LifeHouse Salem County Hosts Special VBS: Created by God

Top view of hand holding teal ribbon on dark background with copy space. Cervical and ovarian cancer, sexual assault, pcos, ptsd, anxiety disorder, agoraphobia and scleroderma awareness concept.

Benjamin Hankin, church planter and lead pastor of LifeHouse Salem County Church in Pennsville, New Jersey, never dreamed his congregation would have a budding disability ministry. It just happened. Rather, God ordained it. They even baptized a young woman affected by disability on August 20.

Pastor Benjamin Hankin shows a “portrait” a VBS student gave him. (Photo by Kris Buckman)

What began as helping with a sports league for kids with disabilities developed into wonderful relationships with families and transitioned to a successful Vacation Bible School with future events and activities planned.

It all started with baseball. Hankin’s wife, Wendy, who works as a guidance secretary at Pennsville Memorial High School, heard about the local “Pennsville  Little League Challenger Division,” from a colleague. The league is designed to give children and young adults the opportunity to participate in sports regardless of ability or limitations.

Wendy was intrigued and encouraged Ben and a few others from the church to volunteer.

“At the first game, four of us (from the church) went. It was the most amazing fun,” Wendy said. They were buddies, which meant mostly assisting on the field. Ben said that sometimes being a buddy would entail running alongside a child in an electric wheelchair or holding another player’s hand as he runs. “Some will outrun you!” he said.

As these opportunities continued to come along, more church volunteers participated and the church then decided to sponsor a team.

Wendy said, “We had been looking for a mission opportunity, and here we had it.” The church’s sponsorship of a team helped to pay for registration fees, uniforms, gloves and any other equipment they might need.

At the end of the Spring 2023 season, the church also hosted the first annual awards event for the league. Ben said it was amazing to see the players’ faces light up when they got awards and thought of themselves as champions. As they became more involved, they made friends with their parents, who grew to trust Ben and Wendy and the church.

A young boy stares at himself in a mirror as he learns that He is wonderfully made. (Photo by Kris Buckman)

Ben said, “We began to ask, ‘What are you doing next, Lord?’”

God’s answer? Vacation Bible School (VBS). The church wanted to reach children and have a VBS but just didn’t have the kids. “We have teens and families but no young children, Wendy said.

After praying, Wendy said she sensed God saying, “I have given you kids —the challenger kids. “I thought, okay – we can do that?”

That’s how it started.

From the inception of the idea to the first night was about six weeks. The VBS was designed for children and young adults with disabilities and their siblings — so it was a healthy mix of neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals. 

The North American Mission Board and the BCM/D provided funds to help support the outreach. A local church, the Christian Life Center, graciously allowed LifeHouse the use of their building. Ben contacted Katie Matthews, the director of The Banquet Network, for tips to effectively share the gospel with children affected by disability and what type of Bibles would be the best to give them. Matthews not only provided the information to Ben, but the Banquet Network sponsored graphic Bibles for all the VBS’ers.

A young man proudly shows a leaf he made during VBS. (Photo by Sharon Mage)

Wendy shared that there was no specific material available for their needs, so they really had to design their own. Kandiss Torres, the wife of Director of Worship Jayme Torres chuckled as she shared how much time she, Wendy and others were Googling ideas. They decided on the theme “Created by God,” based on Ephesians 2:10. They found music, activities and incredible and extravagant decorating ideas, and with the teaching ideas from The Banquet Network, they pulled it all together for their own unique program.

“We wanted to make sure they knew without a shadow of a doubt that God loves them, that He created them,” Wendy said. “You are created for a purpose.”

They staggered the five-day VBS August 14-19 with elementary-aged kids on Monday and Wednesday and youth through young adults on Tuesday and Thursday. On Friday, everyone joined together. Parents and grandparents stayed and watched as the students had their opening celebration, arts, activities, and Bible study. Artwork from the week was displayed on the walls. They ended the evening snacks and fellowship.

As doors opened for the Friday celebration, students of all ages joyfully rushed into the building. Stephanie, an exuberant young woman in her mid-thirties, raced into the building, throwing her arms around all the people around her, saying, “I love you!”

One young man, Josh, sprinted to Ben’s side. Some threw a ball around, others danced a bit, while some just sat quietly.

Kandiss and Wendy led the worship time with singing and unrestrained joyful dancing – lots of dancing. Stephanie went around pulling people onto the dance floor. Some made a conga line and zig-zagged through the room.

A young woman smiles hugely as Wendy shares about creation. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

In a classroom environment, Wendy shared the gospel using colors — black for sin, red for blood, and white for purity.

“We were created for a place called heaven – yellow. That means we were made to have joy – but what is the problem? Sin, which (the group chanted in unison) is anything we think, say or do that goes against God and his commands.” She shared the good news about Jesus saving us.

Holding up a crumbled leaf, Wendy shared how we must stay close to Jesus, attached to him, or we, like the leaf, will wither and die. Most were attentive and very responsive.

The outside activity was a highlight the students and staff won’t forget. Ben and Wendy, dressed in white hazmat-looking suits, let the students shoot them with wet paint. There were lots of laughs as the two danced around.

Students also made salvation bracelets and had a final singing and dancing time before heading off to enjoy a charcuterie board with goldfish, popcorn, M&M’s, and more.

After the students left, Kandiss stood sadly in the front of the stage area.

“I can’t believe it’s over,” she said. Looking back over the week, Kandiss said, “It was amazing to see them all not fear judgment or stares. And I loved hearing them say over and over again, ‘This is the best week ever!’”

Wendy agreed with Kandiss, that the non-judgmental attitudes were special and and offered peace and freedom to all who attended.

Two days after the big cleanup on Friday night, Ben baptized Stephanie and several from VBS attended the service. Stephanie had been attending the church for some time before the VBS.

Ben said, “It’s funny, since day one, she has just been part of the family. She has the faith of a child. Stephanie knows Jesus died for her and that he loves her. She has a pure faith and love.”

The church is already making tentative plans for a New Year’s event.