Actions speak louder than words. That familiar sentiment echoed in Nancy Smith’s mind when she was thinking of ways to help the children in her congregation’s after-school program understand Jesus’ life.
About 10 years ago, Smith, a member of Emaus ELCA in Racine, Wis., started serving as the volunteer coordinator of Emaus After School for Youth (EASY). Serving mostly children who attend a nearby elementary school, the program provides homework help, one-on-one mentoring and hands-on educational activities. Smith wanted to create something engaging for the children during their weekly “God time” Bible study. “I wanted to really involve the kids in the story of Jesus, particularly the last week of his life,” she said.
Inspired by the book Offering the Gospel to Children by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard (Cowley, 1992), Smith created a theatrical production of the passion story for the children in EASY to act out.
“There is nothing like learning by doing, and drama is an important aspect of learning,” she said.
Smith wrote a script depicting Holy Week that has the actors and audience moving throughout the entire church building. The production begins outside with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem—complete with a live donkey—and ends with his crucifixion as the actors and audience move to a dark, candlelit room in the basement that’s been made to look like a tomb.
The production, which the congregation calls “The Prayer Walk of the Passion,” is pantomimed while Smith serves as narrator and another person translates the story into Spanish. Chris Lamberton, an adult member of the congregation, plays Jesus every year, with the children acting out the roles of disciples, soldiers, Peter, Judas, Pontius Pilate and others. The children audition for roles and are instructed on how to act out and convey the emotion of the story.
“The one who really moves people is Peter,” Smith said. “He’s standing in the back by a fire and, as the narration goes on, he’s shaking his head and is denying Jesus. Suddenly he slams his hand on the wall and races down the side of the sanctuary just sobbing. To get someone to act that out who is in elementary school is pretty amazing. It’s powerful. People in the congregation are just pushed to tears.”
“From the ‘hallelujahs’ at the beginning to the ‘crucify him’ shouts to the somber ending, it was all so powerful to think that the kids, by portraying this, were so in tune with the story.”
The production and the EASY program have changed and adapted over the years. Smith has since retired and EASY no longer has a set weekly Bible-study component. But the prayer walk is still held every year during Holy Week.
“I feel this prayer walk is so important for these kids and it’s something they look forward to every year,” said Smith, who has stayed on to assist the production.
The children have plenty to say about what the production teaches them about Jesus and Holy Week.
“I learned that a lot of people disliked Jesus,” said Aaron (children’s last names withheld).
Diego said, “I knew about Holy Week before, but I learned more about how Judas betrayed Jesus.”
Lindsay said, “I learned about Jesus and how he died for us. I also learned what it felt like to be a disciple. I was sad when
Jesus got whipped in the back. [Jesus] died on the cross for us and he is kind for doing that.”
This year 24 children ages 6 to 12 will participate in the prayer walk. For some, this time will be their first, while others are eager to return to the story.
About 150 people usually attend the production every year. Mary Janz, who served the congregation when the prayer walk started and has since retired, still looks forward to experiencing it every year. “I think it is extremely moving for all of the adults who witness it, simply because it reminds us of that whole story and it’s very powerful to see these children take it so seriously,” she said. “From the ‘hallelujahs’ at the beginning to the ‘crucify him’ shouts to the somber ending, it was all so powerful to think that the kids, by portraying this, were so in tune with the story.
“They had learned the story and were teaching it to us again. Each year it’s taken on a different form, but it’s always been a new way for us to experience Holy Week.”