Joel Aplin is on the hunt for a cotton candy machine.
A roller coaster would be nice too, but Aplin jokes he can simply tie some shopping carts together and send the children who attend vacation Bible school at Unity Baptist Church this summer sailing down the hill in the church parking lot.
“I think the rocks (at the edge of the parking lot) would stop them,” he says, grinning.
The theme for this year’s vacation Bible school at churches across the country is “Colossal Coaster World,” with the curriculum designed around facing fears. But Aplin and other VBS volunteers at Unity have a history of coming up with the Cadillac version of each year’s message.
It even got him mentioned in the Christian Index, the online magazine published by the Georgia Baptist Convention, as a “Baptist You Should Know.”
The children of the church certainly know “Mr. Joel.” Months away from VBS, they come running up to the friendly man before Wednesday night services, getting hugs he happily doles out.
“It’s not about me,” he quickly admits. “It’s about them.”
The vacation Bible classes Aplin remembers best were spent during summers on his grandparents’ farm. The nearby country church had about 30 members, and VBS was held on the back steps each day for a week. Aplin still has two of the crafts he made back then, a shoe shine kit and a lamp.
It’s where he learned about Jesus and the Bible, and it’s always been part of his life.
That’s what he tries to recreate for the kids every summer, on a much grander scale. Aplin studied visual arts at Auburn University and was asked to help decorate the church for VBS eight years ago. His summers haven’t been the same since.
The theme that first year was “Arctic Edge,” and VBS was still held in the sanctuary. Aplin and volunteers covered the entire place in material painted to look like a snow bank. The set was complete with penguins and polar bears and boxes that looked like blocks of ice.
For a dude ranch one year, he created a fire that looked so real a church member asked if it could be moved to her Sunday school class because the room was always cold.
Another year, they made a “bear cave” with old boxes with teddy bears inside for children to find. An adult got stuck in the maze and had to be helped out.
“I like to do things you normally wouldn’t do,” Aplin says.
He has created a volcano, the Great Barrier Reef, Ayer’s Rock in Australia and the skyscrapers and pigeons of New York City.
Last year, he created an airplane hangar that was 16 feet tall and 30 feet wide.
“I don’t know what other churches do,” he said. “I’ve always had fun making things look real.”
He uses sound effects too, from the ocean waves to an actual spinning propeller – he used an ice cream freezer motor to make it move.
The week kicks off on the Saturday before with a block party outside the church. It’s a chance for the VBS volunteers to get to know the children and their parents. There’s always hot dogs and a water slide.
It’s the kind of event the church’s former youth minister, Max New, loved. New died more than a year ago in a traffic accident.
“I’d have to tell Max to go sit down,” Aplin said, because he’d get as excited as the children.
Word usually gets out throughout the week and there are more VBS students at the end of the week than the beginning. You can always tell the VBS volunteers – they have burn marks on their fingers from the hot glue guns.
He’ll have something special to hand out to the children during the week for memorizing their Bible verse. For the New York year it was baseball caps, for aviation it was a pin that was a set of wings.
“Those kids would kill for a set of wings,” Aplin joked.
“It’s something I can do, and I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I’m just the facilitator.”
Aplin did realize early on that his specialty was building the sets, not running the entire week. He relies on a director to run the program and others to come up with music.
He doesn’t mind being the one “out front,” however, if that means promoting the program or being the target of the children.
“I’ll stand up with a jacket and weird hat and goggles on (during the aviation theme),” he said. Another week, during a boys vs. girls contest, the winner got to hurl whipped cream at him.
“I’ll stand and have them fling whipped cream on me, I don’t care,” he said. “If we weren’t doing this, how would these children find Jesus?”
The church has put on its VBS program during a mission in Mt. Sterling, Ky., and a father and son both were baptized at the end of the week.
“If we weren’t there, would that have happened?” Aplin says. “That’s the part that’s important to me.”