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EDMOND, Okla. — For the Edmond Church of Christ, VBS stands for Very Busy Summer.
Actually, preparations for the 1,100-member congregation’s Vacation Bible School begin nine months in advance, Chara Watson said. She directs the 25-minute dramas that open four nights of Bible lessons, crafts and — of course — snacks for children from age 3 to fifth grade.
Leading up to the performances are long weeks of scripting, staging and costuming for a cast of 50 — some teens, some age 80 and up.
“Many of the cast members work full time and come straight from work to daily practice until 10 p.m.,” said Meredith Graham, who has volunteered with the church’s VBS for five years. “So many church members and youth group members are involved in setting up, tearing down … decorating, designing, sewing, cleaning costumes.”
The result: a four-part, a cappella, off-Broadway musical in central Oklahoma. Through repurposed pop songs, Disney anthems and song book selections the cast shares the Good News with children — and more than a few of their parents, who make sure to stick around for the performances.
“Esther: For a Time Like This” was the theme of this year’s VBS, the Edmond church’s 30th. The producers follow a seven-year plan, basing their dramas on the lives of David, Joseph, Esther, Daniel and Moses plus two years that cover the life and the crucifixion of Christ. Then the cycle restarts for the next generation of children.
For Watson, an Edmond church member and fine arts director at nearby Oklahoma Christian Academy, it was her ninth year directing the VBS drama. She earned a master’s in communication and storytelling studies from East Tennessee State University and has written scripts for the dramas for the past decade. Her father, Phil Sanders, is a longtime minister and host of the national TV ministry “In Search of the Lord’s Way,” which is sponsored by the Edmond church. Sanders portrayed Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, in the drama a few years ago.
The book of Esther, from the Old Testament, chronicles the life of a young woman named Hadassah, one of the Jewish exiles living in Persia after the Babylonian captivity. Thrust unwillingly into the role of queen, she must risk her life to save her people from genocide.
Despite its severity, the story allows for the occasional laugh. During the Edmond church’s previous rendition of Esther, a middle-aged King Xerxes gazed wistfully at a picture of his deposed queen, Vashti, and sang Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
For this year’s performance, Watson rewrote the script and struck a more serious tone. She cast a younger, more unsure-of-himself King Xerxes who falls under the influence of his manipulative, opportunistic adviser, Haman.
The story opens with Hadassah coming to live under the care of her cousin, Mordecai, after the death of her parents. She learns about the importance of her Jewish faith and heritage. Watson sought to highlight the socioeconomic and cultural differences between the exiled Israelites and their Persian neighbors.
The core theme remains the same, Watson said: “Essentially, the idea is that God sees us and prepares us for whatever he wants us to be able to do.
“A storyteller can imbue a story with a particular meaning in the way that they tell it,” she added. “However, the listener is also going to find their own meaning.”
Indeed, there were myriad takeaways among the nearly 300 children who attended this year’s VBS. Sadie Bodine, age 7, said that she loved Queen Esther “because she was so beautiful and had a crown. She was brave and trusted in God.” Her brother, Levi, age 5, said that his favorite part of the experience was the nightly snacks. But he also liked it when Haman was killed (offstage, of course) on the very pole he had constructed for Mordecai’s execution.
Their parents, Jonathan and Amanda Bodine, grew up going to VBS. Amanda Bodine said she was impressed — not only by the drama, but also by the organization of the entire event.
TJ Norman, 35, played one of the eunuchs who attempted to assassinate King Xerxes — a plot uncovered by Mordecai. It was Norman’s eighth year to perform.
“The friendships here are awesome,” he said. In a large congregation, “I’m not going to meet them otherwise.”
Meredith Graham, a high school English teacher at Oklahoma Christian Academy, said that VBS provides her congregation with opportunities to serve across multiple generations. As they serve their community, “we are being served in return,” she said.
Sylvan Gordon, the drama’s producer and an elder of the Edmond church, has been involved in the congregation’s VBS since 1992. In the past three decades, he’s seen the event grow dramatically — in scope and in popularity.
“We have other churches in town that have called and wanted to know, ‘When are you doing your VBS? We don’t want to compete against you,’” he said.
In the past five years or so, he’s also noted a growing sense of commitment among cast members. Many approach him shortly after the production wraps and ask, “Now, you’ve got me down for next year?”
“They want to be a part of it,” Gordon said. “They see the effect of what we do with the kids in bringing stories to life.”
One of Graham’s daughters, Gracie, grew up coming to the Edmond VBS. Now a sophomore at Oklahoma Christian Academy, “I’m privileged to help with performing to the generations to come,” Gracie Graham said. “The people are always so fun and easy to be around.”
Despite the busy summer schedule, “I absolutely loved it,” she said, “and will definitely be coming back next year.”
Additional reporting: Gabriel Grant Huff
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