She is concentrating deeply. She holds the doll and bends over the bowl. She then looks up at me with a question in her eyes. “I baptize you in the name of the Father…” I say. “The Father” she echoes me, and splashes the doll liberally with water. “…and the Son…” I continue. “The Son.” And the doll receives another generous handful of water. “And the Holy Spirit.” “The Holy Spirit.”
The doll now has water pouring all over her head, but she looks happy anyway. The girl quickly tries to baptize her baby again, but the other children have been jostling for their places in line, and they know every child is only supposed to baptize the doll once. So the girl has to give the doll to the boy who is next in line and she places the white stole over his shoulders. Patting the soaked doll on the head, she steps aside to let the next four-year old have his try at the sacrament.
He holds the doll by its neck. There is water everywhere. The beautiful knitted baptismal gown is wet; the table cloth under the bowl is wet. Even the floor has been doused with baptismal water. And it is all beautiful and holy.
Last week, these same children dressed up in gowns. The boy who is now baptizing the doll then pranced around with the bridal crown on his head. The week before that, he wore a chasuble and alb, growing several inches from pride and joy.
“Something about Jesus!” one of the girls says.
So we read about Jesus and the children. In the middle of the story, a boy gets up to leave. The fun is over, and he returns to his mother, who has been waiting outside the little church. The rest of the kids listen and every now and then comment. Just like children anywhere, the comments rarely have anything to do with the story. But we talk. And, we listen. Together, like a community. Like church.
The last thing we do before we close St Catherine’s for the day is to replace the wilted flowers on the altar. The children bound out of the church in search of pretty things for God’s table. I see a mother telling them not to pick the flowers from a bush, and they make sure to take flowers from another place in our garden, a place she can’t see. The bounty is brought back to the play church. A couple of leaves for the big vase and a handful of tiny flowers, nipped just under the bud, that we have to put in the candlesticks because they are so small. One of the boys sweeps the floor, and the others put their pillows back. Another day in their own church ends, and I lock it up.
Two months ago we dedicated St Catherine’s play church in our parish garden. It is a 160 square feet building, designed and built as a church for children. My friend Scott Moore, an ELCA pastor and liturgical design consultant (who claims to be TYCWP’s biggest fan) and his friend Thomas Bechstein, a German architect, designed it for us. It is a beautiful building, and the serenity of the space is almost palpable. The children and I enter it quietly, letting the sacred space speak, and in there the children play worship. Sometimes the bag I bring is full of things related to baptism; at other times it could be a funeral or a wedding. The pedagogue or I introduce the things, describe what they are for, and then we take a step back, letting the children play as undisturbed as possible. There is a niche in the church for us to sit and observe, and if we are not needed we retreat back there. Watching these small members of the priesthood of all believers enthusiastically elevate the kid-sized chalice is a marvel.
My congregation is a pretty high-church one. It also used to be a very old one. But these days our neighborhood is evolving from a very high median age to a neighborhood of 30-somethings and their firstborns. It's still in the city but residential and quiet enough for young families to consider it the perfect place to start. This has influenced us a lot, and while we do love our High Mass, we realize that we need to find a way for families to feel comfortable in it and for the children to take a more active part. We did not feel that separate kid’s worship services gave us the sense of community we strived for, so we decided to try other ways.
St Catherine’s is one way. Children who learn about worship through doing, about the different vestments and movements, will not feel alienated during the congregation’s main service. We work consciously on involving children as ministrants or acolytes, and we have resurrected Sunday school. These days, it takes place during the service of the Word. In a small chapel in the church, one of the priests, deacons, or pedagogues go to tell the story, to pray, and work on some easy creative project with the children. And without even having advertised it, children are showing up: two on one Sunday, six the next. Sunday after Sunday, we meet the Lord together with the children. And time after time again we learn how to walk the road to Heaven in very tiny shoes.
The work we have started has no end, and the Spirit is blowing softly through it all. It is laughter and exasperation; it is future and treasure. The children teach us to be church, to be community. It feels familiar, doesn’t it?
Be like children. This is the path we have chosen out of necessity, but we walk it gladly… in very tiny shoes.
Editor's Note: Are you a young clergy woman who would like to share a sermon, pastoral prayer, or other liturgical resource? If so, email Ann at sunday (dot) ycw (at) gmail (dot) com with your submission or with any questions.You could also share a piece about the experience of worship, as Maria did in this month's column as she explored the radical idea of forming children through Christian worship.
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