Dallas, Texas – It was Nelson Mandela who said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
The question of how best to care for and nourish our children’s souls has evolved over the years, just as our world has. What does it mean to love every child in your community as one of your own? What can we learn from our children? How can we truly nourish their spiritual growth?
For Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas, treating children with dignity also means honoring their minds, and holding space for them to exist in community with adults. Within the community of the parish, children are not only extensions of their parents. They have their own unique points of view and spiritual needs that deserve to be represented as much as that of their adult counterparts.
“We let our children, in a lot of ways, set the tone for different events that happen around the life of the parish. We try to include them in everything, and we value their participation as much as any,” said the Reverend Ted Clarkson, associate rector.
So, when the Church welcomed a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible into their community, Church leadership knew that the children had to be involved in some special way.
Transfiguration officially welcomed its Heritage Edition set in July 2022. The Church had originally signed on for one year of programming with the Heritage Program, but was officially gifted a Heritage Edition after an inspirational experience with the original manuscript of the work at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, ignited a deep passion for the project.
“A group of us went up to the university campus in Collegeville and we saw the original manuscript of The Saint John’s Bible. That was my first real experience with it. It was really remarkable. The size and the scale of it, the craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the collaboration between the artists and calligraphers and the theologians was phenomenal,” said Fr. Clarkson. “I marveled at seeing the original pages and getting up close. We were so awestruck that, while we were there, one of the parishioners who was in our group suggested, ‘Can’t we just skip the one-year program, and I’ll gift the full set to the church?’”
And that they did. In the 16 months since the Heritage Edition was gifted to the parish, the volumes have been used for Visio Divina exercises, the annual Advent Festival, during every worship service, and more.
“Our clergy have done an amazing job of not only having the volumes on display as beautiful pieces of art, but they are living art for our congregation, and are very much incorporated in our programming throughout the year,” said Allison Blalock, Director of Children’s Ministries. “Every Sunday, the Heritage Edition is processed and read from during our Gospel. The number of classes and Visio Divinas that the clergy has done with the Heritage Edition is absolutely amazing.”
Indeed, all seven Heritage Edition volumes are permanently displayed in the Church’s wonderful Gathering Space. Each volume rests in a beautiful custom-made display case. At the base of the Gospels and Acts volume case lies the entry point to the space’s labyrinth, a meditative path made to facilitate prayer, reflection, and union with God.
One of the first projects for which the parish utilized the Heritage Edition was for its Lenten Series – a five-week Bible Study program to encourage spiritual exploration and learning in honor and observation of Lent. In brainstorming ways that the children of the parish could get involved, Blalock and Fr. Clarkson came up with the grand idea that the children should make their own version of The Saint John’s Bible.
“We believe that you’re never too young to be a full member of the body of Christ,” said Fr. Clarkson. “By allowing our children to participate in something as important as The Saint John’s Bible and hold that participation to the level that we do, we articulate that message.”
How They Did It
The Church’s Lenten series ran each Wednesday during Lent. On the first night of the series, Blalock gave the children an overview of the history of The Saint John’s Bible and a brief introduction to the art of illumination.
“I had been in a training session a few months prior, where we were sent some of the illuminations and guided on how you can use those in talking with children. It was really wonderful to have the tools to help the children understand that, for example, when you see gold, you see God,” said Blalock. “I tried to connect them with the work so it wasn’t just these big books that are on display with which they can’t interact. It gave the kids an opportunity to feel connected to these big books that are here, that are used during the adult service.”
Blalock even recruited a calligrapher from the parish, Kerry Tate, to teach the children the basics of calligraphy. Tate rubber banded together pencils and showed the children how to trace their names.
The second week, another member of the parish, artist Corey Auen, taught the children how to use gold leafing. Together, the group painted the glue on a piece of paper, placed gold leaf down on the paper, let it dry then brushed it away.
