St. Olave, Swansea in Toronto received a $49,000 grant from the Our Faith-Our Hope campaign last summer to hire a children’s and youth minister for the next four years. The selection committee hired Laura Oxley, who came to its attention when she asked if she could start a children’s drop-in gardening program on the front lawn of the church.
A fourth-year student in international development at York University, Ms. Oxley has transformed the Sunday morning program for children aged four to 12. The year started with lessons about Moses and the Book of Exodus, followed by rehearsals for the nativity play. By January, Ms. Oxley had engaged parents as volunteer teachers. She had also prepared her own lesson called Bible Basics.
The Lenten and Easter lessons focused on “God’s Big Plan for Our Redemption.” That was the theme of the Easter Saturday community event, which drew more than 30 children and their parents.
“We organized the day around six stations and areas of the church,” she says. “First, we welcomed people onto our parish hall stage to make fuzzy lambs.” The children glued cotton balls on a brown egg, turning it into a fuzzy lamb. “That helped us introduce two Easter ideas – the lamb and the egg.”
Next, the group formed a circle in the main hall. Ms. Oxley had set up a wall of cardboard bricks and explained how the wall represents sin, which keeps us separated from God. How do we break down that wall? “This is the whole point of God’s big plan for redemption: he sent his son Jesus to pay for our sins on the cross, and to ‘punch down the wall,’ as the kids like to say.”
From there, Ms. Oxley set the scene of Jesus entering Jerusalem and gave all the children palm leaves left over from Palm Sunday. Two children volunteered to dress up as Jesus and the donkey, and the group followed a sign to Jerusalem as the rest of the crowd waved palms and cheered for Jesus. Upstairs in the church’s sanctuary, Ms. Oxley had a few surprises waiting for them. In the chancel, mats were set up in the “the upper room,” where they assembled for the last supper. The Rev. David Burrows, incumbent, reminded the group how Jesus served the disciples bread and wine, and the kids all munched on pita and sipped grape juice.
At this time, Ms. Oxley explained the deeper meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice, which we remember through Communion. “I explained to the kids that in God’s plan for redemption, Jesus paid for every sin – past, present, and future – with his own sacrifice on the cross, and that’s what we remember when we eat the bread and the wine.”
After the last supper, the group moved to the baptistry, where Ms. Oxley had a miniature Garden of Gethsemane arranged with the help of a parent volunteer. Children added spring blooms to the garden and learned how Jesus was betrayed and arrested there.
Back in the chancel, Ms. Oxley described the story of the crucifixion with the help of Hillary Eresto, a drummer with the South Sudanese Community Church that worships at St. Olave’s. Children each had hand drums to beat along with Ms. Eresto as the story turned darker and darker. The group sang, “Were You There?” The final verse – “Were you there when they rolled the stone away? – hinted at the resurrection. As children learned of the empty tomb, the mood lifted. They learned the hymn, “Sons of God,” adding rhythms with drums and other percussion instruments.
Finally, the group returned to the hall for a snack. Ms. Oxley had set up a mixer and ingredients to make “Tomb Cookies,” meringues that become hollow after drying out over a few hours in the oven. As each ingredient was added to the bowl, a short Bible passage was read to link it to a symbol from the story.
“All these fun activities were orchestrated with a view to help the children learn about the Easter story,” says Sharm Powell, who came with her five-year-old daughter, Liesl, a regular Sunday school attender. “I was amazed at how fun and educational it was. She loved it and so did I. The two hours just flew by – we didn’t want to leave.“
As the children dove into the cooking demonstration, parents relaxed and socialized. Ms. Oxley was pleased to see a mix of regular St. Olave’s attenders and visitors from the community. Part of the budget for the event was spent on advertising, through a community newspaper and putting up posters. Children were also given invitations and encouraged to ask friends to join them.