Rev. Jeff Johnson of the First Congregational UCC, Milton, spent many years trying to create programs focused on connecting with the spiritual lives of children. Over a ten-year period, he tried a few of those ideas, but nothing really took off. However, he believed in the 'try, try, again' philosophy.
When an energetic member of his church, Linda, came up with the idea last fall of holding a "Pray-A-Thon" for the children, the wheels were set in motion.
Linda dreamed up an evening of prayer experiences that "emphasized the need to stop, think, feel and express ourselves with the Holy Spirit using the five senses (hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell)." She then recruited leaders to offer the following "stations" to the approximately 20 children who participated:
- Continual singing (taking the songs from their then upcoming Christmas pageant, and then reflecting on how singing makes our experience of the words "different".)
- Silent meditation, focusing on breathing
- Making meaningful Christmas cards
- Homemade Pretzels (which many believe are formed in the shape of arms crossed in prayer)
- Making bookmarks-with-a-message
- Stringing prayer "beads" out of Fruit Loops
- Constructing pine sachets
- Telling stories with a Christian message
While the children were busy, Rev. Johnson worked with six parents, leading them through some relaxation, a guided meditation, and then some sharing in dyads. (Johnson was pleasantly surprised that there were actually more male than female parents present as he has found in the past that overtly spiritual experiences are usually attended by women.)
"Children are spiritual beings. They naturally have what many of us spend years trying to reclaim....if we recognize and honor our children's innate spiritual connection they may never have to lose it." (pg. ix)
"I reminded the parents that I was working with them because they will have far more to do with the spiritual life and development of their children than anybody else."
When the parents returned to the larger group, the place was filled with energy. The children loved the creativity, the interaction, and yes, even the silence. Their comments were often profound. Johnson's wife, Ann Searing, led the segment on silent meditation and breathing, and near the end of the evening, four of the children saw her, ran over, and asked, "Can we do it again?"
According to Johnson, the pray-a-thon program is not difficult to do, and yet it had a powerful impact on all involved.
"We started with supper on a Friday night, and then the children rotated through the various stations for about 15 minutes each, either 2 or 4 at a time," he said. "We thought we might go through to 9 p.m., but by 8:15, it was clear that it was time to go home!"
"My son and I attended the Pray-A-Thon together, and I also led the dancing," said Candice, a member of the church. "I thought it was a special evening and an important event because we are always looking for new ways to include prayer in our day. And Tucker, my seven year old, LOVED the event. He still talks about the meditation and the singing bowls used to hear and listen to as they experimented with prayer and meditation. He also loved the card making for our troops, and the pine sachets. He was so proud of it and so happy, he made one for everyone in the family. I keep mine in my drawer to freshen my clothing. His dad keeps his in his truck. We are reminded in subtle ways through our nose senses to breathe in grace and gratitude."
On Sunday, several parents sought out the pastor and volunteers to let them know that their children loved the experience. "When was the last time you heard that response to an evening of prayer for children?" he said. The parents also discovered that their own faith experiences were enhanced when they connected deeply with their children.
"I also loved working with all the children and getting to know them more personally," Candice continued. "When you share movement and song it brings you closer. I still get hugs from several of the little girls that were there dancing that night; even the more grown up girls and I seem to have bonded in a way that wasn't present before."
"Most parents I know are 'out straight' with driving kids to soccer, piano, ballet, school and social events, and child-care," said Johnson. "But as Doe and Walch state in their book: 'We are trying to be good parents and give our children all they need to develop into well-rounded and successful adults. We may, however, be missing the very core of our children's being: their spirituality.'"
Rev. Jeff Johnson can be contacted at RevJeffJohnson@yahoo.com or 617-696-8517
and requests "If you try something like this, please let me know how it went.