For over 27 years, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Southside Ministries had managed a thrift store, hosted a summer Bible camp, and run a slew of youth programs such as dances, bowling nights, and board game competitions. But the organization had to disband in 2012 due to lack of funding.
Several of us were reminiscing one day about Southside Ministries. We missed working with the children of the Southside. All of us had volunteered with the summer Bible camp. We knew well the many challenges these children faced each day and lamented the loss of the benefits the camp had provided.
We decided we would hold a week-long Bible camp for children ages 3 through those who had just completed fifth grade. Our target would be the children of south Bethlehem, children who were underserved and often hungry. We would feed them healthy food, provide fun for them in a safe place, and teach them how much God loves them.
We chose dates, (July 12-16), time (5:30-7:30 p.m.), and location (St. Peter Lutheran Church on the south side of Bethlehem). We recruited teachers, musicians, an art teacher, a kitchen crew, and lots of all-around volunteers from Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and AME congregations. Local clergy volunteered to present the Bible story chosen as the theme for each evening.
Grants helped fund the program, including $750 from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s Witness and Service Ministry Team. St. Peter’s provided fresh fruit and cookies for desserts and snacks. A local restaurant offered us a hot meal of a meat, vegetable, and salad for only $3.50 per person. And we had enough money left for art supplies, beverages, and a T-shirt for each child.
Now all we needed was the children. We distributed flyers to all students at two local elementary schools and to the public library, local WIC office, Boys and Girls Club, and local congregations. Posters were hung up at neighborhood stores and shops. Two local newspapers advertised the camp for free.
And then it was time for camp. Each evening began with a prayer circle and meal followed by a Bible story, class groups, art, and music. The evening ended with announcements and a snack. On the final day, the children presented a program of songs and stories. In total, we registered 37 children and had 18 adult/teen volunteers. We also fed some 20 parents who stayed for the meal each evening.
It was wonderful to see the children form friendships as they learned, played, and worked together and to watch the adults lingering to chat with neighbors they had just met. Age, size, gender, ethnicity, skin color – none of that mattered. The common bond was love – God’s love for all, and the compassionate, caring-for-one-another love displayed as volunteers ate, prayed, learned, and celebrated life in Christ together.