Puppets may be associated as "for children," but ask a puppet ministry leader, and they'll tell you that puppets are for everyone.
Maybe it's because puppets are a part of nearly everyone's childhood: there was Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the '50s, and Edgar Bergen and his famous puppet sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. And Jim Henson's creations of Kermit the Frog and the gang at Sesame Street continue to delight children and adults alike, well beyond Henson's untimely death in 1990.
Puppets are fun, silly and colorful. They live in a world of pretend, but they can talk about real issues, too. And in the case of puppets who reside in the world of a UCC church, they can talk about things like tolerance, loving your neighbor, and about the promise of Jesus Christ. "Every time we do something with the puppets at church, everybody goes crazy," says Jim Somers, from First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass. He and his wife, Heidi, have led S.T.A.R. (Start Taking A Role) Puppet Ministry for the past five years. "They just swarm the stage afterwards."
|Jim and Heidi Somers (c.), co-leaders of Start Taking a Role (S.T.A.R.) puppet ministry at First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass., pose with the cast and crew of "Born in a Barn." photo furnished.|
"They just love it. They just can't get enough of it. Why is this? It's probably just because it's different and it's entertaining," says Somers. "Entertaining isn't usually a word that is associated with a church service, but why not? My theater background says, you're putting on a show in the sense that you've got an audience, and you have to captivate them. The Word is out there, the Word is exciting. So let's not make it boring, let's make it exciting. It's a good excuse to say, 'Hey, let's be dramatic here.' "
Cindy McLean, of Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn., leads a troupe of puppeteers from 4th through 6th grade. As much as she sees the puppet ministry benefitting her students, she laughs heartily when she sheepishly admits that she feels it is she who is having the most fun. "[The kids] are so incredibly creative! Sometimes I'm laughing so hard with tears running down my face because they are so clever!"
McLean says the puppets give the kids a place where they can express their faith. "They have a lot of fun with it, and there's a lot of silliness in it, too," she says. "Puppets say really funny things, and get it wrong a lot!"
Karen Mann, the leader of Good Ship Grace Puppeteers at Grace UCC in Lebanon, Penn., had the fortunate advantage of being in the right place at the right time. "We were blessed by the Rev. Dana Schlegel, a previous puppet ministry person," explains Mann.
Schlegel, a UCC minister who is noted for his advocacy of the use of sacred dance and the arts in worship, decided it was time to pass along his puppet collection. When Mann first met Schlegel, she knew that he wasn't going to give his puppets away to be used as playthings. "Just the way he handled the puppets, I knew they were very special to him," remembers Mann. "They were like his kids."
Since then, Schlegel, who suffers from MS, continues to be an invaluable teacher and mentor to Mann's puppet troupe, comprised of eight adults at her church. To honor Schlegel and his important role to the puppet ministry, proceeds from the Good Ship Grace Puppeteer performances go to the MS Society.
Starting a puppet ministry from scratch can have start-up costs, according to McLean. "You need a couple hundred bucks to start," she says. "Now that we're getting established, we're part of the budget. Every show has costumes and scenery."
McLean's troupe had humble beginnings, which required some ingenuity. Instead of purchasing the more costly hand puppets, McLean opted for making "Peeper Puppets," a technique that involves a set of eyes worn on either a bare hand or a glove.
Through websites like <peeperspuppet.com>, these sets of eyes that hook under the puppeteer's finger can be purchased for just over $3.00 each. McLean's puppeteers would wrap boas and feathery things around their wrists to add color. In fact, even after purchasing the more "high-tech" hand puppets, McLean says the peeper puppets still make appearances in their productions. "They're just so cute, we can't bear to let them go," she says.
|Puppeteers from Peace Puppets at Peace UCC, Duluth, Minn., share the spotlight with their "Birds of Pray." photo furnished.|
Somers, McLean and Mann all agree that the internet is the first stop for inspiration and resources. One Way Street, Inc., a Colorado-based company, gets high grades from all three puppet group leaders. The website sells instructional DVDs on puppeteering, scripts, puppets and scenery, and sponsors periodic training seminars and performance festivals.
Still, each leader finds what works best for his or her group. Depending on the skit, Somers will turn to different websites that offer free, downloadable scripts. Mann says her troupe writes their own scripts or adapts a pre-written one, and often they'll center a performance on a song. McLean has also used songs to tell her puppet's story. But since McLean has yet to find scripts that she feels reflects UCC theology and faith, she has written all of her scripts entirely herself.
