Arts & Culture » Travel

Preachin' Puppets

Believers convene in Bourbonnais for a week of glory, salvation, and gospel ventriloquism.

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When he was ten years old Doug Nearpass got saved by a ventriloquist. It was a Friday night in the mid-60s, and Nearpass and his Grandma and Aunt Bea--the two matrons lived upstairs from Doug and his parents--went as usual to Happy Hour at the Rutherford Bible Chapel. The RBC, a little church in East Rutherford, New Jersey, had been in Nearpass's family for three generations. Grandma had signed the charter. His father was an elder. An "independent" Bible church, the RBC had none of the stained-glass-and-candlelight frippery of your mainstream churches. The sanctuary was furnished with little more than a piano and a pulpit. "Jesus Christ Is Lord" was painted across the chancel wall in gold.

On Friday nights they crammed them in for Happy Hour. Kids wriggled in the pews. They sang songs, played games, had Bible quizzes. Then came the evening's highlight. A magician. A storyteller. One year they had a singing cowboy. This particular night it was Wally Jones and Tommy. A waddling, fleece-haired gentleman, Jones was an evangelist with a wooden ventriloquist's dummy. The elders took down the pulpit so Wally could plant his stand, a platform the size of an unfolded napkin mounted on a metal tripod. Tommy was a plain old slot-jawed, pug-nosed dummy that bore a likeness to Charlie McCarthy. Wally and Tommy wore matching blue suits.

"He'd tell the same bad jokes every year," Nearpass says. "You knew he was gonna say it. But you just sat there waiting." Hey, Wally, I see Susie Smith is here tonight. That's right, Tommy. Yeah, and I understand she wants to be a nurse someday. That's nice, why does Susie want to be a nurse? I dunno. Why don't you ask her, Tommy? I did. I asked what she'd do if I had a hole in my head. What did Susie say? She said she'd stick a cork in it! Oh gosh, Tommy! Nyaagh!

Wally would tell a few more gags. Then he'd pick out a kid in the audience for his segue: Billy says he's a Christian. You know, Tommy, I'm a Christian, too. Oh yeah? Yeah, well I wasn't always...

And then came his testimony.

"Tommy," Nearpass remembers Wally saying, "you know, Tommy, I knew the memory verses, I knew the Bible stories, but you know, even as a young boy I knew that if I died tonight in my sleep I wouldn't go to heaven because I hadn't trusted the Lord as my savior. I hadn't made that choice. I knew everything, but I didn't trust him in my heart. I wanted to settle that right then and there, so I trusted the Lord as my savior."

Later that night, Nearpass couldn't sleep. Wally's testimony haunted him. He couldn't shake Tommy's little face. "I remember lying in bed and thinking, 'I've got to do this tonight,' and I got out of bed, and I knelt down in front of the window. I remember there was a full moon." He said, "'Lord Jesus, I want to go to heaven. Please come into my heart and forgive my sins.'

"It really wasn't very complicated," Nearpass remembers. "It took me about two minutes, I finished, and then got back in bed."

About ten years later Nearpass shelled out $50 for a home course in ventriloquism, but he never did much with it. His first job out of college was as a recruiter for his alma mater, a private Christian school, but before long he went back to school to study radio broadcasting and got a job as a morning announcer in New York. He also became involved in children's ministry, got married, had a couple kids. In the mid-80s, while working for the phone company, he moved into Christian puppetry, starting a group called God's Kids' Puppets. When he began feeling he could accomplish more as a solo act, he remembered that ventriloquism kit. He'd lost track of it, but he contacted the company and found the price had gone up to $80. The people who sold him the course the first time were kind. He put down another $30 and got another kit.

"The day the lessons came, I went to my study and laid them out on my daybed, and I got down on my knees before the Lord, and I said, 'Lord, I've always done a lot of things well. I've been good at stuff. But never great at one thing. There's one thing I really want to be the best at--not just so that I can be the greatest at something--but so that I can have opportunities to tell people about you. I want this to be yours.'"

After six months of furtive practice, he debuted at a ladies' banquet at his church. "They were floored," he remembers. "They had no idea." He started to entertain for the church's kids' club, and soon he was getting invitations to perform from other congregations.