“That lit them on fire,” said Blalock. “It was one of the most successful Lenten programs that we had had. The kids were ecstatic about coming. They are my chattiest group of kids, and they were dead silent every Wednesday night. I couldn’t believe it, because they were just so involved in what they were creating, and they never got bored of it, which was what was amazing.”
After those first two lessons, the children were given one hour each week to let their imaginations run wild. Blalock provided the children with sturdy crafting paper, pencils, paint markers, gold calligraphy pens, gold leafing materials, printed Bible passages for the children to draw inspiration from, and, most importantly, no rules or restrictions for how they could express their spiritual imaginations.
“Part of what we had told them was that there are some modern-day pictures that run through illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible,” said Blalock. “One child drew a picture of the story of the Good Shepherd, and she put herself in the picture as the Good Shepherd. I thought it was fantastic that she saw herself represented in that story.”
The children’s illuminations also featured large text that pointed to the morals they had learned from the scripture. “BE NICE. DON’T BE MEAN,” lives in large block letters across one illumination.
However, it wasn’t all serious work. Some illuminations included hints of the joyful humor characteristic of childhood. According to Blalock, foot-washing was a popular motif among the children. One child drew a giant foot next to an equally giant gold-foiled basin. Absurdist? Maybe. Wonderful? Absolutely.
Most, if not all, of the illuminations that the children created were made collaboratively. To help foster strong teamwork, Blalock gave the children the language to help each other communicate in a healthy way. This involved drawing on the children’s sense of curiosity instead of judgment.
“This project gave the children an opportunity to really express themselves without feeling like what they’re doing is wrong. Creativity is always right. There’s nothing wrong,” said Blalock. “So, they would wonder together and use those wondering questions, such as, ‘I wonder if you added this here, what that might look like.’”
“They were super supportive of one another. I was in awe of their experience and I’m really proud of them. It was entirely moving to be in this space — to see them so involved. They were so inspired by what they were doing and inspired by the Bible passages that they helped bring to life for other people,” said Blalock.
Blalock and other organizers believed the children’s art was sacred and dignified and deserved to be preserved as such. So, when the children were finished creating, the book was properly bound. TJ McCoy, Director of Communications, created a lovely red binding to match the Heritage Edition volumes.
Unveiling of the Children’s Bible and Future of the Project
When the time came for the Dedication Ceremony of the Heritage Edition volumes (which took place on May 7, 2023), it was only appropriate that the Children’s Bible be present for the occasion. During the ceremony, the Children’s Bible lay proudly in the Gathering Space, awaiting the praise and attention of eager parishioners.
“We try to include children in whatever way makes them feel comfortable, so they can feel successful, and feel they’re contributing to the life of the parish,” said Fr. Clarkson. “They’re important, and we try to make that known by more than just saying so.”
After the ceremony, the congregation gathered around the Children’s Bible to take a closer look. “The adults in our congregation were just amazed by what the children had done. They had found meaning in the scripture and were able to incorporate that meaning into their life and in their faith journey,” said Blalock.
Ever since the ceremony, the Children’s Bible has lived in its own gilded and bejeweled display case next to the Heritage Edition. Throughout any given week, people who enter the church take time to experience all of the volumes, including the Children’s Bible.
Needless to say, the Children’s Bible project was a huge success – but it isn’t over yet. The Children’s Bible was bound in such a way that illuminations can be added as years go by when new children join the parish. It is very much a living work of art.
“As a children’s minister, you hope that children will find a connection. I always want them to grow in their faith, and I believe this experience accomplished that, and still does,” said Blalock. “I hope it continues to blossom throughout the next few years while they’re here with me, and that one day they come back and bring their own children here to see the pieces of art they created.”
The gift of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition to Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration was made possible due to the generosity of parishioners Elaine and Bruce Culver through The Catharine Elizabeth Laney Trust.
The Saint John’s Bible: Ignite the Spiritual Imagination in Your Community
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