Taking the show on the road
Mann's troupe, the Good Ship Grace Puppeteers, gets bookings from all over the local area, and the 8-person troupe has developed a close working relationship because of it. Performing at events like Relay for Life, Special Olympics or performing and leading a workshop for the local Girl Scouts keeps them on their toes, especially since they like to customize their performance for each particular audience.
When Mann got called to fill in at the last minute for some entertainment at a Christmas party for a group of electricians, she admits to feeling a bit worried, wondering if the group of adults would take kindly to being entertained by the puppets. "Thank goodness for the internet," laughs Mann, who hurriedly searched for "electrician humor" so that she could work in a few electrical jokes to the set.
She needn't have worried. "We left there with two other bookings [for future shows]. People said they thought it was so funny." Even when playing to a secular crowd, Mann says, "We don't downplay the religious side of what we do, but we're not grabbing them by the lapels, either. There are subtle ways to get the message across."
Finding your niche
A puppet ministry takes a lot of work, but the results bring people close together, sometimes bringing out talents that were never before realized. "This ministry can reach out to kids who maybe don't have another niche," says McLean. "One of our kids who had a disability was one of our best puppeteers. She was awesome, just awesome," she says. "It was just something she could immediately do."
Somers agrees. "The cool thing about puppets is when someone wants to get involved, but they're terrified to stand up in front of people ... This way, they can hide. All we see is a puppet! They can have a blast, tell a story, be part of this whole ministry without actually being in front of anybody."
Mann feels she's part of something that allows Christians of all ages to go back to the basics. "The puppets teach us about showing Christian love and how to treat people," she says. "[The Rev.] Dana [Schlegel] told us that a long time ago. People hear from a puppet what they might not hear if a person just stood up and talked."
Want to start simple?
I need you! Like whoa. My life is changing a mile a minute, and I need a spiritual home.
It's a bit nerve-racking to walk into a new church—it took three years for one of my friends to build up the courage to try the local UCC church, even though he knew it was open and welcoming.
The church needs to actively reach out to youth and young adults. This could be as simple as putting your church's name in the list of churches at the local college chaplain's office. Better yet, host an event for the youth or young adults in your area. I've heard about another church that serves a midnight pancake breakfast during finals period, and the whole campus attends this much loved annual event.
You don't need to use that idea, but I am sure homesick college students and young folks new to the area would love a home-cooked meal by loving Christians any time of the year. One church reaches out to young people through their regular social justice programs by advertising the volunteer program to young people in the area.
Whether it is a home-cooked meal, a social justice program, a book group or even a late-night prayer service, I just want a place to make friends with other young Christians.
Youth and young adults are doing all sorts of different things, from starting college to taking their first job. Regard-less of where we are or what we are doing, we are new to our environments and need spiritual partners for the journey.
Church, if there is anything you can do to help me build relationships with other Christians, I would be so grateful! My friend Emilia says, "I need a young adult group in my church! Even if it starts out small, if it isn't there to offer young adults when they come to visit a church, then they feel as if there is nothing there specifically for them."
And Kathryn agrees: "Sometimes, it is just nice to know that the program is there and to have someone to con-nect with over coffee or something…It's nice to have that support and talk about faith or just life in general."
Once you've actively reached out, if you ever see a young person you don't recognize in church one Sunday, don't hesitate to say hello! Many of us go church-shopping to find the right church community for us, and most of the time the first step is just making us feel welcome!
So introduce yourself and ask us about our interests and passions. Who knows? You might make a new friend! As LiErin puts it, "For some young people, a church community is one of the few places to cultivate intergenera-tional relationships. Nurture these relationships! As someone living in student housing, far from my family, I relish the rare opportunity to share a meal in a church member's home or to play Frisbee in a real backyard, with kids of all ages."
One of my friends recently moved to a new town and went to a local UCC church. Everyone was really nice, but it was hard to be one of, if not the only, young person in a congregation with already formed families and friend groups.
As my friend Kevin told me, "People need to realize that oftentimes youth and young adults, not feeling part of the already established group, need to be invited in to ministry and community, not expected to integrate themselves by their own accord."
This does not necessarily mean automatically signing a new member up for the committee in most need of peo-ple. Ask me what my interests are and show me all the different options available in the church. Ask me personally!
My friend Roberta says youth and young adults can be the "active asset of bringing new ideas and a new view to situations."