"I believe the Bible teaches us that we're born in sin, and by our own nature we begin to do things wrong," Nearpass says. "Nobody has to teach us, it just comes naturally. That's why I think it's important to reach children, because they're going to start to make choices on their own. If nobody tells them the good news of salvation, how are they going to know?" Nearpass recalls the first child he saved, a 14-year-old girl who testified that she'd come to trust the Lord at a rally Nearpass held with his dummy DigDag. "That really struck me," he says, "that the Lord would use me that way."

Nearpass wound up with his own Saturday-morning kids' show on a Christian station, New York's WWDJ. His mom ran the "Mailbox Bible Club," where kids wrote in to get a Bible lesson. Nearpass's daughters were the studio audience, the "clubhouse gang." In 1993, after three years on the air, Nearpass's wife divorced him on the grounds that ventriloquism had hijacked their marriage. There was more to it than that, Nearpass says, but ventriloquism was the first thing she blamed.

Nearpass took a spiritual nosedive, canceled the radio program, and put DigDag away. "I still believed in God, I still believed he loved me, but I didn't care." He shrugs. "I thought I was done for as a vent." During that hiatus, he did only one show, as a favor. DigDag felt as awkward as a chihuahua on the end of his arm.

After a couple of years of heavy-duty moping, in 1995 he decided to go to Nashville to attend the conference of the Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers, one of many regional and national gatherings for puppeteers involved in Christian ministry. "I entered a competition to get off my duff and quit feeling sorry for myself," Nearpass says. He worked out a real showstopper, a tour de force in which he played the piano with one hand and worked DigDag with the other, singing as both. He added a background track with violins. It was, he said, a set guaranteed to "blow them out of the water," and it did. His song, "People All Over the World Need to Know About Jesus," won first place.

Dale VonSeggen, the president and cofounder, with his wife, Liz, of One Way Street, Inc., was in the audience. One Way Street, based in Englewood, Colorado, is a supplier of all manner of equipment for Christian puppeteers, including puppets and puppet scripts. The VonSeggens, organizers of scores of regional puppetry festivals, were planning to sponsor an international gathering the following year. They would hold it at Liz's alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University, in Bourbonnais, near Kankakee. Dale invited Nearpass to assist. For Nearpass, things began to look up.

Last July 31, a small army of ventriloquists and puppeteers descended on Olivet for the fifth annual International Festival of Christian Puppetry and Ventriloquism, aka I-Fest. More than 800 assembled for a week of workshops, seminars, devotions, and friendly competition. Just over half were teenagers, and puppeteers outnumbered ventriloquists by about eight to one. Attendees hailed from 35 states and 15 countries, including Australia, South Africa, Bulgaria, and Malaysia. Preponderantly, they were fundamentalist, meaning that they believe every jot and tittle of the Bible is the literal word of God. Each conventioneer wore a lanyard bearing the slogan "God Is in Control."

The campus is a solemn and austere place with preternaturally clean walkways. There wasn't a single cigarette butt in sight, and there's a reason. The Nazarenes, a religion born out of the Holiness Movement of the late 19th century, frown on smoking, as well as dancing and going to the movies. A man at a local grocery store (in the liquor aisle) told me that the only fun thing they permitted was free sex, but this was later categorically refuted by a Nazarene summer student.

The conventioneers arrived in spurts on Monday, registered ($295), and settled into the school dormitories. The first day was relaxed, with mixers and an orientation followed by a hearty supper in the cafeteria. The pith of the conference started the second day, after morning devotions, with seminars and workshops. Classes were running on three tracks: Leadership Forums, the College of Puppetry, and the College of Ventriloquism. Leadership Forums were geared toward training children's ministry directors in the arts of puppetry and/or ventriloquism with workshops like: "How to Start and Develop a Puppetry Ministry," "Using Puppets to Reach the Unchurched," "Beyond Puppets: Meeting the Spiritual Needs of Puppeteers," and "Help! The Puppets Are Eating My Life." Many puppeteers perform song-and-dance routines with their puppets, and the workshops in the College of Puppetry, where the vast teen population matriculated, dealt with technical aspects of props, character, lip-synching, miming, puppet maintenance, and basic puppet ministry theory. They included "Puppetry-Assisted Communication Therapy," "What Are You Doing for Heaven's Sake?," and "Here's the Glue...Here's the Foam...Now What?" If you were among I-Fest's minority and signed up for courses offered through the College of Ventriloquism, you could enroll in workshops like "Sight Gags and Props," "Using Music and Ventriloquism Together in Ministry," or "Slaying the Dragon Called Monotony."

