THE BEAUTY AND THE BUS

by Anthony Scott

 

It was one of those dismal northwestern winter days — cold, rainy and overcast. The type of day when one would love to curl up by a warm fire to read a good book.

"Why are we out and walking around in this weather?" I kept asking Kim Majdali, our then SOYO President. It was a rhetorical question and he knew it.

"I don't know," he said with an easy smile, "you asked me to come along remember?"

"Ah yes, so I did," I replied. This was complete insanity I thought to myself, jumping from puddle to puddle, dodging rain showers, searching for a good used school bus amid acres and acres of used school buses … It suddenly occurred to me that I knew absolutely nothing about buying a school bus. I would surely appear ridiculous if I walked around one of these giants and kicked the tires, I thought. The beautiful idea of busing children to church school had suddenly become a very beastly and difficult project.

"They never told me at seminary that it would be like this," I kept muttering to myself. Oh well, if St. John Chrysostom could walk barefoot through snow at age 68, with a stomach ulcer, tormented by his captors and could still lift his eyes toward heaven and say "Thank God for life!", certainly I could see some positive aspect to this day's adventure of puddle-jumping in Portland.

"Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them. For to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven" — Matt. 19:14

It all began soon after graduation from St. Vladimir's Seminary and the assignment to my first parish. After our arrival in Portland, we quickly discovered one of the greatest strengths of the parish — a super-abundance of children. Virtually all of the homes had maintained that fine Orthodox tradition of having many children. In addition, many of the families had relatives that belonged to no particular church and they too had children.

Slowly we began to count: 30, 40, 60, 80, almost 100 church school-aged children! And all this from a parish of only 46 pledging families. It seemed almost too good to be true. Yet our joy was short-lived, for soon after registration we began to be disappointed. Only 64 children registered and what was worse -during the first semester the average attendance per Sunday was merely 33. We were dismayed. Here was a rich resource for Church growth but we did not know how to develop it.

One Sunday as my wife and I were driving to Church, a school bus passed us. It did not make any impression on us until the next passed and the next — all filled with children. "Hey, something is strange here," I said, "this is Sunday. What are all of those school buses doing?" We looked a little bit closer and saw that they were not regular school buses at all but church buses. Slowly, ever so slowly, an idea began to emerge in the back of my mind. If all these other churches could pick up children, why couldn't we?

We began to read, to talk to people, to investigate and to attend seminars - all on the subject of busing. Yes, most certainly it was a feasible idea — but how would the community respond to it? Would they understand or accept this entirely new kind of missionary effort? Would the parish council support it? Where would we recruit the bus workers? There were many unanswered questions to be resolved.

The first and most important question was the parish council. In a community as small as ours, their approval would guarantee the initiation of the program, but their support must be solid — unanimous if possible. A new program with as much impact and potential controversy as this one needed firm backing. Before the crucial parish council meeting where the program would be presented we enthusiastically talked it up in homes, to parish council members, and at Church. We distributed inspirational books on church busing to certain parish council members to read. We composed lists of all the children who attended either irregularly or not at all. An estimate of the cost of buying and maintaining a bus along with the insurance quotations were obtained. Then lastly and most importantly, we marshaled all of the theological points we could find regarding the mission of the Church.

A prayer began the parish council meeting and soon it was time for me to deliver the presentation. No one showed any reaction during the talk. Following it there were many intelligent and businesslike questions posed. Then came the vote. I hardly dared to look. God bless our parish council. They were absolutely unanimous and enthusiastic in their approval. They felt that this was a tremendous opportunity to extend the parish into the community as a vibrant, growing, and loving expression of Christ's presence. Now the real work could begin.

We began to search through the parish. Where could we find enthusiastic and zealous bus workers who also liked children? It was not easy to find people with these qualifications — people who also would be willing to give up four, extra hours on Sunday to run the route. Yet surely there were some people who cared enough about their Church to sacrifice their time for the children.

We had been impressed very much by our Teen SOYO ever since our arrival in Portland. We now looked to them for help. We invited some of the oldest and most responsible of them to dinner at our apartment and discussed the entire project. God bless them because they too responded enthusiastically. We now had a bus driver — Nezar Trad, a bus secretary — Jumana Trad and a bus captain -Sameer Hadeed. Later we were to recruit two outstanding leaders of our community - Bill Bitar and Kent Lucas — as bus drivers.

"Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6

Now the question arose, where were we going to get a bus? New ones cost up to $30,000 and even a dependable used one would cost about $5,000. This was a steep price for a parish that operates on a budget of only $14,000 a year. Then one of the most encouraging supporters on the parish council — Bill Bitar suggested that we lease a bus. Perhaps it would be cheaper. And indeed it was! — only $20 per Sunday and we could use it the entire day if we wished. In addition it was brand new, carried 66 people, and had automatic transmission, plus they maintained it and filled it with gas each week. Things were really beginning to come together. An ugly and ungainly beast was rapidly becoming something of great spiritual beauty. Yet there remained one last acid test.

