Puppets and children have always gone well together. But it was an enthusiastic crowd of mostly adults that attended Gospel Puppet Night at the Church of God last Sunday.
Aunt Grace, 69, and Uncle Wilbur Thrush, 72, have conducted a nationwide children's ministry for almost four decades. They were asked to make the presentation at the Sunday evening service for the adults.
"We usually have as many adults as children at our meetings," Mrs. Thrush said. "I don't know if it's the puppets' language, their excitement or just seeing them. But both adults and children love them."
There was a lot of clapping, singing and tapping of colorful rhythm sticks that were handed out before the program. One youngster even danced in the aisle, caught up in the beat of one of the lively songs, as Aunt Grace and Uncle Wilbur presented the Gospel with the help of their puppet friends and a black light story presentation.
It all began when Mrs. Thrush was a teenager and youth pastor at an Assembly of God church in Tampa. Later she taught Sunday school to adults. During this time period, she said, for almost two years, she had a vision while sleeping.
"I would see this vision night after night, but I refused (to respond)," she said.
In the vision she was flying from state to state preaching the Gospel before hundreds of people.
"I know what it was now," Mrs. Thrush said. "In our ministry we had a Greyhound bus, so we did fly from state to state. I didn't believe it would ever happen, but the Lord made it possible."
Then Grace and Wilbur, who had been her Sunday school superintendent, married.
"Wilbur had a really good job," Mrs. Thrush said. "The Lord started working on him then because he knew I couldn't do it alone. I bought him a ventriloquist figure. He picked that thing up out of the box and started using it. He's a great ventriloquist."
Mrs. Thrush said she started out with a puppet she had made with a sock called Mr. Willy. Puppets were a "no-no" for Christians in the Assembly of God church at that time, she said. They were invited to minister through the Church of God and were soon asked to be the state evangelists for children.
They won the first Shepherd's Cup that was ever given in Pennsylvania by the church for their faithfulness in reaching the young with the Gospel and they have numerous awards and plaques from various churches in which they have ministered.
Last Sunday night it was Aunt Grace who stood in front of the elaborate set and presented the Gospel. Uncle Wilbur prefers to stay behind the scenes, but his efforts were greatly appreciated by the audience as he and a helper expertly operated the puppets and moved scenery when needed.
Aunt Grace, who writes the programs herself, ministered to the crowd with the comfort of one who has been at a task for many years.
"Isn't God good?" she asked the audience. "God is real. He lives within my life. He's made a way for me to go to heaven."
As Aunt Grace talked about the Bible, fire leapt from the pages of one she held in her hands.
"God's Word is our strength," she said.
With black light making them iridescent, different puppets danced and sang Gospel songs. Four sets of glowing eyeballs danced around and sang The Lord's Got His Eye on You. Two large light bulbs played I Want to be a Little Light Bulb for the Lord.
While most of the songs were of the old-fashioned Gospel type, a pair of lips and eyes sang a rap song called Righteous Rap. The audience loved it all.
The climax of the presentation was a story called Wait a Minute presented on flannel graph by Aunt Grace, who makes all the props herself. The audience was moved to see a little flannel graph Molly putting off things she was supposed to be doing.
"When Jesus knocks on our hearts, we should not say wait a minute, or when he asks us to reach out to others," Mrs. Thrush concluded.
Later the altar was filled with adults and children responding to an invitation to come forward.
"It was packed out," Mrs. Thrush said later. "I had a couple of adults that came up to be saved."
The couple has headed the Children's Church at the Inverness church for many years. Recently Aunt Grace retired from that ministry and spends her time training a replacement. She and Uncle Wilbur still travel within the state presenting their ministry upon request.
"In General Assembly, we had over 3,000 children, and you could hear pins drop when it was story time," Mrs. Thrush said. "The best thing is seeing the response of the children and their excitement and their little tears accepting the Lord, knowing it's the right way."