Youth ministry uses puppets to spread gospel message

The music is cranked and the kids are clapping, jumping and gliding around in a second-floor room in the education building at Van Dyke Church in Lutz.

The members of the 2013 Puppets for Christ touring team are, in front, kneeling from left, Madison Welch, Preston Keleher, Allison Tsay, Jessica Grimes, Alex Whittington. Standing in back, Sarah Brennan, Sandy Graves, Zoe Wallace, A.J. Collado, Cody Coates, Meaghan Heveran, Conner Berg, Jaelin Brigner, Becky Bonanno, Lindsey Proulx, Jordan Reineke, Sarah Lucker. (Courtesy of Sandy Graves)

The members of the 2013 Puppets for Christ touring team are, in front, kneeling from left, Madison Welch, Preston Keleher, Allison Tsay, Jessica Grimes, Alex Whittington. Standing in back, Sarah Brennan, Sandy Graves, Zoe Wallace, A.J. Collado, Cody Coates, Meaghan Heveran, Conner Berg, Jaelin Brigner, Becky Bonanno, Lindsey Proulx, Jordan Reineke, Sarah Lucker.
(Courtesy of Sandy Graves)

They are waving flags, raving poi balls and making dance moves, as they practice a routine for a future performance.

The middle and high school youths are part of a group called PfC, which stands for Puppets for Christ. If the name implies some kind of sedate puppet presentation laced with staid Bible lessons, think again.

This group has a groove on, and the kids are using music and props they created to help share a gospel message through performances that both they and their audiences enjoy.

Normally, they perform under black lights, wearing black costumes with mesh or cloth hoods that cover their faces. They use neon puppets, signs and other props to get across their message.

The ministry has won a fair number of awards at competitions, and recently was one of the ministries showcased at the 2014 Real Ideas Conference at Van Dyke Church, which attracted about 650 people from 177 churches to learn practical ways to enliven their churches.

At the recent practice, PfC volunteer director Becky Bonanno recalled that the ministry began about 15 years ago, with two little green puppets that came in a curriculum kit, when she used to teach children’s church.

She and her husband used the puppets in the ministry, and their son Nick later asked if he could put together a puppet team.

Initially, it was intended to just put on puppet shows at the church. But PfC kept growing and has evolved into an ongoing ministry that now has 21 members, from various middle schools and high schools.

Beyond performing locally, the group hits the road once a year on a tour, where they perform primarily at other churches in the Southeast, said Sandy Graves, the other co-director. They perform in such places as Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston and Jacksonville, but they’ve also been as far away as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

They also perform locally, generally for vacation Bible schools, inner-city ministries, children’s homes, domestic abuse shelters and other churches.

The troupe meets for an hour and a half weekly, gathering on Wednesday nights to work on routines and plan out future performances. Sometimes they have prop parties.

There’s a storage room at the church that is chock full of puppets of all shapes and sizes. There are huge elephant puppets and strap-on flamingo puppets. There are all sorts of neon signs and decorations.

“It’s so much fun,” Bonanno said, noting she had no idea the direction that PfC would take when it began.

There are stories of parents who did not come to church, but began attending after bringing their children to a puppet show, Bonanno said. There are stories of kids who were on the puppet team that wound up getting married when they became adults.

Many of PfC’s members are siblings of former members or were invited by friends to give it a try.

“My brother was in it, and I started watching it when I was in third grade,” said Cody Coates, 17, who was so eager to join he persuaded Bonanno to let him join in sixth grade.

“It’s a blast,” said the Steinbrenner High School student said. “This is the only thing I’ll cancel my friends for. I’ve missed birthday parties.

“I like that I can be a Christian while still having fun. You’re spreading God’s word,” Coates added.

If the audience hasn’t heard of them, they’re in for a surprise, he said.

“No one expects to see a fun, black-light puppet show,” Coates said.

Emily Keleher, another PfC member, was surprised the first time she saw a show.

“I thought it was going to be a little puppet show, and then I saw it,” the Martinez Middle School student said.

She enjoys performing, but she thinks the best part of being involved is hanging out with other members of the group.

Jerry Grimes, 13, who is new to the group this year, said he wanted to join after seeing a performance when he was young.

“I would come to these puppet shows, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really fun.’ Now, I’m doing it,” said the Walker Middle Magnet School student.

He gets a kick out of watching children react. “It’s been very fun, just to see the smiles on kids.”

As they run through their routines at practice, the kids are clearly enjoying themselves. They seem to have an easy rapport with Bonanno and Graves.

As they talk about their upcoming tour, for instance, one kid tosses out an idea: “We could do a flash mob on the metro,” he said.

It’s an idea, Bonanno said, that’s worth considering.

Published April 2, 2014

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