How would the parents, who so rarely came to Church, react to this missionary "invasion" of their homes? Once again we carefully laid the groundwork. Publicity flyers were sent out in the bulletin, it was promoted in homes, personal friendships were cultivated with the children themselves, even a large poster bus was constructed where the coffee hour was held and the pictures of the children were placed in it, and finally, key leaders of the community were contacted to enlist their support.

At last the big day arrived. We had spent the two previous days in intensive visitations soliciting promises of cooperation from the parents and being as forceful as we dared. The program must begin with decisiveness and strength.

Prayerfully and yet nervously the Liturgy began. The Church was only half-full as usual. Where was the bus? As the Liturgy progressed, I became increasingly agitated and worried. Maybe there had been an accident. Anything could have gone wrong. Suddenly doubts flooded my mind. Surely our bus workers were too young for this much responsibility. Certainly the parents, who were so used to sleeping in on Sunday, would never assume the obligation of waking their children, dressing them and sending them out the door. And besides, who ever heard of a child voluntarily and eagerly going to Sunday School? The program could not possibly succeed. There were too many obstacles against it. Then just before the Epistle we heard the doors of the Church open. The captain of the acolytes leaned over and whispered, "The bus is here."

With all of the courage that I could summon, I turned around to watch them enter …

There were so many bright and smiling faces that I could barely believe my eyes. On that Sunday and on every Sunday that the bus operated that year, the first three rows of pews on both sides of the Church were filled with happy, joyful children.

 

Our Theology

For many, the theology of Church busing would appear to be obvious, but for others it is not nearly so clear. The Orthodox Church, especially in North America, has not been noted for its missionary zeal in the last two centuries. Therefore, a re-examination of the mission of the Church according to the teachings of Christ should precede any busing program. One biblical quote immediately comes to mind. The importance of the words are underscored by the fact that these were the very last words spoken by Christ before His Ascension. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matt. 28:19-20)

There is no valid reason why twentieth century technology cannot be used to fulfill a first century commandment. Certainly one of the vital life signs of a healthy parish is the desire to attract new people, welcome visitors and seek a growing membership. It is when a parish begins to turn in upon itself, becomes concerned only with its own business and shuns outsiders that it begins to decay internally.

Perhaps the most precious resource of any parish is its children. It is the children who are educated and trained next Sunday in the Church that become the leaders, teachers and decision makers of the Church in the next decade. Our Lord Himself rebuked His disciples for turning children away from Him and when they did come He laid His hands upon them and blessed them. (Matt. 19:14)

One of the most important aspects of Church busing is the fact that it is a ministry to the whole family — children, parents and grandparents. It is true that the majority of riders will be children but that does not preclude the involvement of the whole family in the life of the Church.

There are seven major steps to building and maintaining a bus route:

  1. Canvass the parish. Is your parish firmly committed to bringing new people into the Church: Is there a reasonable number of potential bus riders? Caution: This program should not be attempted unless you are convinced of community support.
  2. Undertake a demographical study of the parish. Where do the children live who cannot or do not come to Church? If the area to be covered is large then consider two or three separate routes.
  3. Shop for a bus. Leasing or buying are both options. Windows and upholstery are key things to consider. They are expensive to replace. Get a large bus — 66 passenger. Think big! The cost of operation and insurance is almost the same as it would be for a smaller bus.
  4. Recruit the workers. You will need:
    1. Bus Drivers. They may not need a chauffeur's license but they will need to be trained.
    2. Bus Captain. Maintains order, accompanies children to and from the door of their homes. Visits these families and leads singing on the bus.
    3. Bus Secretary. Keeps attendance records. Helps to maintain order. Develops friendships with the children, leads games and singing.
  5. Publicize the Bus. Take every opportunity to recognize the sacrifice of the workers. We award "Fishers of Men Certificates" in honor of the people who sacrifice time, money or work to bring new people into the Church.
  6. Visit these families. The entire program will stand or fall according to the commitment made to visiting. Our bus workers are encouraged to visit these families, plus the priest devotes each Saturday to visiting the homes on the route. This can easily be done in a very small parish like Portland.
  7. Utilize promotions. These projects keep the kids excited and interested. It also encourages them to bring their friends. Here are some sample ideas:
    1. Slurpee Day — every rider plus every visitor gets a free slurpee.
    2. Ice Cream Sunday — every rider plus every visitor gets an ice cream bar.
    3. Attendance Contests — Boys vs. Girls are very effective. Play upon the natural rivalry that exists at this age. They love it. The losing captain of each side gets a pie in the eye or has to kiss a real live goat. Use your imagination!

