little sister and I would meet the bus early in the morning. We’d sing kids’ Bible songs all the way there. God said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floodie-floodie!
On the first day, every kid got a little cream-coloured folder to keep. Every morning, one of the camp leaders would attach a sticker with a Bible verse; we had to memorize the verse and recite it back the next day. My final year of Gospel Tent, the older kids (just me and two other girls) moved beyond the sticker process and instead were challenged to a contest; who could memorize the most verses from the Gospel of John in order. I learned 22 verses in four days, recited them all in front of the whole camp, and won a Bible. (A Bible that my two year old brother later scribbled in with purple marker, but that’s another story. He’s probably going to hell.)
At camp, we painted plaster-of-paris wall hangings with Bible verses on them (usually John 3:16, natch). We played with a Noah’s Ark flannel board. We had big group singalongs and there was always a sermon delivered by the camp director, Mr. Barry, a bald man in his early 70s who had been travelling around North America with the Gospel Tent since the 1960s.
Twice during the week they also held evening services for the larger community, and if you’re a Little House on the Prairie fan and remember the “revival meetings” from the later books, that’s basically what these were. There were no flannel boards, no plaster-of-paris, no happy songs like Pharoah Pharoah – instead it was much more fire and brimstone, and I still remember the meeting I went to with my grandmother where Mr. Barry thundered “all not in this tent tonight will see those fires of hell!” A little girl somewhere in the tent burst into hysterical tears and wailed “MY DADDY IS AT WORK!”
It was an annual tradition, Gospel Tent, and my sister and I loved it… which is really weird, in retrospect. We were not churchgoers. My dad is a lapsed Catholic and my mom was nominally Lutheran but mostly disliked organized religion in all forms. Every night when we came home, muttering our Bible verses to ourselves in order to commit them to memory, she’d sit us down and deprogram us from the day. Every summer though, back we went, for years.
Now, as a parent myself, I try to imagine how I would greet the news that a band of traveling revival preachers was coming to town and would entertain my children for free for a whole week. Can you imagine the uproar? I know that many churches now run their own VBS programs – still free, but your parents have to bring you, and from what I can tell it’s pretty light on the “Bible School” bit – but I’m pretty sure the Gospel Tent has long since rotted away and Mr. Barry, if he were still alive, would be over 100 years old.
I’m even trying to picture explaining this to my kids, and drawing a blank. It’s another relic of an era that is passed forever, the same era that brought us no seatbelts in cars and smoking in hospitals.
Tell me again why we’re all so nostalgic for the 80s?