Youth and young adults have many insights into the church — use us! Listen and take action. We can do so many things like read scripture, design a website, bake for coffee hour, sing in the choir, preach and even write articles. However, you have been in the church longer and know some of the ropes we have not even seen yet. So help us put our ideas into action!
There are many issues that we take very seriously as young Christians. For example, the church is in a unique place to talk about sexuality and faith. Our bodies are changing and the secular world is bombarding us with information about sex and dating. We could use a little guidance. Please don't tell us what to do or what not to do as if the situation is black and white.
But you can give us a place to honestly ask questions and think about how our faith may inform our decisions at this time in our lives. The Our Whole Lives curriculum is a great program to provide such space, and it's a wonderful way to bond with other youth in the church.
Well, here you go church! We love you. We need you. We care. And we know deep down in our hearts that you need us, too. Who else is going to carry on the amazing legacy that is the United Church of Christ?
My friend Meredith sums it up nicely: "Youth and young adults need to be empowered to sustain the church movement and act as Christian leaders seeking a just world."
So here is our challenge to you: reach out to us; encourage us; invite us to the table; and treat us as whole, vital members of the church. Oh yeah, and could you send me a care package?
Young people of the UCC
Kendra Purscell serves on the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries and the Wider Church Min-istries Board of Directors. She ives in Des Moines, Iowa, where she is a Choral Music Education major at Drake University.
Kelly Forbush serves on the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries. She lives in Northampton, Mass., where she leads the Ecumenical Christian Community at Smith College. Next year she will attend seminary to study to become an ordained UCC minister.
|Cmdr. Don Troast talks to a crewmember of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Montpelier. Troast recently assumed duties as the first force chaplain of the submarine force in 15 years. U.S. Navy | Xander Gamble photo.|
"Because of my personal experience with the Submarine Force," said Troast, "I think I have a good handle on what religious support requirements for the Submarine Force are."
Troast previously served the Submarine Force as a squadron chaplain from 1994 to 1997. He also served as command chaplain for the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group and various Marine Corps units deploying to the Far East and Afghanistan.
Troast attended Hope College in Holland, Mich., where he majored in biology and physical education with the intention of being a high school teacher and coach. He then received a call to ministry and went to the theological school at Drew University in Madison, N.J., graduating in 1978. Ordained by the United Church of Christ, he served churches in the Boston area for 13 years and joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1991.
"[Chaplains] exist because of the free exercise rights of religion granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution," said Troast, a native of Boston, Mass., "and I would be bold enough to say that if that phrase wasn't in there, we probably would not be in the military.
"Our primary function is to ensure the free exercise of religious rights for sailors, marines, airmen, the military in general, and in my case, the Submarine Force, is met. Our sailors, marines, and coast guardsman go to places where they can't just go to their respective place of worship, so we bring it to them."
Troast, like every Navy chaplain, is required to facilitate the needs of every member's religious needs, regardless of their faith.
"We aren't called to violate our own beliefs in any way," said Troast, "but by policy, training and professionalism, we make sure that all the faith groups present have their requirements met in some way, shape or form as possible, especially in an operational environment."
The Department of Defense does not endorse any specific religion, but it recognizes more than 900 faith-based non-profit organizations, represented by more than 200 different denominations of chaplains.
"One of my roles as the force chaplain is to do a needs assessment of the force," said Troast. "My own personal philosophy is that I don't want anyone left behind. I don't care if it's just one person or two people. If their religious life or spiritual life is important to them, it's a mission-readiness issue. I think every submariner deserves to be able to practice their faith the best way they can, and the best way we can meet their requirements, especially on deployment."
Although he is the first force chaplain in 15 years, he doesn't feel like he is starting anything new.
"The key thing is the lay leader program," said Troast. "To be honest, I think it is more important in the Submarine Force than anywhere else in the Navy because submarines never have chaplains on board."
Troast plans to standardize the program throughout the force so that sailors' religious needs are met the best way they can be. "If a chaplain or a religious programs specialist wants to exceed the identified minimum requirements by adding their own flavor or pizazz, that's great! Good on them," said Troast.
"You don't have to be religious to see the chaplain," said Troast. "If you just need some counseling or some coaching, that's for everybody. I always remind everybody from the commander down to the seaman that they have 'privileged communication,' which means that whatever is discussed privately stays private."
Troast is one of more than 60 UCC clergy serving the U.S. Armed Forces as active duty or reservist chaplains.