 

Here are some statistics comparing the first six weeks of our 1975 church school year without a bus and the 1976 church school year with a bus:

 

                                                      1975                  1976

Registered Students                       64                      94

Average Class Period      30 minutes      60 minutes

 

Certainly the two primary goals of a Church busing program are to increase the number and frequency of students in the Church School and to involve more families in the ongoing life of the parish. However, there are other distinct advantages as well.

 

  1. Additional possibilities of education. Most of the children will have one hour on the bus going to Church and one hour going home. This time can also be used for playing educational games and singing church hymns.
  2. Get acquainted time. Many children in the Church do not know the other children. Busing provides an excellent meeting ground.
  3. Possible increase in teaching time. Like many of the parishes in the Archdiocese our children had only 30 minutes in class due to the fact that our Sunday School only met from after Communion to the conclusion of the coffee hour. With a bus it was now possible to have Sunday School one hour before the Liturgy thus increasing teaching time by 100 percent.
  4. Deepening the experience of the Liturgy. Sunday School before Church also enables the children to experience the entire Liturgy.
  5. Adult education. Sunday School before the Liturgy made it possible for us to conduct an adult education class for the parents who brought their children to Church by private car.
  6. More involvement from parishioners. Being a driver, bus captain, or bus secretary can bring out the very best in people. SOYO can also be drawn on to help maintain order, serve as teaching assistants and work on the bus.
  7. Increased mobility. Transportation for SOYO outings, Church picnics, Vacation Bible School, retreats and summer camps becomes much easier.
  8. Finally, there are those benefits which cannot be measured by any statistics or graphs because they signify changing attitudes toward God and the Church.

 

— the two brothers aged 5 and 7 who rarely attended Church before but now wake themselves, bathe and dress, while their parents continue to sleep in.

— the shy 7 year old visitor who after six months has firmly decided that he wants to join the Church and be baptized.

— the parents who gradually begin to rediscover their faith through the eyes of their daughter who is so excited about riding a bus to Church.

 

Here are some answers to common questions asked about busing.

 

  1. What if our parish is too spread out? Conduct a demographical survey. Find out exactly where the children are. If there are concentrations of families then it may not be as bad as it seems. Some of our children ride for 1½ hours to Church and 1½ hours home. With singing, games and friends, they don't mind it at all. Also consider the possibility of more than one bus.
  2. How expensive is it? Our entire program for one year — leasing, insurance and promotions costs under $1,000. Families with children being bused will feel more responsible toward supporting the Church. Plus, if only 4 of the 50 or 60 children on a bus grow up to join the Church and become pledging members then the investment is realized.
  3. Isn't this just a baby sitting service for parents too lazy to bring their children to Church? There are many parents who work on week-ends and cannot bring their children. Besides we don't feel that it is fair to punish children for the sins of their parents. Children have souls too. Parents who never come to Church teach that habit to their children. With a bus, children learn good attendance habits.
  4. Aren't these promotions merely bribes to get the children to come to Church? Children attend public school because they are required to by law. They do not have to come to Church — especially if their parents do not encourage them. It's unfair to ask children to have an adult commitment to the worship of God. Given the choice most of them would rather be playing than in a classroom. Besides, don't we have coffee hours, luncheons, etc., to attract adults to the Church?
  5. Isn't 2½ hours too long for children to be in Church? Children spend 6 hours a day in public school during the week. We have become weak Christians indeed when we believe that less than 1 percent of our weekly time is too much to spend in Church.
  6. How can the parents of the bused children be drawn into the Church? This can be done in many ways: 1) visitations, 2) sponsoring "parent days" on the bus, 3) sending questions home with the children to discuss with their parents, and 4) promoting "Family Mystery Bus Rides." Once a month children, accompanied by their parents, board the bus after Church for a journey to a surprise location for exciting family entertainment, i.e., bowling, ice skating, movies, etc.

 

One of the very best attitudes toward busing ever expressed occurred in a parish council meeting by one of our drivers. He said, "When you see that door burst open and those children come running out of the house with eager smiling faces, it makes the cost, the getting up at 7:00 A.M., the driving and everything else completely worthwhile."

 

Bibliography

Johnson, Daniel. Building with Buses, Baker Book House Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Wilson, Bill. Buses, Bibles and Banana Splits, The Train Depot P.O. Box 116. Hallandale, FL 33009

Ideas, Youth Specialties, 861 Sixth Ave. Suite 411. San Diego, CA 92101

Vineyard, Jim. Winning Souls Through Buses, Impact Books, Nashville, Tennessee.

Father Anthony Scott was pastor of St. George Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, and has prepared this story exclusively for THE WORD as an important new source of ministry in the church. He is now pastor of St. George Church in Wichita, Kansas.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
February 1978
pp. 5-8

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