I first read this story over two years ago when it was featured in a monthly newsletter of Focus on the Family. It’s a physician’s humorous and touching account of what happened when he was called upon to drive the church bus to pick up children for VBS in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Sit down with a hot drink and enjoy!
Finding Wisdom Behind the Wheel
of the Vacation Bible School Bus
by Edwin Leap, M.D.
Vacation Bible School is ingrained into the culture of the South. It is present in many places around the country, but here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, it’s as Southern as pork rinds, boiled peanuts and pretty girls in pickup trucks. Vacation Bible School, hereafter referred to as VBS, is a week each church takes during the summer to provide a glorious mixture of sugary snacks, Kool-Aid, games and God.
During VBS, otherwise normal adults dress in costume and dance in front of hundreds of children in a church to make them laugh and teach them lessons from the Bible. Mothers, young and old, congregate in hot kitchens to dispense snacks to frenzied children. Fathers organize three-legged races and dodgeball in steamy meeting halls and gyms without air conditioning. And the brave lead Bible classes for the energized, sugar-driven mass of budding evangelicals.
My wife volunteered us for this year’s festivities. Somehow, she managed to be put in charge not only of a kindergarten class but also the bus ministry, which meant driving to local neighborhoods with low-income housing so that the children there could come to VBS. Because we are married and the Bible says that makes us one person, I was also pressed into the bus ministry. She arranged the wristbands to identify the children, but I got to drive one of the buses.
After a short, and I mean really short, introductory course in the operation of the bus/large van, I was blessed, and sent on my way with a helper. After many years of being a physician, of making snap decisions in the wee hours, of watching life and death, calculating doses, weighing risk and throwing caution to the four winds, driving a bus was fantastic.
There were only a few rules. Drive slowly because the bus sure isn’t a sports car. Unlock the back door before starting, or the engine won’t turn on. Look both ways several times to avoid logging trucks. Turn on the stop sign that comes out from the side of the bus whenever you stop. (This is an exciting, magical thing to a childish mind like mine.) Take speed bumps verrryyy slooowwwly. Pick up the children on time. Take them home on time. Don’t let them dismantle the bus or murder one another. And finally, don’t drive under things with lower clearance than the bus. (I added that rule after driving under a rain shelter.)
They weren’t hard rules. The bus was a simple joy, as were the children. They lined up every day on the side streets of Walhalla, South Carolina. There were excited and nervous, scared and tentative. And they needed some VBS.
What I saw from behind the wheel of the bus were the places my patients live. Not all of them, but a few. I saw their government-subsidized homes, their neighborhoods where shady young men in shady cars drove around looking menacing. I saw the homes and trailers where families come and go so quickly, where there is little certainly, little money, probably not a little anxiety. I saw the children walk alone to board the bus to ride to a church they didn’t attend, then go home, again alone, with no one nearby, only a parent in a trailer hopefully watching.
On the bus, I heard children say things that were inappropriate for children but obviously were learned from the wrong music and unconcerned adults. I heard nervous children and predatory children. A mother asked me to watch out for her son because two other kids liked to beat him up. I watched a little girl with cerebral palsy get on the bus with her obviously low functioning mother, and I wondered how they got by. And I felt my heart race as I watched a man in the side mirror sneak along the side of the bus, stalking it like a carjacker, but who fortunately turned out to be the same mother’s husband or boyfriend or something.
Driving the bus took me to my patients’ worlds. It introduced me to children I had seen or surely would in the near future as they became sick or injured, pregnant or violent. It reminded me of the inestimable blessings my own children have, how they live in the same secure home, who have loving and involved parents, and who do not wonder each day if someone will attack them with words or fists.
VBS and the bus made me a simple observer again, a man driving the bus to take them someplace nice, to a brick church building with smiling faces, where they would get messages of welcome and happiness, where they would be invited to join a kind of family if they wished. It was good not to be a doctor, not to think about diagnoses and charting and all the other clutter. It was good to see the people I see, in a different place, in a different way.
I saw them and understood why they don’t pay bills. I understood how they develop anxiety at a young age, how they get injured, how they get abused and lost. I understood why they sleep together too young and make babies they aren’t ready for, because it’s all a search for love and constancy. I saw so much. When I wasn’t driving the bus, I was security, which meant walking around running errands, eating too many cookies, keeping wild boys in line, and stopping nosebleeds. There too, I saw the children, saw the ones with nice lives and the ones without. And I understood a little more about the people I care for in the white cubicles of the emergency department, and maybe about why they seem to like the hospital so very much. It’s one of the only safe comfortable places they ever go.
All in all, I can’t complain about anything. Insurance battles and malpractice woes and medical politics and money and all the rest seemed so petty, so pointless, in the face of the children whose lives are lived out in tiny, standardized brick buildings where drugs are so constant as the lizards that run around my house.
If, as I recently decided, compassion is the only real key to competence, then I may be a better doctor because I spent a few evenings driving the bus to VBS.
– Note: This story was first published in Emergency Medical News. Dr. Leap practices as an E.R. physician in South Carolina and is the author of the books Working Knights: A Collection of Observations and Insights about Doctors, Patients, and the Practice of Medicine and Cats Don’t Hike.