Hagerstown Puppet Outreach program hosting family event at City Park
Some local novice puppeteers hold hope in the palms and fingers of their hands.
Hagerstown Outreach Puppet Evangelism, or HOPE, will spread encouraging words and music during a free family event from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 8, at the City Park’s Peter Buys band shell, 501 Virginia Ave. in Hagerstown.
“We want to convey that there’s hope through Jesus Christ,” no matter what people have done or where they have been, said Hillary Maples, one of the members of the puppet troupe. “We are bringing hope,” and named the ministry accordingly, she added.
The event will start with a 30-minute puppet show, including a skit and interactive songs “to get the kids kind of energized, and up and dancing,” Maples said.
In the skit, children ask questions such as whether some sins are worse than others and what heaven is like.
“It is cute, but it’s also quirky and funny,” said Maples, 31, of Hagerstown, adding that it’s ideal for those in grades prekindergarten to elementary/early middle school.
The puppet operators will be behind a curtain for the skit, but will come out from behind it to teach the audience moves to songs called “Mercy’s Falling” and “Jesus in the Boat.”
The day’s activities will include “a little bit of everything,” such as face painting done by members of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Rohrersville, live music by the New Covenant Fellowship Independent Church worship team, water balloons and crafts, said Maples, a retail manager with FedEx Office in Frederick, Md.
While HOPE is only about a year and a half old, the members have done other shows at the park, but this one will be a bit different.
“We’re kind of revamping it,” Maples said, including adding more activities for children and having less live music so the performers will have more time to interact with the audience.
An exercise in puppetry
There’s a core group of six women in HOPE, Maples said, plus three husbands.
“They get roped in when we need them,” she said of the spouses, including her husband, Butch, 48.
One of the puppeteers, Lisa Smith of Smithsburg, teaches Sunday school at New Covenant Fellowship Independent Church in Fairplay and utilizes ideas from Creative Ministry Solutions. That company offers training sessions for its various resources, including puppetry, so she, Maples and other willing servants attended a two-day session in Hummelstown, Pa., in November 2015 to learn how to use handheld foam creations to share God’s word.
“We are all novices,” Maples said of the group, which also includes Vickie Wagner of Clear Spring; Robin Daymude and Corrie Kennedy of Hagerstown; and Anita Burt of Chambersburg, Pa. Smith’s husband, Steve, and Wagner’s husband, Jerry, also lend their budding talents.
All are members of New Covenant Fellowship, but people from all churches are welcome to join the troupe, Maples said.
In the midst of the training, Smith leaned over to Maples and said, “We need to do this, and you need to head it up,” Maples recalled.
What appealed to them was the uniqueness of the ministry.
“It’s different, and we don’t really have anything like this in this area,” Maples said. “We kind of dove in headfirst.”
It took about six months for the participants to hone the mannerisms and movements of the puppets, she said. They rehearse every Saturday, working through the skits they order or doing puppet-specific exercises.
“When we don’t do practice, our arms get tired more easily,” Maples said.
While the puppets are lightweight, they extend from the operators’ fingers to right above their elbows, and it’s a workout to make them move. Maples said the human-powered storytellers make entrances and exits, move up and down stairs, do sit-ups and push-ups, and even sneeze. When not working on such choreographed moves, Maples encourages her fellow puppeteers to hold up soup cans, not letting their arms drop, to build strength and endurance.
The stories they tell come with recordings, so the HOPE group can focus on making the mannerisms and movements as realistic as possible.
Most of the characters, which HOPE orders, look like children.
“They’re relatable to our younger audience,” Maples said.
Depending on the skit they’re doing, puppets that look like an older man or a young-looking female might be utilized.
They wear clothes, which change based on the season, in sizes 18 months to 2T, which the members buy.
“We gladly take donations” of clothes, Maples said.
The members also give their hands another kind of workout by offering American Sign Language interpretation at HOPE’s shows.
Richard Rutherford, the pastor of New Covenant Fellowship, sees a lot of potential in HOPE.
“There is a whole lot of different avenues that can be taken,” Rutherford said of the puppet ministry, including black-light options, which might appeal to teen audiences. “We’re on the ground floor” of exploring the options, he said.
Rutherford was a puppeteer for two or three years when he was pastor of Black Oak Mennonite Church in Warfordsburg, Pa. He said the puppets used there were heavier and had legs that could dangle over the side of a stage. The ones with which HOPE works are easier for younger and older people to manipulate, he said.
“They’re doing a fantastic job,” he said of the HOPE troupe, of which he is not a member.
He views the puppet ministry as a way to fulfill a biblical directive.
“We’re told in the Bible to take it out to the world,” Rutherford said, adding that City Park is a great venue in which to reach a broader audience.
Rutherford said the church was contacted by representatives of San Mar Children’s Home in Boonsboro, which started as an orphanage and whose mission now is to cultivate hope and well-being in children, families and the community. They wanted to share information about the July 8 event with foster parents. He added that there are plans in the works for a community picnic, at which children from San Mar could interact in a low-key setting with other youths.
“Our young people need to hear a positive message,” said Rutherford, 62, of Martinsburg, W.Va.