BUSHWICK — In a packed auditorium on Evergreen Avenue recently, hundreds of children clad in swimsuits and shorts danced before an altar of hula-hoops, a waterslide, and balloons. As lights flashed and electric guitarists jammed onstage, staff in Yogi Bear T-shirts soaked the squealing kids with hoses.
But then the pop tunes suddenly ceased, quieting the carnival-like atmosphere.
“Now is time for the important part: the Word of God,” a Metro Ministries leader said into the microphone.
The rambunctious kids, 6 to 12 years old, sat quietly and and closed their eyes.
For the next 45 minutes they prayed and absorbed a Bible lesson as part Metro Ministries' self-proclaimed “World’s largest Sunday school” near Putnam Avenue.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” a Metro leader said, reciting the day’s Biblical quote, followed by staff giving examples of lusts and temptations to avoid, including pornography, drugs and R-rated movies.
“The devil wants to get into your heart."
Metro’s power to captivate thousands of inner-city kids draws missionaries from around the globe to train with the Bushwick staff during its six-day “Brooklyn Boot Camp.”
“What you see here is such success,” said Stephan Wenz, a native of Germany who was at the camp last week. “They make it relevant for the kids.”
Wenz, 29, who came to Bushwick to help inspire his current missionary work in South Africa, said the camp provided a great crash-course for reaching youth.
He campaigned with Metro staff at public housing developments all over the city, knocking on residents’ doors and setting up a “sidewalk Sunday school” to preach from a U-Haul truck with a roll-out stage.
“If you wear a Yogi Bear T-shirt they say it’s safer than a bulletproof vest," Wenz said of Metro’s Yogi Bear mascot the team dons on its shirts. "There’s such respect in these areas. The kids don’t know it as 'Metro,' they know it as ‘Yogi Bear.'"
His wife agreed.
“It was awesome,” said Elizabeth Wenz, 28, who also attended the camp. “The kids are hanging out on the streets and don’t have anything to do, and then we show up.”
Another camper from Switzerland, Patrick Pfister, said he decided to come to Bushwick after hearing Metro’s founder, the Rev. Bill Wilson, speak in his hometown while on tour.
“I said to myself, ‘One day I will go there,’” said Pfister, 24, who works as a map surveyor and volunteers at his local church. “Of course, boot camp’s hard work. But it’s a great idea.”
Rev. Wilson tours the globe speaking to ask for donations for the ministry, said Elysia Bewernick, director of Brooklyn Boot Camp.
Metro’s programs — which include locations in Romania, the Philipines, India, South Africa and Ukraine — both preach the Christian Gospel and provide support for children, such as food, clothing and education, according to its website.
“To get finances he travels all the time,” said Bewernick, “so he’s well known internationally, and he encourages people to come here.”
Metro’s 32-year-old Bushwick headquarters, a massive space that holds services for both kids and adults, draws outside visitors but aims to impact the community where it’s based, one longtime congregant said.
“When Metro first started, there were drug dealers all over,” said Marie Brenes, 65, a Williamsburg resident who has attended services at Metro the past 25 years.
“I think it’s helped the neighborhood and families here…now we even have drug dealers come in here sometimes to see what’s going on. The pastors know who they are, but they welcome them.”
Brenes praised the ability of Metro — one of many churches in a several-block radius — to take kids off the streets and instill them with faith. Still, she lamented that her own six grown children had rejected the teachings.
“My children aren’t saved, which is hard,” Brenes said. “I want them to go where I’m going, which is Heaven…hopefully if I keep doing what I’m doing, they will get there.”
The mother may be pained by non-believers, but many non-religious members of the community said they had no problem with Metro’s presence.
“They give a good example to kids,” said Juan Martinez, 41, a neighbor of Metro for the past nine years. “There are people that it bothers, but there are people bothered by everything.”
As for the kids who attend Saturday services — they are bused in from all over the city — many seemed to take Metro’s teachings directly at their word and enjoy the energy of the center.
“I come here to pray,” said Careliys, 9, who said she has attended Metro's Sunday school the past five years.
“It’s so much fun,” said another congregant, Jordany, 14.
But some still questioned the teachings.
“If a man made the Bible, how do you know God is real?” William, 12, asked a Metro leader after Saturday’s service.
The instructor responded without hesitation.
“God told the men what to write,” said the instructor, Ryan, who declined to give his last name.
William nodded and then boarded the bus home, with plans to return to service the following week.