Leading with Love and Song
Lessons from Creative Arts Camp that Just Might Change VBS Forever (and for the Better)
My friend Christina started talking to me about Creative Arts Camp during Holy Week last year, when my focus was obviously elsewhere. She told me how amazing it had been the first time the previous summer—how they taught dance, writing, visual arts, culinary arts, and music to a diverse group of more than 50 kids signed up from ages 7-14. She filled my ears with tales of how the kids chose a “major” and spent two hours each morning engaging in it. The icing on this delicious cake was that she’d proposed and been awarded a grant so every camper could attend for free.
She went on, breathlessly telling me how there was also yoga and movement every day, a drummer and a jewelry maker, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and they needed a new musician. Without missing a beat, she owned up to the reality that they didn’t have much money, and so I’d have to sleep on the couch. Wait!? What? How’d that happen? How had I found myself in the midst of this remarkable story? I didn’t see that coming at all, which, despite my hesitation, tipped me off that this was, perhaps, a spirit-led proposition.
I’ve been roped into lots of things by the Holy Spirit—things that on the surface looked to have been instigated by someone else’s need, but upon some reflection had everything to do with my work and my growing edges. The fact that the camp is in Kentucky and I live in New York doesn’t matter to the Holy Spirit. Not one bit. I felt my resistance fading, and a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence growing stronger: surrender.
My task for the week was to lead 12 people (ages 7-14) in making music together. My hope was to have kids learn to invite and encourage one another to participate as fully as possible. I hoped they would learn to really see one another, and to build relationships across lines of difference. I wanted them to trust their innate wisdom, to help build a safe space for us to explore what we know and what think we know, and to notice how that changes in different contexts. I wanted them to understand that there was a leader in every chair, and to respect that leader as beloved of God. The messages we receive from society often make us question our self-worth and belovedness, but feeling that we matter is crucial to joining with our neighbor to support one another and build on what we can know together. I hoped to create a space in which the kids could live into that experience together.
On the first morning of Creative Arts Camp, we set up in the sanctuary with 12 chairs in a circle, a guitar, a drum, a shruti box, and lots of wondering on my part. I wonder who will be here? Will anyone feel comfortable enough to sing? Will someone be able to keep a steady beat? Will we be able to make the connections between their favorite things and their life’s purpose?
There were 11 girls of different ages and one, 10-year-old boy in the group. We began by going around the circle singing our name, age, and favorite thing(s) to a drum beat, one at a time, the whole group repeating what we’d heard from each one: “Hi, my name is Carter. I’m seven, and I love my cat. “Hi Carter, who loves her cat.” By the end of the introductions, we knew a lot about each other! But this was no simple gathering of information. We had shared some of our most important information with one another, and when we’d gone around the circle, I tried to sing everyone’s name and favorite thing into the circle. This exercise is huge, because even if I forget a name or a favorite thing, for some reason the Spirit makes sure I never forget both, and the people feel seen, heard, and affirmed.
We sang through five or six simple tunes. People took turns trying the drum and shruti box, and I asked the younger ones to accompany us first in order to boost their confidence and level of participation. But it wasn’t all easy that first morning. All three of the 14-year-olds on the high school track team, and they weren’t on board with my kind of music yet. They sang, but it was clear they’d rather be out running. And, whereas last year they’d been able to sing show tunes all week, I was asking them to explore an entirely different musical angle with which they were less familiar. Bringing them more fully into the circle would take patience, some wondering on the part of the kids, and perhaps a little intervention by the Spirit.
Tuesday morning seemed to move right along, with all of us continuing to feel one another out, sometimes everyone participating fully, other times not so much. I kept inviting, encouraging, reminding them to trust one another to come up with good ideas, to take a chance on trusting themselves, and just jump in with a harmony or countermelody, even if it they only sang one note.
When we finished one round of songs I asked if there was anything they’d like to sing again, or if any of the tunes had popped into their heads at home. Many hands went up! I was jumping with joy on the inside to learn the Spirit of song had begun to fill .
We sang through a couple of tunes, going around the circle with everyone taking turns adding something. I said passing was fine, silly was fine, anything was okay. Just do something! Encouraged by our time together, even the youngest kids had ideas and shared them in the song. As we went through the songs, I asked how they thought we should arrange them, and they each came up with ideas. Seven-year-old Carter said that she thought she’d like to play the shruti box on a song that hadn’t had shruti box before, so we figured something out, and it sounded amazing.
During the afternoon sessions, I was able to work with all the other groups in the camp, so that by the time Wednesday came around, half the camp knew at least three songs from the music group. As I walked around the camp during lunch, there were little snippets of song popping in from around the room. Even the older girls were singing them together.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of , but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
On Thursday morning, there was excitement in the air. Claire, almost nine, burst out with, “I was at a swim meet last night and I was singing under water, and I won both my races!” She was followed by 14-year-old runner, who crowed, “I was at practice this morning and was singing in my head and ran a personal best!” (Cue self-congratulatory applause!). We spoke a bit more about how deeply music can affect us, our moods, energy levels, and the depth of our breathing. We talked about how different styles of music change the way we go about our days, and how it can make us happy, sad, calm our anxieties, and help us to focus. We’d gotten, in just a few days, to the deep stuff, the important stuff. The stuff I’m pretty certain we’d all been guided there to explore.
Most of these young people have very busy lives, and summer isn’t much lighter than the regular school year. One girl had soccer practice before camp and then again after camp. Another had swimming in the evenings. The runners practiced every morning, plus meets each week. In some ways, coming to Creative Arts Camp was a sacrifice of limited personal time. Together, I hoped, we had made the time a gift.
By the end of the week, we had to choose our best three songs to share with parents that evening. The musicians couldn’t find even one song to cut from their repertoire of six songs. They advocated for one another’s favorite songs as we sang through them all. They sent me to advocate for the group with the powers-that-be. Christina looked at me with that quizzical “Are you sure?” look, and I shook my head “yes.” With a bit of haggling about the length of the songs, and a promise to invite all the parents, family, and friends to join in the singing, they gave in.
We began with Sauuda Y. Eshe’s Wake Up, Wake Up in the Community. Part of the lyrics—“I hear songs in the community. Melodies to bring unity!”—so clearly told the story of our time together that week. There were so many smiles by the time we finished, and the kids were so happy and proud, that any doubts about allowing us more time were quickly dispelled. When we sang Don’t Be Afraid by John Bell, “our love was stronger” for sure, with harmonies and counter melodies ranging out clearly.
Our final song, Melanie DeMore’s “Lead with Love,” driven and punctuated with lively hand-clapping rhythms, pulled our whole experience together as the call and response knitted our voices to together. It still sings in my heart of a Spirit-filled week that I’m pretty sure transformed all of us and will help each of us walk more confidently through life.
Ya gotta put one foot in front of the other, and lead with love.
Put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.
Call & response:
Don’t give up hope! You’re not alone. Don’t you give up! Keep movin’ on.
Lift up your eyes! Don’t you despair! Look up ahead! The path is there.
I know you’re scared! And I’m scared too! But here I am! Right next to you!
And lead with love, and lead with love, and lead with love, and lead with love…