At worship services around town, people expect to see a preacher, a choir, an organist or a praise band. But on any given Sunday morning at Stow Presbyterian Church, 4150 Fishcreek Road, worshipers might also see a puppet or two, singing a praise song or asking questions about God.
Pastor David Weyrick and his wife, Beth, have used puppets in worship for years.
“Puppets are like smiles because they communicate in a universal language and reach all ages,” Dr. Weyrick said, “Puppets help us escape from the real world and enter into a world of imagination, and it's within that realm that some good lessons take place.”
Dr. Weyrick’s interest in puppetry goes back to his own childhood.
“I wanted to be a ventriloquist when I was in seventh grade,” he said. “but I gave up because my friends thought it was stupid.” His original Danny O’Day ventriloquist dummy, which he named Joey, moved from sitting on his knee to lying in a box in the attic for 40 years.
Dr. Weyrick’s thoughts about ventriloquism changed, however, when his wife, Beth, began directing the church's puppet ministry some fifteen years ago. He accompanied her to a puppet festival and sat in on a ventriloquism workshop.
“During the workshop this little voice inside (sorry, no pun intended) said, ‘I can do that,’” he said.
After that workshop, he purchased a couple of handheld puppets and, over the years, would occasionally use one for the children’s message on Sundays. Then, this past year, he decided to “kick it up a notch,” purchasing some new puppets, attending a ventriloquist conference in July and taking a private lesson to improve his performance. He now has an entourage of six regular puppets friends, each with its own distinct personality and voice, who help him with the children’s message once a month.
There’s Talkatoo, a rascally and mischievous toucan who likes to play pranks on the other puppets. Green is a stubborn, grumpy turtle who prefers to watch TV than to come out of his shell. Wendell is a shy, sad goat who talks about his feelings on a level the children can understand. Critter, who was made by nationally known puppet maker Mary Ann Taylor, is a leisure suit-sporting bear from Tennetucky. There are also two puppets that don’t speak English and use Dr. Weyrick as their interpreter: Hans, a German-speaking piglet, and Petey, a miniature panda who speaks his own language.
Dr. Weyrick even brought Joey out of storage recently for a children’s message. Both children and adults in the congregation are easily engaged by puppets, he said.
“They really pay attention, laugh, and learn about God.”
Mrs. Weyrick has directed the Faith and Foam musical puppet ministry since 1994. At its inception, the church did not offer a youth group and Mrs. Weyrick thought the puppets would be an engaging and educational activity for the Jr. High students. Over the years, the focus of the ministry broadened to include older teens and adults, and currently has a roster of twelve regular puppeteers who make up a puppet praise band, complete with drums, guitar, and keyboard.
“Puppets grab the attention of both kids and adults, no matter what their age,” Mrs. Weyrick said. “Worship should be uplifting and joyful. Who doesn’t smile and feel good when they see a puppet singing about the love of God?”
During rehearsals, the puppet ministry doubles as a small group Bible study, spending time learning about the scripture passage behind their presentation and praying for one another. The worship performances offer opportunities for the puppeteers, some of whom are not comfortable being in front of others, to share their faith from behind the scenes.
Even as they bring their exuberant performances to the service, the puppeteers make a point to be respectful of worship. One of Mrs. Weyrick’s favorite puppet moments occurred when the puppeteers forgot about a prayer before the offertory song and brought all of their puppets up into view too early.
“Instead of dropping them down, they (on the spur of the moment) decided to keep the puppets up and have them “pray” along with the congregation,” she said. “That was puppeteer professionalism!” The ministry performs the offertory song at worship several times a year, attends an annual puppet ministry conference in Grove City, Ohio, and is considering a performance at the 2014 Stow Munroe-Falls Community Showcase.
For the most part, puppets in worship at the church have been well received. But the foam-filled and furry or feathered friends are not without a little controversy.
”Ironically, I have met people who believe puppets are evil and are a violation of passages in the Bible,” Dr. Weyrick explained. “Puppetry and (in my case) ventriloquism goes back thousands of years. Even though there is nothing I can find in the Bible to support it, I find nothing against it either. In my case, the puppet becomes a tool for learning, like any visual aid used in education.”
The puppets also bring an extra element of fun to special events at the church. Last year, Dr. Weyrick and a couple of his puppet friends emceed the annual Advent family potluck and concert, where the Faith and Foam puppets performed two amazing black-light acts. This year’s event will be held on December 16 from 6:00-8:00 p.m., Dr. Weyrick plans to emcee again and Mrs. Weyrick is rehearsing her puppets to perform a first-ever Christmas musical drama as part of the concert program. This event is free and open to the community.
More information about the Advent potluck and concert, as well as some video recordings of Dr. Weyrick with his puppets can be found on the church website at www.stowpres.org.