May 22, 2007

Hands for God

Hands for God puppet ministry

It’s not often you can find a group of teenagers willing to squeeze into a tight space for an hour, put all goofing aside and pay strict attention to detail. Behind three tiers of a black curtain “stage,” there is very little room for long legs and sneakered feet, let alone a myriad of puppets, props, signs and sound equipment.

But for a handful of high school kids from Central Christian Schools, it’s a job they accepted with enthusiasm.
Each of the 10 students, ranging from freshman to senior, elected to join the school’s puppet and drama outreach group, “Hands for God.” The puppet troupe performs puppet shows with a Christian message for churches, nursing homes, public venues and various children’s groups.

The troupe traveled to Nampa, Idaho, in April to perform at The Hope House, a group home for kids who have been bounce around to many different foster homes.
“The kids really loved it,” Megan Ryan, a sophomore, recalled of the visit to the group home. “But it was emotionally hard.”

Four years ago Malane Bryant -- puppet class teacher, school librarian and outreach director -- wanted to start a puppet ministry and pitched the idea to CCS Principal Bill Mahnke. He responded and sent Bryant to a puppet training camp. A private, generous donation soon followed, which was used to purchase about 50 professional-quality puppets.

It started out as a puppet theater class, Bryant said, but eventually evolved into an outreach program. “The kids wanted to teach others about God’s love,” she said.

Bryant writes the scripts and some are revised to suit the performance. Each show is different depending on the audience (such as for young children, families or teen youth groups), but scripts stay close to the general theme of “grace and love,” Bryant explained. It also depends on the amount of time allotted for each show, which can range from 30 minutes to an hour and a half.

The majority of the troupe’s show presented for the Heights Assisted Living Center in Redmond last week was choreographed to upbeat Christian music, but most shows involve short drama skits and dialogue between both human and animal characters.

During every show, two students step out from behind the velvet curtains to present a personal testimony of faith. Last week it was Rob Douglas’ time to share. “I never really understood what it means to be a Christian. I never really truly lived like a Christian … but I learned that God wants us to truly live for him and not just go through the motions,” the tall, blond sophomore told his audience. Douglas is also the puppet troupe’s stage manager.Freshman McKenzie Ross, didn’t seem at all shy as she told the audience about a simple prayer recently answered. The troupe was loaded and headed out on their way to Idaho when the trailer lights stopped working. To fix the problem would’ve meant a lengthy delay driving to Bend without trailer lights. “I asked the Lord to fix the trailer lights, and they started working!”

The students have performed 16 shows this year alone, and will present show number 30 by the end of the summer, said Bryant. The troupe will travel to Montana, Canada and Washington State for shows at churches and in public parks and has been invited to Pennsylvania and Georgia. They may also hold fundraising car washes and add children’s activities to their repertoire such as balloon tying and magic tricks.

Perhaps one key to the group’s performance success is the requirements set before students before they can enroll in the elective class. Students must have an overall grade point average of C or better and they are asked to submit a testimony of faith to Bryant and give a one-on-one interview. Students should also possess a desire to learn something new and “be stretched,” Bryant said. “A lot of the students don’t have drama experience; they learn it as they go,” she said.

Within the class and the performing troupe each student has a job such as stage manager, marketing director, and prop manager. They are given a budget at the start of each school year and must work within that budget to buy props and puppets. “They’re learning leadership skills as well,” according to Bryant.

The students’ enthusiasm was easy to spot last week as they kept their puppets moving on cue, changed props without a hitch and cheerfully mingled with their audience after the performance.

The best part of the class is different for each student, but for Rob Douglas, it’s the friendships that grow from working closely with other kids. “If we’re having a hard time, we can stand up and help each other and encourage each other … help each other through the hard times,” he said.

-- story by Tara LaVelle, photos by Melissa Jansson

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