HAMMOND, La. (BP) -- The room was completely dark until, one by one, a small group of elementary age children shook their chemical light sticks. Squeals of laughter erupted as the room, now illuminated by swirling colors of green, yellow, red and blue, revealed happy faces.
The exercise was one of several to illustrate the birth of Jesus as the Light of the World used during a unique "VBS at Christmas" at Crossroads Baptist Church in Hammond, La.
The church, located in a renovated movie theater across from Southeastern Louisiana University, is an active group of small families and SLU students and averages about 150 in attendance, said pastor Asah Hudgins.
"Our goal with this is to start the Christmas season off for the kids by focusing on Christ," Hudgins said of the Dec. 1 event. As far as anyone knows, this was the first Christmas VBS in this part of the state.
Two years ago a Hammond Lutheran church hosted an Easter VBS and Tara Hudgins, the pastor's wife, thought it was a good idea. They hosted a regular weeklong VBS in August and followed up this year with a one-day Christmas VBS.
"It's a good outlet for parents to bring their children to a safe place where they will hear the Gospel and hopefully bring their families back," Tara Hudgins said prior to the day's activities. "We hope to share Christ's love with them and that they have a fun day. I'm already seeing kids I haven't seen before."
About 15 to 20 church members volunteered to help with the program and by the end of the morning, more than 40 children, about half of them visitors, had heard the Christmas story and its salvation message.
The day began with all the children meeting in the worship area to sing Christmas songs, and then they broke into two groups. One group did arts and crafts and the other heard the Christmas story.
For the crafts class, the children placed stickers of Bible verses on light switch covers and then made "Christingles" table ornaments. They stuck a candle in an orange, wrapped it in a red ribbon, adorned it with gumdrops impaled on toothpicks and learned how each item symbolized something in the salvation story. The orange is the earth, the red ribbon symbolizes the blood Jesus shed on the cross and the candy is the sweetness of having salvation.
After a mid-morning snack of fresh fruit, they gathered again in the worship area at noon for a brief closing service.
"I think this is an incredible idea," said Rachael Stromeyer, a member of Woodland Park Baptist Church, who dropped off her two sons, Brandon, 7, and Brent, 13. "Society has pushed us into not knowing the true meaning of Christmas and sometimes kids need to be told over and over again."
While her boys were at VBS, Stromeyer said, she was going home to get out the Christmas decorations and planned take the boys out to buy a tree in the afternoon.
"I think this is a great idea," said Crystal Vinyard, who attended SLU and now lives in North Carolina with her husband David, who attended Crossroads years ago. Two of their children were attending the VBS and Kenley, 11, was volunteering.
"It was actually really fun," Kenley said. "You get to help out all the little kids and you get to do community service and you feel good doing that."
Children's ministry director Melinda Holloway said they were all pleased with the turnout.
"One of my main focuses is to show them the Gospel, make sure it's all about Jesus, make sure they see Jesus," Holloway said. "I have nothing against Santa, but we didn't want to have any red and bows and stuff. I wanted it to be the Light of the World -- make sure it was made known that Jesus didn't just come as a baby, that He always existed and this was part of God's plan."
The light sticks were Holloway's idea.
"A lot of Christmas services use candles, but candles don't work well with small children. They were a good way for them to see the darkness and the light," Holloway said.
Mark Hunter writes for the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
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