Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Rev. Jaco Hamman and his friends played with the big green grasshoppers they saw outside. Although grasshoppers are usually solitary animals, they gather during food scarcities. When they get together, their swarming instinct kicks in and the grasshoppers become locusts, eventually turning on each other when all other food is gone.

“On the playground of life and ministry, there are locusts,” said Hamman, professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the keynote speaker for this year’s Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual event — the theme of which is “Let us play.”

APCE is a professional organization for educators in the Reformed tradition in the United States and Canada. This year’s annual event ran Feb. 6-9.

Speaking on Feb. 7, Hamman said there are two kinds of locusts: slow-moving and fast. Both are devastating to healthy environments, he said, and those in the church are familiar with each.

But, “when you and I embody a playful spirit, we can play with the locusts of life,” he said.

Pretoria Prison in South Africa housed prisoners who were opponents of apartheid. They were kept there while awaiting their executions. On the way to the gallows to be hanged, many prisoners collapsed in fear. It was then that other prisoners sang songs of freedom and hope to “sing their sprits home,” Hamman said.

“This is the power of play,” he said, noting that play inverts the system and takes away the locusts’ power.

When faced with locusts, we must come together, not isolate ourselves.

“Congregating” can be a challenge, Hamman acknowledged. The church has a hard time being a fountain of flowing, healing water. Instead, it often dams itself up and becomes stagnant or becomes a powerful flood, eroding everything in its path.

“The church today struggles in being life-giving water,” he said.

But God helps us find ways to be nurturing water to those among us — and play will help. Without play, we become bitter and apathetic. We need to learn to play together as strangers and with God.