After supper on the second night, a river of teenagers poured into the main chapel for the nightly rally. A stark, modern, well-lit cavern, the chapel had folding chairs instead of pews and a state-of-the-art sound system. Many of the teens wore T-shirts that identified their youth group and puppet team, here to compete in the Open Puppet Song Competition.

As the chapel filled to capacity, two megascreens projected restless images of the throng pulsing to the highly amplified disco beat of "Stayin' Alive." The Bee Gees imitation was dead-on. Well you can tell by the way I always talk / That I believe in God and what he taught / He is the One, who sent his Son / To die on the cross for everyone. The mixing board technician, Rick Shelton, who worked for ONU, piloted the mood from the back of the chapel, hovering over a 36-channel Yamaha M2000. He zoomed one of two remote-control cameras in on a puppet bobbing above the crowd. Dancing in place, he tweaked his equalizer. He had 17 speakers and ten amps adding up to 12,000 watts. Shelton said that even though the college gets any number of hot Christian artists, I-Fest is their biggest annual gig.

Onstage, under a rack of lights, was a raised dais skirted with tinsel: red, blue, opalescent. The atmosphere was Lawrence Welk meets MTV meets The Muppet Show. A rush of applause followed a camera zoom to an acre of rowdies who had started a group John Travolta finger wave. Shelton cut to a puppet boosting the crest of the mosh pit. The MC took the stage.

He kicked off with mass karaoke. The audience sing-shouted along to the words that flashed frantically on the megascreens: JESUS IS THE JOY IS THE JOY IS THE JOY JOY IS THE JESUS IS THE JOY JOY JOY! The mass karaoke was mixed up with a bit of Simon Says mob aerobics. At the MC's cue, the kids were on their feet and linking into rows of centipedes, clutching their neighbor's hips and marching in place to a deafening rumba beat--JOY JOY! JESUS!--until the MC signaled a reverse march, and the centipedes momentarily sundered, turned, with some knocking over of chairs, relinked, and started stomping the other way. The centipedes' million eyes never left the megascreens while they marched, sundered, bellowed, turned, and for a few minutes it became dangerous for those sitting out the convulsive frenzy.

A woman near me wearing a SWAT T-shirt (for Servants With a Testimony) stomped and sang and shouted. A man wore another SWAT shirt (Spiritual Warfare and Training). Other puppet teams included Grace Assembly Puppet Team, Fountainhead Puppet Ministry, 2TALK42, and His Hands, whose shirt bore an airbrushed image of Jesus friskily slipping a hand puppet over his fist.

After the MC got the crowd stoked up, Liz VonSeggen, vice president of One Way Street, Inc., took the stage with her dummy, Zeke. The house went up for the doyenne. Zeke wore a red-and-blue rugby shirt and had the puggish face that all dummies of his anachronistic stripe have. They sang a thin and piping duet called "Kid Talk" and then began the sort of banter that tends to turn off the same people who just don't get Laurel and Hardy.

Liz: Can you help me out?

Zeke: Sure, which way did you come in? [Audience howls.]

Liz: Not that kind of help. I wonder if you could remember the theme?

Zeke: What theme?

Liz: The theme of this whole conference.

Zeke: Sure! What's the theme?

Liz: I'm asking you!

Zeke: Uh, let's see. When you don't know how to think, it hurts.

Liz: The theme is a very short theme.

[Transcript edited down here.]

Zeke: The theme?

Liz: Yeah, what is the theme?

Zeke: Who's in control?

Liz: You really don't know?

Zeke: I bet you think you're in control 'cause you can manipulate me.

Liz: I want you to understand that our theme is God Is in Control.

[Transcript edited. Finally Zeke got it.]

Zeke: I think I got it.

Liz: What is it?

Zeke: I think that God wants to manipulate me!

Liz: You know, you're right.

Zeke: Well, bless my soul. God is in control.

[Humongous applause]

After their set piece, Zeke and Liz gave up the stage to the headliners, Creations in Action, described as "gangster Christian gospel rap." The group was led by Jason Bonilla, a charismatic 27-year-old Puerto Rican with a dangerously unwholesome sashay. Bonilla was the swashbuckling youth-pastor-cum-choreographer of the youth group from House of Prayer International, a nondenominational church in Palm Bay, Florida. Altogether there were about 20 kids in his troupe. CIA had attended one of One Way Street's regional puppet festivals and were invited to showcase at I-Fest. Their set, a heartstoppingly funky revue put to music purchased from One Way Street, was a mix of hip-hop, dance, big-band swing, comedy, and puppets. There were CO2 smoke effects (gunpowder was banned) and eerie music and lights. Three girls did a stirring house dance. One joke skit featured three puppets in shower caps and towels singing in a bathtub. In the most rousing number, Bonilla, backed by a band of puppets in army fatigues with electric guitars, lip-synched into a headset. He spun on his heels and bit his lip. He dove into glissades. He clutched the air. He thrusted and gamboled and syncopated his torso to wag counter to the wag of his finger (the scolding coquette). The climax of the show was a techno piece, "Mission 3:16," as in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (Later when I asked Bonilla in the campus cyber-cafe about his influences, looking for secular hip-hop and rap, he shot me a sinister look and said, "Sesame Street was the bomb.")

At the end of the hour, Liz VonSeggen stood at the back of the chapel with Zeke, posing for photographs before a heavenly-clouds-motif muslin backdrop, surrounded by a bevy of fans with cameras. The MC announced that the "megamall," where souvenirs were on sale, would still be open for another half hour.

The next afternoon, while others were learning to make puppet heads out of Nerf balls or how to storyboard parables for dummies, I browsed the megamall. Set up in the gymnasium outside the chapel, the market was open daily from noon to 9:30. The mood was tuned to the frequency of an ice cream truck, thanks to the electronic tones of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," broadcast from one of the booths in an endless loop. Though there were smaller independent vendors, One Way Street clearly dominated. Certain aspects of the company's marketing bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain pillar of public broadcasting. Not only is the logo (a black-and-white One Way Street sign) a loose appropriation of the Sesame Street sign, but the Christian puppets could easily pass as first cousins of Jim Henson's honk-nosed children. Booths were piled high with plush lizards, lambs, frogs, penguins, monocled buzzards, bumblebees, vultures, coneheads, camels, bears, chimps, and creatures with names like Boog and Ozzie. There was a devil doll for $475. On sale were T-shirts with slogans like "Tommy Hellfighter" and fundamentalist agitprop like the Evangecube, a three-dimensional religious tract puzzler. The front of one T-shirt bore the iconic monogram of Superman, and on the back, in clashing ransom-note fonts, was "I Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthens Me (Phil. 4:13)."

In one corner was a listening station where I sampled a few of the CDs. The most popular were the ones featuring songs by secular bands adapted for this audience. The weirdest song in this category might have been "Rock and Roll All Nite," originally by Kiss: You know Moses and the things of God / The Ten Commandments and the Jewish Laws / You try to find which one's the greatest / You say you wanna know where it is / It's part of Deuteronomy chapter six / You try verse five; you'll find it baby. It's on Jesus Christ Morningstar: A Chronological Look at the Life of Christ by Apologetix, which includes, among 18 other "parodies" of classic rock songs, "Parable Guy" ("American Pie"), "I'll Prepare for You" ("I'll Be There for You," the theme song from Friends), and "I Have to Die First" ("Eye of the Tiger").

At another booth, attendees demonstrated a skill called "cup stacking," meant to promote "bilateral proficiency," the first step toward virtuosic puppetry. A girl of 12 or so hovered over three stacks of overturned blue plastic cups. There were three to her left, six in the center, three to her right. When the stopwatch clicked, the girl, starting with the left-hand pile, "upstacked" each pile--three, six, three--into staggered pyramids, and then, in the blink of an eye, "downstacked" each pyramid back into the three original silos, or, in the lingo of cup-stacking cognoscenti, "nests." This is called a 3-6-3 formation. The world record is 2.8 seconds.

Later, at "17 Habits of Highly Effective Puppet Ministry Directors," led by Dale VonSeggen, the woman sitting next to me said she and her husband were from Los Angeles, where they carry out their missionary work with a 28-foot mobile puppet stage.

VonSeggen held the microphone against his chin and listed 17 directives (Be Yourself, Be a Servant, Be a Shepherd, Be a Communicator). He encouraged the puppet team leaders to be daring promoters, suggesting activities such as Adopt-a-Highway programs to give puppet teams exposure. He encouraged everyone to buy the Puppet Director's Notebook ($20) and a slew of other products, all available from One Way Street in the megamall.

