March 2021
Formation for the Missionary Church

Breathe On Me, Breath of Life

Ten years ago, when I came to St. Margaret’s, I stepped into a fairly young parish (just 20 years old) in a growing suburban area in west Little Rock, Arkansas, that had just been through a period of grief over the death of the previous rector. The wind had gone out of the sails of this community, and they hoped that I would help breathe some new life into it. I certainly prayed that I could.

So, I stepped up to the helm, and started asking some questions. Hey, everybody! What should we do? How can we serve our community? What will bring new people, new growth, and renewed joy? Many eager answers came, and pretty soon “Vacation Bible School” became a steady refrain.

Indeed, Vacation Bible School seemed like an obvious recipe for success. Here in the Bible belt, parents book their kids for a different VBS for every week of the summer. Practically every church has some version of this – a day camp for children to come and play while they receive some Christian formation. Surely VBS would energize our congregation and get us moving again!

Then I asked the next question. Who wants to volunteer? The responses were decidedly less enthusiastic. If you’ve ever done a Vacation Bible School, then you know that the most essential ingredient is a whole host of enthusiastic volunteers. We simply didn’t have it.

The idea was tabled, but the refrain returned occasionally. We should really have a Vacation Bible School. And each time it came up, those who were asked to volunteer would respond, That’s just not my calling. Or, I’m sorry; I don’t have time for such a big commitment. There didn’t seem to be enough wind for this particular ship to sail.

A fresh breeze stirs St. Margaret’s

Then came a new and refreshing breeze. At a vestry retreat, one mother of young children explained that she just couldn’t get excited about VBS – either for herself or her children. The idea felt stale to her. “But,” she admitted, “I could get excited about an interfaith camp for my kids.” Here was an idea that seemed so obvious and yet was totally unexplored. Our parish is home to the Interfaith Center of the Institute for Theological Studies at St. Margaret’s. Through the Interfaith Center, we already had a Multi-Faith Youth Group for teenagers, and we were doing all kinds of interesting dialogue for adults from different faith traditions. St. Margaret’s is also home to the Arkansas House of Prayer, where people of all faiths come for silent prayer in a place of shared beauty. This is a parish with a special gift and spirit for interfaith prayer and dialogue. So, why not share it with our children?

The mission of the Interfaith Center is to reduce fear and hatred among the world’s religions. With this mission in mind, we launched Friendship Camp, an interfaith summer daycamp, where children in 3rd-5th grades learn about different traditions, play games and, most importantly, become friends. Creating such a camp held some new challenges. We had to gather and get support from faith educators from around our city. We needed volunteers from different traditions who were willing to work and create something new together. It took special care to convince parents that their children would be safe and loved in an environment where they could learn about other faiths while their own faith was honored and respected.

We held our first camp in 2016, and the camp continues to grow. As an interfaith camp, it doesn’t really “belong” to St. Margaret’s, but we have been blessed by meaningful partnerships and true friendships.

Waiting to set sail again

Friendship Camp was just one of many things that were either put on hold or adapted in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic took the wind out of our sails once again. But the disease could not rob us of the Holy Spirit that has continued to move among us over the past year.

As we now anticipate our return to in-person gatherings and communal activity, I do find myself wondering which way the wind will blow. How can we serve our community now? What will bring new people, new growth and renewed joy? There will certainly be no shortage of ideas and suggestions, but discerning among them will be the challenge. Without clarity about the future, I can only look to the past, where I find that the lessons learned from Friendship Camp provide some applicable wisdom.
Some of the ministries that were life-giving before the pandemic may be stale or irrelevant as we enter into the post-pandemic Church. We need to have the courage to let go of the things that don’t work anymore and the things that don’t interest or give life to our communities.

As we let those things go, I trust that God will provide the direction for what will be next. We only need to keep watch for the refreshing breeze that will point us where we need to go. Friendship Camp worked for St. Margaret’s because we already had a love for interfaith work. Some of the strongest winds will take shape through our unique gifts and interests.

As the old adage reminds us: I may not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future. Let’s say our prayers, and get ready to set sail again.

The Rev. Mary Vano is the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the host of the “J.O.Y.” podcast. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Sociology from Texas Christian University and earned her Master of Divinity at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Her pandemic pastimes have included needlework, reading the entire 20-book series of The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael and anxiously watching as her oldest son prepares to leave home for college next year.


This article is part of the March 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Formation for the Missionary Church