Vacation Culture School

Peggy Menke, right, holds up a dragonfly nymph exoskeleton during the Vacation Culture School program held June 30 that focused on summer holidays, including the summer solstice, which is a celebration of nature and the longest day of the year. The next program of this year’s VCS will be held Sunday, Sept. 29, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Peace Lutheran Church, 5 Scenic Drive, in Washington. Plans are to feature the fall festivals of Dia de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead), the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and the UN International Day of Peace.                                 Missourian Photo.

Vacation Bible Schools or VBS are a popular summer activity for children around Franklin County. Various churches across the area host these weeklong events that include daily activities, crafts and games built around a biblical theme.

For the last several years, Neighbors United Undoing Racism (NUUR), a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for communication and education, has sponsored a similar event at Peace Lutheran Church in Washington, but not one that is limited to children or to Bible lessons.

Vacation Culture School, which is open both to children and adults, is a way to educate and enlighten people about the different faiths being practiced by people right here in the Franklin County area, as well as around the world.

“We invite our neighbors to come share about their faiths,” said Aimee Appell, president of NUUR and pastor of Peace Lutheran Church.

Although the Vacation Culture School doesn’t have any connection to the Lutheran faith, other than it is held at Peace Lutheran Church, Appell said she has used her faith perspective to explain why she feels it’s a valuable program.

“In the Ten Commandments, we are told not to bear false witness, and (Martin) Luther says that doesn’t just include not lying about our neighbors, but also learning how to speak well of them,” she said. “I think in order to do that, we need to know them. So we created space where we can ask some questions and really meet people face to face.”

One of the main things Neighbors United has tried to do each year is find people who live in and around Fraklin County to give the presentations. Not people who live in St. Louis or beyond. The idea is that the experience is that much more real for people attending, because these are literally their neighbors.

The other point organizers hope to get across is that there are people of other faiths besides Christianity who live in Franklin County. There are people of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths living here, said Appell. And across the river in Augusta, there is a Buddhist temple.

“Our goal is to explore the different experiences and beliefs of the people in our community in order to foster understanding and connection,” said Appell.

In years past, the Vacation Culture School (VCS) was held over the span of a single week, with events held every night. But this year, the program is being held on four Sundays throughout the year, one during each season.

The theme is holidays around the world.

The first program for this year’s VCS was held June 30 and included presentations on Duan Wu Jie or the Dragon Boat Festival in China, the Summer Solstice and Krishna Jammashtami, which is a Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna.

The second program, set for Sunday, Sept. 29, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., will feature three autumn holidays around the world.

Plans are to have presentations on Dia de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead), the Jewish fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and the UN International Day of Peace.

“We are hoping to have an exchange of origami cranes with a group somewhere else in the world, possibly Kenya, to mark the Day of Peace,” said Appell.

Admission to VCS is free, but people are encouraged to register in advance so organizers can have enough supplies and snacks on hand. To register, go to https://www.facebook.com/VCSWashMO/ or email VacationCultureSchool@gmail.com.

Began in 2017

The first VCS held in 2017 was dedicated to the five major world religions. Over the course of the week, there were presentations on:

• Christianity and Juneteenth, the annual festival held on June 19 by African Americans to commemorate emancipation from slavery in Texas on that day in 1865. The presentation included some of the history, songs and games, like moncala;

• Judiasm, with a family from Washington talking about the shebbat service, sharing foods they eat and games they play, like the dreidel game;

• Muslim faith, with a mini hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca that included various stations set up outside where children could learn about the different aspects. At each station, there was a story about why Muslims complete that step of the Hajj, and then the children did something that emulated that.

“One thing they do is get water from a sacred stream, and here we had a thing of water that kids could dump over their heads,” said Appell. “There also is a place (on the Hajj) where they throw stones at the devil, so here we had them throw stones at a tree.”

Adults attending the program stayed inside for a question and answer period.

• Hinduism. Mrs. Apte from the Montessori Day School in Washington brought people from the Hindu temple in St. Louis to Washington to help her lead games, provide henna tattoos and demonstrate how to wear saris.

• Buddhism. Several monks from the Mid-American Buddhist Association in Augusta led the presentation.

On each night, people were invited to make a quilt square inspired by the faith — for Juneteenth, people used symbols from the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find their way to freedom, and for Hindu night, they created rangoli designs.

More than 100 people attended throughout the week. Some came one night; a few came every night. People who came were from well beyond Washington — from Pacific, Robertsville, Eureka . . .

Many people commented that attending the event changed their perspective on things and people of other faiths.

“What is so great about VCS is the education,” said Patricia Bowers, a NUUR member. “People just don’t know a lot of this, and we educate and enlighten people to the ways that we are all alike, more so than not.

“Plus there’s always food, and that opens your mind to try new things,” she said. “There’s something about breaking bread together that kind of brings you together more.”

“It humanizes you,” Appell remarked.

One of the goals of VCS is to build bridges between people in the community, said Appell.

She herself has found that people she’s met through VCS, she may see around town, at the grocery store or at the gym, and she can stop for a few minutes and talk with them to learn about their lives and understand their perspective.

“It’s an opportunity to break boundaries, and it makes them feel more comfortable and welcome in a community where they are the minority,” Appell commented.

After the first VCS, feedback organizers received was that as much as people had enjoyed learning about the different religions, they also wanted to learn about the cultures outside of the religious traditions, said Appell. Last year we focused more on regions of the world. And this year is a way to bring those two, religion and culture, together.

Appell’s daughter, Grace, suggested the theme of holidays around the world.

Plans for the winter and spring programs have not been finalized. Watch The Missourian for details. Dates have been set for Feb. 2 and April 26. Hours will be 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Peace Lutheran Church, 5 Scenic Drive, Washington.

Model for Other Communities to Replicate

Appell has created a website for VCS that she hopes other communities will use as a model for creating a similar program in their areas.

“One of my colleagues in Arkansas is doing an interfaith summer camp, which is a similar idea,” she said. “They have an interfaith group that they work with in their community, so they are going to the mosque one day, going to the synagogue one day. Taking all the kids there. Instead of having a VBS, they are going around the community.”

Free to Attend, Funded by Grants

There is no charge to attend VCS.

In the past, NUUR took up a freewill offering to help defray the cost of hosting the event. But holding it over four Sundays rather than across a single week allowed NUUR to apply for four separate action team grants from Thrivent Financial to cover the cost of supplies and food.