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If Justin and Hannah Heth had waited for the “right” time to host a Neighborhood Bible Club, they might never have done it.
Over the five years their young family has been part of Wheaton Bible Church, the Heths had been hearing about the clubs that are hosted each summer at homes in a number of nearby towns. Justin and Hannah wondered if that was something they should consider “sometime.”
“The last couple of years,” Justin says, “we had kicked around the possibility. Then that year would pass, and then another year would pass.”
But there was a big reason why the idea of hosting a Neighborhood Bible Club stayed alive in Justin and Hannah’s hearts and minds.
“We live on a corner lot,” Justin said, “and across the street are some apartments where a lot of refugee kids live. Some days when I come home from work—even before our own kids are outside—there are kids in our yard. One reason is that we have a tree swing, which over time has become the neighborhood swing. Usually there are three or four kids, but at times there have been as many as twenty.”
Last summer the Heths could have pointed to a number of really good reasons why the timing wasn’t right: on top of Justin’s job as associate dean of residence life at Wheaton College, he was in the middle of a PhD program, and Hannah—a busy mom of four—had given birth to a brand-new baby just two months earlier.
“There were a million reasons,” Justin says, “why we could have said no last year, but last summer there was a ton of kids—even more than there’d been in previous years.”
So even though it wasn’t the “right” time in many ways, Justin and Hannah said a tentative yes to the idea of hosting a Neighborhood Bible Club at their home.
But although they were willing to move ahead, the fear of the unknown loomed large. “We’d never done anything like that before,” Hannah said, “and to do it on our own seemed really overwhelming.”
One day she shared her concerns and her uncertainty with her women’s Bible study group, and another woman, who was familiar with how the clubs work, was very encouraging.
“She said, ‘There are people who will help you,’ and told me about how the Children’s Ministry staff is willing to walk alongside you, and how there are support systems in place, especially for first-time hosts,” Hannah recalls. “Her words of encouragement made this huge undertaking feel a lot more doable.”
Meeting with Renita Gilliland, one of the staff members who help organize the clubs, was their next step.
“Renita came to our home,” Justin said. “She talked through everything with us and told us what our part would be. Learning that we wouldn’t have to come up with our own activity ideas or stories was a big relief.
“She also told us that we could tailor our club to our personal circumstances, our neighborhood’s needs, and our own kids’ needs,” he adds, “which was really helpful. We realized we didn’t have to have a huge two-hundred-person club like some of the others.”
Knowing the kids in the neighborhood— and the wide range of ages they could expect—Justin and Hannah decided their club would meet for just an hour and a half each day, shorter than most clubs. That allowed a good amount of time for songs, stories, games, and snacks—plus crafts on a couple of days.
“Another option was to hold our club for fewer days,” Justin said, “and we talked about doing just four days, because initially that’s all we thought we could do, but thankfully we were able to do all five days.”
Building the Team
“Getting the volunteers is another big piece,” Justin said. “But right away Beth Gottlieb, a member of the Children’s Ministry staff, volunteered to teach the lesson for the first three days.”
Not long after, an email arrived from a mom who lives a couple of blocks away. She had heard about the club and volunteered to help—which was a big encouragement.
“Then she recruited a couple of her friends to help,” Hannah says. “That was significant, because I felt that was the Lord working through her to show us that He was going to provide the people we needed—even though we weren’t sure how to go about asking them.”
Another woman volunteered to watch the youngest members of the Heth family, including the new baby.
“In the end, we had a small team of five or six helpers each day, for twenty to twenty-five kids,” Justin says, “and it worked well.”
Letting kids in the neighborhood know about the club was the Heths’ next challenge.
“It was a test of faith,” Justin admits, “walking up to our neighbors’ doors, usually with our son, Cooper, and saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing a Bible club in our yard. We’re going to play games, have snacks, and learn a Bible lesson. Can your son or daughter come over?’
“And wearing my bright green Neighborhood Bible Club shirt that says JESUS in big letters plastered across the front—was a test for me,” Justin says. “I’m there with my son, and I’m thinking, Am I ashamed of the Gospel? No—I’m not! I should not be ashamed to encourage kids to come and learn about Jesus, who has changed my life.”
