Behind the Puppet Ministry and Family Worship at St. Mark's Gastonia
Growing up in the Protestant Church, Deacon Brenda Gilbert remembers anxiously awaiting the day she could participate in the puppet ministry, a weekly puppet show the youth group at her church would put on for the younger children. When she was finally old enough, she excitedly joined the troupe of fellow members of her parish in telling the Gospel stories via puppet shows, loving the joy and excitement it not only brought to those watching, but to those behind the scenes as well. Unfortunately, only three months later, her family moved across the country, forcing Gilbert to leave the puppet ministry behind.
However, years later, Gilbert found herself involved in puppet ministry yet again. This time, however, it was halfway across the country, and in the midst of a global pandemic.
"In response to COVID, originally we were so conscious of quickly trying to get adults engaged again with church, that it took us a minute to realize we were forgetting about the kids," Gilbert said. "I remembered in my background how much I enjoyed the puppet ministry, and so I mentioned it to Father Shawn, and he was like "let's try!" Now it's really taken off! The puppet family is still growing, and we have this vision of a whole new ministry that's going to continue way beyond COVID."
Shawn Griffith, rector of St. Mark's, Gastonia, in fact already owned a Jesus puppet, and jumped at the opportunity to try a new form of ministry. For Griffith, children and youth ministry are at the core of his focus as a rector, leading him to develop "Family Worship" at St. Mark's prior to the pandemic. A family-friendly summer service, held in the St. Mark's Parish hall, Family Worship aimed to create a worship service that catered to all ages--lively, music-and-story-based with a laid back feel. Griffith urged visitors to come as they were, even if that included swimsuits!
"I told people, 'If you're going to the pool today, come wearing your swimsuits! I don't care if your kids need to run around, this is a safe space for them,'" Griffith said. "It became a very welcoming thing. I want parish to be a safe place for children, where they can learn that God loves them and a place where they can be themselves, where they don't have to worry about who might be talking about them or what they're wearing, that this is a community of people who love one another."
With Gilbert's suggestion of a puppet ministry, Griffith saw an opportunity to bring back Family Worship, COVID-era style. Together, Gilbert and Griffith began planning virtual family worship services, combining video submissions from families, songs performed by the youth group, and of course, a puppet-show version of the Gospel reading. Soon the services began to gain traction, bringing people joy during a difficult time in the world.
"In the beginning, with all of this coming out, everything was dark there for a while," Gilbert said. "People were just so frightened. But the Holy Spirit has just been awesome, and Shawn and I just came to the realization around the same time, "we need to laugh!" It felt like confirmation that this was going to be good."
With the puppet ministry growing, Dionne Browning, St. Mark's Business Administrator, also joined the team. Though new to the world of video production, she jumped in with the same intentions--to create joy for those at home. What she found was a sense of community and fun in the growing ministry.
"I find that working here I wear many hats, and because of the pandemic even more so!" Browning said. "So when they asked if I could help them with the family service, I said sure. I assumed I was going to be behind the camera, but they threw a puppet in my hand and said, 'just have a good time!'"
Having fun and spreading joy has been at the core of the ministry since the beginning, and for Browning, is apparent in every service they film. Primarily acting as a puppeteer alongside Gilbert, she has continued work with the ministry because of how much fun she has being a part of the team.
"It's usually me, Brenda, and Father Shawn trying to figure out what's the best way to get the point across of the Gospel reading and make it accessible to kids," Browning said. "Brenda and I are always cracking up but we just can't help it, it's just so much fun!"
As the service has grown in popularity, Griffith, Gilbert, and Browning have enjoyed every element of the video production process, from designing costumes for the puppets to collaborating on scripts for the shows. St. Mark's has even expanded to include a green screen in their videos, allowing the puppet shows to take place anywhere in the world. Griffith, the "tech-whiz" of the group, edits, produces, and releases new family services every Sunday.
"Not only are families getting to sit down and watch the puppet show together, but there is room for families to have discussions once the puppet show is over," Gilbert said. "What we are trying to get across if that even through they are not in the sanctuary with us, your home is your sanctuary now. There's a holy space there when you come together to watch these services online, and we hope that families have grown together spiritually and had a chance to laugh."
Though the puppet shows began with just two puppets, "Darlene" and "Darell," St. Mark's has now expanded, currently home to a cast of 26 puppets. From Jesus to Paul, angels to John the Baptist, there's a character for every scenario you could imagine. There's even a "Groovy Goat," decked out in purple-tinted 70's sunglasses. For the team behind family worship, the hope is that the puppet ministry can continue even after the pandemic is over, acting as a way of connecting the old and the young at St. Mark's.
"When people feel comfortable coming back, and we have some answers to this health crisis, we still want to continue this puppet ministry, but do it live," Gilbert said. "We have enough people who are interested now, families that could come together and adults too, to help lead discussions. All age groups are just falling in love with this ministry, so we just want to take it from there and see where the Holy Spirit leads us!"
To watch all past and upcoming Family Services, please visit the St. Mark's Vimeo Channel.
Learn more about the ministries at St. Mark's by visiting https://stmarksgastonia.org/