BROOKSVILLE — As members of Grace World Outreach Church's Raisin' Hands puppet ministry prepared for a presentation at their church April 5, their director gave them final instructions.
"Tilt those hands," Ruth Markham advised. "We've got to really move."
Markham, who has taken several courses in puppetry, is well qualified to give instructions. She began using puppets when she was in college, and for 30 years has used puppets as a ministry tool while working with her husband, Jim, in children's ministries.
For the past 18 years, she and Jim have served as children's pastors at Grace World Outreach. Ruth works as a science teacher at Chocachatti Elementary School, where she also has a puppet team.
The Raisin' Hands team, made up of students in fifth grade through college, performs at children's church, vacation Bible school, children's camp, on mission trips and at numerous community outreach events.
The 20-member team, which includes Markham's son and daughter, uses both puppetry and dramatic object lessons to minister to children. They have traveled to competitions throughout the United States and have won first-place awards on state, national and international levels with One Way Street — an interdenominational children's ministry publisher and supplier that trains children's workers — and within the Assemblies of God denomination.
Last weekend, Grace World Outreach was the host for the One Way Street Regional Puppetry Training Festival. About 350 people from churches as far away as Kansas and New Jersey came for the training and participated in several competitive events. Christian Fellowship Church of Brooksville took a silver medal in the puppet song competition.
As the host church, Grace World Outreach did not compete, but three of its ministry teams gave presentations, including the A Cut Above dance worship team and the Vessels for Christ human video drama team.
The Raisin' Hands team demonstrated its skills with a black light presentation of In the Belly of the Whale, a song originally performed by Newsboys in Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie that has won the team awards in previous competitions.
Crystal Heath, 17, was the puppeteer who performed as Jonah. A student at Hernando High School, she has been with the ministry for six years.
"I love it," Heath said. "I love getting the kids' attention, grasping them into the puppet world and making them use their imagination into thinking this is a real person. It's an awesome feeling."
Making the puppet believable is a challenge, Heath said.
"You're kind of limited because you only have the top half," she said, "so you have to make yourself be the legs and you have to put so much into it that you kind of put yourself into the character. So you have to be alive and energetic. Everything the puppet says and does is going to be in the children's memory, so you have to be so careful and prepared for what you are going to say to grasp their attention and hold it. And I just love that."
Puppetry, Markham says, takes several years to learn.
"It's not like putting a sock on your hand and flopping around," she said. "It's a whole dimension of ministry, and it's an art form that will present a message in a way that's hard to do by just standing there. There's a whole technique to it, and it takes a while to develop it."
In fact, it takes a few years to develop the hand technique and the muscles needed to make a puppet act like a person or a particular animal, Markham said.
"When they start in fifth grade, we assign them to an older child to teach an object lesson or memory verse or to teach the Bible story or do a game or collect the offering. As they get older and develop their skills, they become very creative and confident."
Lauren Frazier, 19, has been with the team since she was in sixth grade. Now a student at Southeastern University in Lakeland, she helps with the puppet team whenever she comes home. For the presentation last weekend, she stood in front of the puppet stage, interacting with one of the puppets to prepare the audience for the presentation.
"Being on that team was a huge experience for me. It taught me basically everything I know," she said. "I'm an elementary education major now as well as ministry arts. Learning how to do puppetry is something I've been able to use with both of my majors."
What she learned helped her use her skills in a positive way, she said.
"Not only puppetry, but even problem solving and conflict management, because you're on a team and there are always issues on a team. A lot of the foundation of what I know and what I do now and what I'm passionate about doing came from being on that team and being under Pastor Jim and Miss Ruth and their guidance."
Markham said teaching what she has learned to others is a large part of her ministry.
"I want to show others ways to reach children, ways to give back to the community, to always pour into others more than to yourself," she said. "It just really helps them to be well-rounded, well-grounded individuals. To not hold back any of the gifts that God has given them and to not be afraid because he can give you the creativity in ways that will keep children's attention. And it works for adults, too."