Prayer and Anticipation
Leading up to the week of their club, the whole family and their friends had been praying that kids would come.
“Over those weeks, we’d be talking with our kids,” Justin says, “and we’d ask them, ‘Who’s the Lord going to bring?’”
The answer came on the first day of the club and continued throughout the week as they saw nearly eighteen to twenty kids come into their yard every day—most of whom had never been inside a church or did not know who Jesus is.
“As it turned out, we had kids of all ages,” Justin said, “tiny kids up through adults who tagged along, and rather than break up into groups by age as some clubs do, we kept everyone together.”
“Some of the parents didn’t speak English or spoke very little, but they would come over and even sing along with us!” Hannah adds.
A special memory for Hannah was the fresh bread a grandmother from Turkey made on two different days and brought to share with everyone when her granddaughter came to the club.
“She didn’t speak English,” Hannah says, “and as far as we know, she doesn’t believe in Jesus, but we felt this warmth of community and this person saying thank you in the way she knew how, baking and sharing bread.”
Another neighbor also responded with unexpected generosity.
“Seeing the sign we put in our yard to let people know about the club,” Justin says, “one of our neighbors, who isn’t even a churchgoer, saw what we were doing and brought over a couple of huge boxes of granola bars and snacks from Costco for all the kids. Probably fifty dollars’ worth of food.
“Once we said, ‘Let’s do this,’ we saw so many answers to our prayer that God would use our club to impact our neighborhood,” Justin said. “That gift from our neighbor represented another cool answer to prayer.”
Trusting God Will “Show Up”
Each day Justin and his sons would set up the tables, tent, and games. When one day started out rainy—with thunderstorms and hail racing toward Wheaton—they all paused to pray.
“The storm didn’t hit, and the rain stopped just as the club was starting for the day,” Justin said. “God showed up.
“It was supposed to rain three out of the five days,” he adds, “and it was so much fun to pray with our kids about that and to pray for the neighbor kids who would come. And then to be able to talk with our kids about how God had answered our prayers. It was such a great thing for our family to do this as a team.”
Even before hosting their Neighborhood Bible Club, the Heth family was somewhat acquainted with many of the young refugee neighbors, but the intentional interaction during that week grew and deepened those relationships.
“Now we know more of them by name,” Justin says. “And while there were no specific professions of faith, we know that many seeds were planted. These kids come from a lot of different faith backgrounds, and they asked so many questions—questions about God and Jesus—spurred by Bible stories and by the songs they learned that week.”
“It was great to watch during the Bible lessons, knowing we had mostly unchurched kids, and see them listen and ask questions and sing songs that are straight out of Scripture,” Hannah said. “You could see among the kids that God’s Word was making its way into their hearts.
“Even some of the parents who showed up with their kids sang along,” she says of the songs created to help teach the daily Bible verses. “Some of them don’t even speak English, but now they know some English words—and those words are Scripture verses!”
“We’d hear kids say, ‘I just can’t get the songs out of my head,’” Justin adds. “And they’re wearing their bright green Jesus T-shirts around the neighborhood all the time. We actually had kids show up the next Monday, hoping that the club would continue.”
The connections made during the week of their club are continuing, as Justin and Hannah have become trusted helpers for some of the refugee families who are navigating their new lives here. When one girl’s parents couldn’t figure out the meaning of a paper she brought home from school, they sent her to the Heths’ house so Hannah could help.
“And a dad who didn’t know how to sign up his son for the park district programs came to me to find out how to do that. I was able to help him make that connection,” Justin adds, “and now he’s got my cell-phone number if he needs anything else.
“The whole experience felt like an adventure for the Kingdom. I remember mowing the lawn the day before the club was to start and praying, Lord, who is going to show up for this thing? Is anybody going to come? We kind of put ourselves out there and said, ‘We’re just going to be faithful. We’re going to put it in Your hands.’
“For me personally, the whole experience was so life giving,” Justin says, “I feel like this is the most important thing I’ve done for the Kingdom of God all year.”