By Jeanette Windle
The last week of August, 2014, thousands of visitors streamed into the small town of Gilbert in northeast Pennsylvania to savor the delights of the annual West End County Fair. Prize-winning animals to admire. Cotton candy and fried foods galore. Carnival rides. But children and parents in the know threaded straight through temporary streets to a small, white tent where a group of quirky, colorful old friends joyously welcomed them back.
The Gospel Puppets, under the expert direction of their leader Miss Dewey (named after her creator), have been welcoming families to West End since 1978. This loveable troupe now numbers forty puppets along with a crew of 6-8 human handlers. Each fair day the puppets present a variety of dramatic performances that incorporate different Bible lessons and Christian values.
Puppet leader Miss Dewey (check her out in that red dress, top curls, and bright lipstick!) acts as moderator, interviewing her human team mates and fellow puppets. She loves to take the lead as well in drama roles, whether the movie star in “Joy Bandit” or a beauty queen in “Queen for a Day”. Mr. Huey (look for the yellow smiley sticker on his brown shirt) in contrast just loves to be interviewed and sing Gospel songs for the children. Micah on the Gospel piano and robust, blonde-haired Geraldine add their voices to the chorus. Others play a variety of characters in the story dramas.
Eight animal puppets play an integral role in the troupe as well. Hamsters Charlie and Stanley warble along with their guitar and banjo to draw in a crowd. In one story called “The Unlovable”, which teaches about being kind with God’s help to even unlovable people, Frog takes a lead role, his top hit: “Have You Kissed Any Frogs Today?” Squeakers the Skunk has the privilege of giving out the Bible Award at the end of each story session.
The Gospel Puppet fair outreach is sponsored by Monroe County Bible Clubs, an outreach of BCM International. Heading up the human contingent is puppeteer Jim Ecker. A BCM missionary in Monroe County, PA, for almost forty years, Jim conducts “Released Time Bible Classes” for school children, the Mailbox Bible Club (free Bible study courses for children and adults), school year and summer Bible clubs, and a Christian literature distribution ministry.
Running an entire week’s outreach at the fair takes a lot of help. A team of volunteers sets up the tent, then tears it back down at week’s end. Adult volunteers take turns in the booth from 12:00- 9:30 pm daily to answer inquiries and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ individually with those who express interest. Nor does the work start with fair week. For two months beforehand, Jim Ecker holds weekly training session with 6 – 8 Christian teenagers who serve as his puppeteer team during fair week.
“It is always amazing to see how the Lord provides the puppet team each year,” Jim shares. “What a privilege to join together to present Jesus Christ through puppets!”
For some families, the Gospel Puppets have become a generational tradition. Along with the county fair, Jim Ecker has been taking Miss Dewey and other puppets to share at schools, chapels, and other children’s outreach events since he himself started as a puppeteer in 1978. He remembers one little boy at a local Christian school chapel who was thoroughly enjoying the show. Later that same week, the boy saw Jim at a neighborhood family Bible Study.
“Hey, there’s the Puppet Man!” he exclaimed to his mother. The family has been helping ever since at the annual fair outreach. That little boy grew up, got married, and had a family of his own. This year his two teen boys were puppeteers for the fair.
In total at this year’s fair, Jim and his team of seven puppeteers (see photo) presented 64 Gospel Puppet performances. Over 9000 pieces of Christian literature were given out by adult volunteers or selected from the “Free Basket!” Free Bible pens, pencils and postcards were made available too along with Bibles and Christian-living material for families.
For the volunteers themselves, among this year’s highlights was one mother who’d brought her children to the tent the year before and selected a Christian Gospel booklet to read. She came back this year to share with the volunteers that she had become a Christian after reading the booklet. Now she wanted more booklets to share her new faith with her family and friends.
Another woman who stopped by the tent told how she was going through a divorce. Jim Ecker shared God’s love with her and gave her some helpful literature. The next day she came back with her children and relatives so they too could hear the Gospel story and music through puppet shows as well as receive more Christian literature.
One mother who brought her children to the puppet presentations had herself attended eight years of Released Time Bible Classes during her school years. She was delighted to introduce her own children to Miss Dewey and other puppets she’d enjoyed so much in her childhood.
After 38 years, Jim is a familiar person to many fairgoers. He shares, “It’s always exciting to have past Bible Class and Bible Club attendees come up to me and say ‘I’ll bet you don’t know who I am!’ Once I place in my mind those young children I once taught, we reflect on past memories. It is a privilege to give spiritual encouragement to them and their families.”
To help keep those memories alive, the Bible club tent displays pictures and photo albums of all the Monroe County Bible Club ministries over the years. One mother brought her five children and husband to show them her younger self in the ministry albums—including her own stint as a teenage Gospel Puppets puppeteer. She shares how her involvement in that ministry helped her learn teamwork and provide spiritual encouragement that has benefited her throughout her adult life.
Jim Ecker offers a special thanksgiving for the beautiful, sunny weather throughout this 2014 fair week. He is thankful as well for the unity and excellent teamwork among all the puppeteers and adult volunteers—and of course Miss Dewey and her puppet troupe—as they shared the Gospel message in so many different ways over the week to people of all ages.
The Gospel Puppets are looking forward to being a familiar fixture at the West End County Fair for many more years to come. When asked what his hopes and vision are for the future of this ministry, Jim Ecker concludes, “To see more Christian teens and adults volunteer for the needs of the fair ministry and the Gospel Puppets. Also to seek out and put into practice innovative new ideas to further reach people through the puppets and Christian literature.”
If you’d like to be one of those volunteers, contact Jim Ecker directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally Published in BCM World September 2014