Children sit wide-eyed on the floor, crowded in front of a colorful puppet stage equipped with an inexpensive sound system.
A fluffy sheep named Shawn is lost and crying out for help. Shawn, a disobedient sheep who hates following the rules, ran away from her shepherd and flock. But as night falls, Shawn is cold, alone, and scared. She runs, tripping and falling, when she hears lions in the distance. That’s when the shepherd comes to the rescue, heals Shawn’s wounds, and offers the chance to change her heart.
This story of Shawn the sheep is just one of the plays performed by a puppet ministry for children in Guatemala City. “I love this script because it’s a good way to tell the Gospel,” Damarius Shapiama said, who performs puppet shows with her husband, Ben Shapiama, both students at SETECA (Seminario Teológico Centroamericano). “Always, I tell the children that the good shepherd is looking for you. He wants to change you. He loves you.”
TEAM missionary Diana Stoddard started the puppet ministry four years ago when she and her husband, David, moved to Guatemala City to teach at SETECA. Stoddard developed puppet shows as a creative way to teach children a Gospel lesson while also entertaining them. Stoddard often recites Psalm 122:1 as her inspiration: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Her hope is that the puppet shows generate excitement and interest so that children will want to learn more. “I want kids to be glad to be able to go to church and glad to be able to learn about God, and puppets are a means to do that,” she said. Damarius and Ben have seen how children immediately connect with the puppets. “Children love puppets,” Damarius said. “When you have puppets, they always pay attention, and they get involved with the story and like to answer the questions from the puppets.”
The puppet ministry often provides access to places that might not otherwise be open to the Christian message. Stoddard and her puppeteer team have traveled all over Guatemala City performing puppet shows in churches, schools, street fairs, poor neighborhoods, and busy street corners.
Stoddard has been blessed to have many SETECA students participate in the puppet ministry. Most of them do not have experience as puppeteers, but all Stoddard requires is an energetic spirit and a willing heart. “I have some very quiet people that are good puppeteers because they get to hide behind the stage,” she said. Stoddard gets especially excited when teenagers from SETECA’s pre-college track join the puppeteer team. “It’s been a way for them to develop self-confidence and to see God really use them,” she said.
Jassiel Cholima, a SETECA master's student studying counseling, has become quite adept at as a puppeteer. Jassiel has worked with puppets in the past but has learned new skills and techniques from Stoddard. “God has given me the ability to relate to kids, and I feel like anywhere God wants me to go, I will use puppets to relate to kids,” said Jassiel.
Ben and Damarius enjoy the creative aspect of the puppet ministry and started performing their own shows last year. Ben is originally from the jungles of Peru and wants to return there after seminary school to minister to his own people, especially the children. They recently spent two months in the jungle performing puppet shows. The response was overwhelmingly positive from the children and adults alike, who were excited about this new way of teaching the Gospel. Ben and Damarius gave them a few puppets as gifts and taught the children how to use them. “The shows had a wonderful impact on the kids,” Ben said. “The puppets sang songs in the children’s native language and were dressed in traditional clothing. It was probably the first time the kids had ever seen something like that in their own culture.”
Stoddard envisions the puppet ministry growing throughout Guatemala and beyond. Many of the SETECA students on the puppeteer team are from countries all over Latin America, including Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico, so Stoddard hopes that some of them will use their puppeteer skills for ministry back home. “I’d love to see all of these people that I’ve been working with use these puppets in different ways in different languages around the world,” she said, “to see puppet groups springing up in the next fifteen to twenty years to reach kids with a joyful message.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographed by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons