It’s not uncommon for parishioners at the Damascus United Methodist Church to find a 1960s Aretha Franklin look-a-like addressing them from the church stage.
Weighing about 2 pounds and standing almost 2 feet tall, the plush puppet is one of about 25 used by the church’s youth ministry to explain the basic teachings of Christianity in a different way and is a favorite among the performers, according to Nancy Lacy, facilitator of the Puppets, InC Interactive.
“The kids always grab her any chance they get,” she said. “She’s always been Aretha.”
A large, blue plush crayon, a hippopotamus and some “gigantic stars that talk” are a few of the other puppets the ministry uses.
Performing original plays each month at regular church services from October to May, the six-member troupe uses puppeteering and live action, among other theater elements to bring messages to life, including the true meaning of Christmas and the Golden Rule.
“[We try to teach] things [with our shows] that the kids can understand and pay attention to,” said Julia Bratburd, a 13-year-old member of Puppets, InC. “They seem to understand it more, it seems to get their attention. Even the adults like it.”
Puppets, InC. includes middle and high school students and is one of two puppeteering groups at the church. The other called “The Colorful Hands of Jesus” is for children from second through fifth grades, and is where many future Puppets InC. members, such as Bratburd, got their start. The ministry started more than a decade ago with an older generation of the church, and has since become a way to keep younger members of the congregation involved in service.
“It’s one of those ideas that started very small and just proceeded to get more and more interest,” Lacy said. “We try to do [our shows] with a lot of music and humor, really showing off what young people can do as far as leadership and [being] stewards in the future, and hopefully that comes out in other parts of their lives.”
Along with helping to write the shows, members also have the opportunity to learn other production skills such as directing, producing and videography. It takes about three weeks to get their show performances up to the near-professional level that they strive for before performing in front of the congregation, Lacy said.
“They all work very hard. It’s not like they go out there and say ‘let’s just wing it.’ It’s a reasonably professional performance,” she said. “The kids are absolutely fearless about getting out there…. And right now [the troupe is] evolving.”
A year ago, when Lacy first began leading the older group, the troupe started bringing in live action and more traditional acting into their performances, giving the puppets a smaller role in the shows, a decision that Bratburd said helped to make the message represented more powerful.
“I think really seeing our faces and not the puppet it gives it this sort of real feeling. [Before] it was more like [the puppets] were the stars of the show and now we get to see how people react and you get to see the laughs,” she said. “I get to help people understand what exactly people in church are saying, because for me when I was younger I didn’t get it. It’s pretty fun to see how they understand it all of the sudden, because we’re talking to them in a way that they understand.”
In addition to entertaining and helping to inform the congregation, building confidence and teaching members how to lead are just a few of the positive aspects that working with the troupe gives to those who participate, Lacy said.
“[The kids] know that they [have] got each others’ backs and they know that I’ll always support them and I think that has made them good at what they’re doing and that has made them good [at other things],” she said. “I think any program that initiates, supports and fosters young people learning to make decisions, I think benefits the kids. The kids need to really get that volunteerism is a big thing.”
“We’re known as the girls and puppets now [at church],” Bratburd said. “They are a really great activity and I’m looking forward to some of the younger kids coming in so we continue it.”