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AWANA gives kids positive directions

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When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints showcased a new set of standards for the Young Men "Duty to God Award" recently, it made me wonder what the other churches were doing to steer their youth down the narrow way.

So last week I drove out to the Southeast Baptist Church to make a bunch of new friends: the boys and girls of AWANA.

AWANA is like the Boy Scouts, only different. The name comes from a New Testament scripture and stands for "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed."

Given the enthusiasm of the kids I met, however, it could also stand for AWANA-go-to-AWANA.

The club began in Chicago 50 years ago and has slowly spread into the world. Today, there are 5,000 AWANA clubs in 180 countries. At Southeast Baptist, the club is made up of kids from six denominations, including some LDS youth.

At heart, it's a scripture-learning club. AWANA wasn't conceived as an alternative to the Boy Scouts.

It was conceived as an alternative to sin.

Picture Sunday School with flags, pledges and uniforms, you get a sense of what AWANA's about.

Inside the Southeast Baptist church, I found a beehive of busy kids in red and gray outfits. One of the church's five pastors was video-taping events for a companion AWANA club in Venezuela, another pastor was setting the rhythm machine up for a rousing rendition of "This Little Light of Mine."

Downstairs, several women were setting out "What Would Jesus Do?" yo-yos, candy crosses, Christian CDs and other items for the "AWANA store," the place where kids spend their AWANA bucks (You earn AWANA bucks by obeying the rules and doing good deeds).

Meanwhile, over and around all the buzz, I found Pastor Mike Gray. The Rev. Gray is the good shepherd for a thousand local Baptists, including 200 AWANA kids.

"It's really a great ministry," he told me. "I think all of us have cares about the youth these days, and we've had a solid youth ministry here for some time. It has been a real draw for our church."

Laying out all the aspects of AWANA for you would take more than one newspaper column. In short, AWANA evenings are divided into thirds (bookwork, game time and council meeting), while the AWANA kids themselves are divided up by age (You've got your Cubbies, your Sparks, your Grayshirts, along with others).

And like the kids, the AWANA leaders come in an array of shapes, sizes and ages. Some choose to be AWANA missionaries and travel the region like circuit riders to start new clubs and recruit members.

Some, like Mark and Barbara Burgess, put down stakes, dig in and throw themselves into AWANA activities.

"We're non-denominational," says Mark Burgess. "Anyone who believes in Christianity is welcome."

I have a feeling, however, if you speak with Pastor Gray, pretty much anyone with a good heart, who worries about the way the world is going and has a desire to connect with God, could easily find a niche at AWANA.

Dues are 50 cents a week.

Good manners are expected.

Cubbies who buy Play-Doh with their AWANA bucks need to keep it off the carpets.

For more information call Pastor Gray at 943-2241.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com