Forget VBS. These Summer Camps Teach Kids to Be Community Activists

By Jesse James DeConto 7-05-2016
Franklin Golden / RNS
Children sing at the community-organizing camp in Durham, N.C. Photo via Franklin Golden / RNS

Twenty kids marched around a multipurpose room at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church on a recent Thursday, following the path of a cardboard highway that a day earlier they discovered had divided the city’s neighborhoods and altered their vision for the community.

“Ain’t gonna let the freeway turn me around,” they sang, hearkening back to the civil rights activism of the 1960s.

Instead of the traditional vacation Bible school, this downtown church partnered with seven other congregations — black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal, and nondenominational — to put on a community-organizing camp for kids aged 4 to 12.

“We Have the Power,” as the weeklong camp was dubbed, represents a recent movement within activist networks to invite children and youth into political action, and a renewed movement within religious communities to live out biblical teaching with good works.

Across the United States, churches are joining with social-change organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Kids4Peace to use summer breaks to teach children and youth about the civil rights movement and how they might be part of its renewal.

It reflects a wider trend in secular summer camping, as almost half of American Camp Association accredited camps focus on civic engagement or service learning.

“We’re all God’s children, and we all should look out for one another,” said Sabrina McCall, whose two daughters are attending a CDF Freedom School in Rocky Mount, N.C., this summer.

Though the program is secular, more than 50 of the CDF Freedom Schools are hosted by Methodist, Baptist and other churches, and some Jewish congregations. Every morning, the kids gather for “Harambee,” a kind of pep rally based on a Swahili word meaning, “Let’s get together.” During Harambee, the kids sing a Quincy Jones arrangement of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and the Freedom School theme song, “Something Inside So Strong,” which references the biblical city of Jericho. The CDF Freedom Schools are the most common of the faith-related justice camps, serving thousands of kids and proliferating at some 180 sites across 30 different states, from California to Massachusetts.

The CDF schools emphasize literacy to help impoverished kids toward a more secure future. But the content of the books they read is civil rights history, and the Freedom Schools invite the young scholars into issue-based political advocacy and community service.

The Freedom School tradition grows out of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked to register black voters in Mississippi. Since then, Freedom Schools have trained new activists. CDF Freedom Schools across the U.S. celebrate a “National Day of Social Action” each summer, focusing on issues like voting rights, health care access, gun violence, or education funding.

“They will definitely get some practice in engaging in social change,” said Reginald Blount, an assistant professor of youth formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which is hosting its first CDF Freedom School this summer in Evanston, Ill., through the first week in August. “It very much is a children-and-youth empowerment curriculum.”

Pastor Heber Brown, whose Pleasant Hope Baptist Church hosts an AFSC Freedom School called Orita’s Cross in Baltimore, said the summer-camp program is among his congregation’s citywide partnerships with urban farms and criminal-justice reform activists.

“It’s an important time for us to really have courage in how to think about how we ‘be’ the church,” said Brown. “Conventional ideas around evangelism and missions, they’re losing momentum.”

Brown said training young activists is a way “to be a beacon of light and love to our community, whether or not people join our church.

“Dr. King didn’t just fall out of the sky. Rosa Parks didn’t just fall out of the sky. Somebody groomed them,” he said. “We’re trying to groom the next generation of Freedom Fighters.”

Melissa Florer-Bixler, associate minister at Duke Memorial, said the camp aims to empower kids to cooperate to solve their community’s problems.

“We’re not using this camp as an evangelistic tool,” she said, but added: “We all bring values, and some of those values come out of our religious communities.”

For example, the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt framed the curriculum as a liberation story that Christians, Jews, and kids of no faith could embrace.

The children discovered the rearranged city and found the new power structures “really frustrating,” said Florer-Bixler. Monday through Wednesday, the kids built cardboard neighborhoods with the houses as close together as possible and amenities like a public pool located as centrally and equitably as possible. Overnight on Wednesday, the staff rearranged the city with wealthier residents’ homes and new skyscrapers in the center of town and poorer neighborhoods cut off by the beltway.

After dining together on chicken cutlets, peas, macaroni, and watermelon, the kids gathered with musician-activist Clayton Wright to sing songs such as, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.”

Later that evening, in the neighborhood they’d named “Chuck E. Cheese,” the kids had to decide what they wanted from the city council to mitigate the impact of the highway.

“We can sing the Freedom Songs!” said 6-year-old Chloe Powell.

“But what are we going to ask for?” asked Duke Memorial member Rick Larson, playing the role of community organizer.

The kids eventually agreed to build a rainbow-colored tunnel to connect the neighborhoods torn asunder by a highway.

Chloe’s grandmother Danita Stephens said her Pentecostal church, Monument of Faith, normally hosts a regular VBS, but she’s glad the kids are learning how to make a difference in their communities.

“When you put everybody together and get ‘em working toward a common goal,” she said, “you can get a lot more accomplished.”

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