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 | By Mary Gates

Vacation Bible School: A means of evangelization

Having spent years in various ministry roles, Raffy Urgino thought he had found his niche working with adults when he was hired to coordinate evangelization efforts at Holy Redeemer parish in Burton. Raffy did not anticipate being asked to also minister to the parish's young people through activities and religious education. Yet in 2017, his pastor asked him to consider a change. “He told me that kids need to be evangelized, too,” Raffy remembers, and that appeal became fuel in his mission to share the Gospel further.

“I inherited Vacation Bible School. At the time, we bought a VBS program each year, but I immediately noticed that the older kids weren’t as engaged as the younger kids, and most of them stopped attending the program by the time they were in middle school. We had almost no eighth graders, and the sixth and seventh graders who came seemed bored. I’m naturally a problem solver, so I wondered how to do it better.” 

Thinking back to his roots and mission, Raffy was inspired to stretch the typical VBS mold. “My role and goal were in evangelization — I needed to be sure what we were doing was not just an activity but facilitating an encounter with Jesus. I started to reflect on how conversion happens.

"I focused on the VBS ministry through relationship and mentorship to address this. I invited my two teenage sons to be involved, and soon other teens joined. We started a captains’ program, where the middle school (and older) helpers underwent a week of training and then came to VBS to lead, mentor and teach the younger students. This active youth involvement was a game-changer for our VBS program.”

Raffy says the transformation was extraordinary.

“Suddenly, I had more than 20 middle schoolers sign up,” he remembers. “In my mind, I knew I’d essentially run a VBS for them as the training session a week before the event but without them thinking it was VBS. They danced, sang and did the skits — they took it seriously because they had a role and purpose. It was awesome.”

Building off the mentorship model, Raffy and his volunteers brainstormed how to continue growing the program to evangelize more youth. 

“In one of our discussions, it was suggested that instead of shopping for the best program out there to fit what we wanted for our kids, we should ask ourselves what we wanted to tell our kids and then write the VBS program ourselves,” he says. 

And so the first year of a three-part ‘trilogy’ was born. In the first year, feeling a call to pray for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit among the youth, the ‘Jesus League’ came to be. 

“My son had just been confirmed a year before this, and we’d refer to the gifts of the Holy Spirit as his ‘confirmation superpowers,’” Raffy says. 

So, using superhero characters and ideas, Raffy developed teachings for VBS that would be engaging while still having depth.

Pointing to the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, Raffy says there is a balance between the fun of a ministry like VBS and the need for truth and mission. 

“If it's beautiful, people want it,” he says. “It has to be cool for the kids, but not just for the sake of coolness. It’s like a nicely wrapped gift, and they want to receive it — they pay attention to what is being given to them. So, we take seriously the sets we build and how we choreograph the dances. It’s all fun, but that’s what allows it to be deep. We talk about God’s love, Jesus’ sacrifice and the Holy Spirit giving us power. Of all our stations, one of our favorites is our chapel station; it is a highlight every year.”

Having grown in numbers and by fruit, Raffy continues to look for ways to evangelize through the VBS experience. 

“Our leadership program has grown — they love that week of training,” Raffy says. The program also added an overnight retreat at the end of last year’s captains’ week, which saw the youth enter into prayer. “Besides preparing for VBS, they were engaging in their own small groups and letting the Lord work. We have also begun evangelizing the parents and building relationships to invite families to our other parish ministry programs.”

Raffy says he and his team continually ask themselves what their aim is. “Is it maintenance or mission? Because if we aim to help form saints, it’ll push us. I want to be excellent, and even when ministry gets daunting or I want to be lazy, people make suggestions and push me, and that’s how excellence invites more excellence.

“Ultimately, the aim is to evangelize. And to do that, we must be observant to see what the fruit is in the parish, because it has to be the Holy Spirit — you can’t bring about renewal on your own.” 

Having experienced some renewal that he’s grateful for already, Raffy says he strives to stay focused on the mission. “The goal can’t just be to have a great VBS, it must be to preach the Gospel, to show the goodness of the Mass and the sacraments and overall to evangelize these kids. The focus always needs to be an encounter with Jesus.”