I was four or five years old, and my next door neighbors brought me to their church during the summer for what I think, in hindsight, was their version of a Vacation Bible School (VBS), an event that many churches put on for one week each summer during which children play games, are taught lessons, make friendships, do crafts, and give their parents a break from their endless energy.
I, my friends, am a VBS veteran, having attended many throughout my brief life up until this point, and the most terrifying one I have ever attended is the one I am about to share with you.
But first, you must know one pivotal piece of information about who I am. I am very VERY literal. Catching on to sarcasm has been a bit of a journey for me, and to this very day, out of ten sarcastic comments, I can, about 50% of the time, catch 1 of those 10. I’m practically a Sheldon Cooper. Having said this, I take you back to 1997, at a small, local church, during a summertime VBS.
I was terrified of new places, and my neighbors (who had dragged me to this VBS) were off playing with all of their friends. I stood in the back and watched, and when they called us together for a lesson, I followed the group up to a small, second story classroom. It had a single exit and entrance, and it reminded me a bit of somebody’s musty attic.
Inside the room were a table, some chairs, and carpet squares for each of us to choose from. I waited for the group to pick, and I chose from the remaining unwanted squares which I then sat my tiny behind upon.
The lesson, the teacher explained, was about the first Christians that were around during and just after Jesus died. There was a lot of persecution in the early church.
“Can anybody tell us what persecution is?” she asked.
I had no idea. I’d never heard of the word before.
One of the older kids raised his hand. “It’s when bad guys would kill the Christians because they supported Jesus.”
The teacher nodded. “The Romans,” she corrected, “Were not fond of this ‘Jesus’ man. They made it their task to eliminate all of Jesus’s followers, people like you and I. Oftentimes, they found groups of Christians gathered together to talk about the teachings of Jesus, meetings that we like to describe as ‘the early church,’ meetings almost like this one, and they would enter the meeting room which was usually somebody’s home. Once inside, they would make people either denounce Jesus or die.”
“What is ‘denounce’?” one older child asked for clarification.
“Denounce means to say they no longer supported Jesus, believed his teachings, or made Him their Savior.”
I was getting bored. I was listening, sure, but I was definitely bored. I didn’t want to learn about what people did in the olden days when they used to believe in Jesus. Last time I’d checked, there were no Romans in America trying to kill Christians, so I figured it was irrelevant for us to learn about. I started picking at my carpet square.
One of the leaders told me to pay attention. I looked up at the teacher again, my finger still picking at my carpet square, and I listened to words tossed around like ‘Paul,’ ‘Damascus,’ ‘Nero,’ and others, words which held no meaning to my entirely uninterested ears. I got it. The Romans didn’t like Jesus or the people who loved Jesus, so they busted into places and killed them.
When was snack time? When would I get to go home?
Suddenly, there was a pounding on the classroom door.
“Open up!” a man shouted. The door swung open revealing three men dressed as Roman soldiers, their bodies wrapped in armor and their weapons drawn.
“We heard you were talking about Jesus in here!” They demanded.
The simulation continued with them entering and threatening to kill us. I saw some children laughing, and some children apathetic and just as bored as they were during the lesson. In hindsight, I wonder if this church made it a regular effort to dress up in costume and illustrate the lesson, so the children understood what was happening. I’ve heard of some churches doing that.
At mine, though, our teacher had a felt board with felt Biblical figures and we each got to play a character and place it on the board when the character appeared in the story. I’d never heard of acting with costumes before. I had no idea what it was.
A Roman soldier took one particularly belligerent boy, who wasn’t playing along with the simulation and dragged him out of the room. I’m sure, looking back, they’d had an agreement beforehand, but in the moment, it all seemed frightfully real to me. If they dragged him away, what was to stop them from dragging me away too?
One of the Romans approached me, pointed his sword at me, and began speaking to me. I don’t remember anything about what he said. I just remember that there was a moment’s hesitation, and I realized I’d never get to see my parents again if I died, and I decided to fight for my life.
I screamed as loud as I could at the Roman, “I’M NOT GOING TO LET YOU KILL ME!!!!!” I shouted, ducking below his drawn sword, running to a far corner of the room, knocking over a table and hiding behind it. “GO AWAY!!!” I screamed, tears streaming down my face, my heart racing. I was looking around me for things I could throw. Could a spare carpet square take out a Roman soldier?
One of the leaders, the one who had just told me to pay attention and to stop picking at my carpet square came to the table and told me that the Roman soldier wasn’t real.
“I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” I screamed at her, peeking one eye out at the three Romans standing in the room, examining their armor and swords again for their authenticity. I’d never seen anybody dressed up in costume like this before. It looked real to me.
She climbed over the table and sat beside me, and she said, “I won’t let them hurt you.”
I crawled onto her lap, and she picked me up, stood, and then proceeded to carry me over to one of the Roman soldiers.
“NOOOOO!!!!!!” I was screaming. “YOU TRICKED ME! DON’T HAND ME OVER TO HIM! I DON’T WANT TO GO WITH THE ROMANS!!!!!”
The man dressed in character lifted his helmet so I could see his face. “It’s fake,” he whispered to me.
I started to believe him. When it appeared as though everything was calm again, they had the Romans leave, thanked them for their visit, and left me sitting on my carpet square, traumatized.
Now, all these years later, I’ve never set foot in that church again and I have a petrifying fear of the Romans.