Doug Nearpass has been coming to I-Fest ever since he met the VonSeggens in Nashville, in '95. This year he was teaching workshops, giving critiques, and curating the Museum of Creativity, a collection of evangelical puppetry and ventriloquism memorabilia. The third night, at the senior ventriloquist competition, he was one of three judges evaluating about ten competitors, all admitted to this open mike on a first come, first served basis. It was held in a small, inclined auditorium in the nursing school with seats of the hinged-fold-over-desktop variety. Diet soda was the refreshment of choice. About a quarter of the audience was here to compete. The contestants took the traditional ventriloquist's stance, with their dummy propped on a metal stand with tassels. The first performer took the stage with a canine puppet and a box of Milk-Bones.

The man in front of me, Daniel Jay, a scrubbed-looking fellow in a faux suede jacket who loads trailers at Kmart in Warren, Ohio, had been performing gospel ventriloquism in his spare time since he felt the calling four years ago. "It's something that I'd like to eventually replace my regular income. I don't know how I'm going to do it yet." Onstage a woman led the audience in a round of "Jesus Loves Me" with her turtle, Fast Eddie. Everyone sang along. "I've been praying about setting it up as a nonprofit, but haven't gotten the answer," Jay said.

He said he likes to warm up his audience with a few gags and maybe a song or two before hitting them with Romans 10:9. "The message is that you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, that's it. That's the only message I give. I like to usually close with that message to let the people know that it's not by anything that they do but by Jesus and the grace of God alone that you get to heaven." He dabbed at his forehead with a suede sleeve. "What I do is, I use Fuzzball, my cat."

Fuzzball, a floppy brown feline, was a "soft" dummy. Jay said little kids can be terrified by a hard figure, what most people probably think of as the protodummy, popular since the mid-18th century, when the art of speaking without moving one's lips ceased to be thought of as satanic. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, the source of ventriloquism was believed to be a demon living in the belly (venter: belly; loqui: to speak), so ventriloquists were executed as witches. It was also long thought that they had extra organs. As it turns out, the craft simply breaks down into the artful management of plosives and the frugal expulsion of diaphragmatic breath so that the human voice comes out sounding like that of a parrot or a deranged child.

For instance, Nina Cooper, from North Carolina, has ventriloquially mastered the strident tones of a colicky infant. Her baby dummy, Bubba, has a penchant for potty jokes:

Bubba: It's time for a change.

Nina: You mean we should be full of the love of Jesus?

Bubba: No, my diaper needs a change--it's full!

Nina: Phew! How long has that been in there?

Bubba: Forty days and forty nights.

Nearpass sat toward the front with clipboard in lap. The next performer, Pamela Spivey, wore a muumuu and pink curlers in her hair and manipulated a dummy that looked disturbingly like a real 90-year-old female head mounted on the body of a Betsy Wetsy. Her arm disappeared up Betsy's nightgown. When her elbow twisted sharply, the doll bridled and squawked. Spivey played the "feed" (straight man) with a look of practiced indifference. The only betrayal of effort was her bobbling Adam's apple. Her lips were stiff as wax. Nearpass watched, bit the end of his pen, made discreet notations. The banter turned meta when the latex head pointed out that though it might appear autonomous, it was aware of being controlled. Spivey recapped: "It's like, who's pulling our strings, y'all? Satan tries to pull our strings just the way we manipulate our little puppets." She gave Betsy a demonstrative tug. The audience laughed approvingly. "But in the end, if you give your heart to Christ, he will be in control of your life, because God is the head puppeteer!" Beside me a guy in a Promise Keepers '99 T-shirt, cradling a figure that looked like a shrunken Orson Welles, nodded. If the rapture were to have happened just then, and the faithful had been snatched up to heaven, there would have been quite a racket as dozens of puppets (and diet sodas) hit the floor.

The consensus seemed to be that this year's senior vent competition was not quite up to the standard set last year. This year's was good, there was a real show of talent, there was a lot of spirit--but the year before there was Vikki Gasko.

This year Gasko was in the audience. Last year she did the pro-life skit with the infant dummy that broke everyone's heart. Powerful, hard-hitting stuff. A homemaker with two kids from Livonia, Michigan, Gasko herself says her most prominent feature is a huge mouth, which makes the feat of not moving her lips while speaking all the more winning.

Gasko brings her message of Christ to Christian schools, rescue missions, and Youth for Christ, a program that ministers to inner-city teens in Detroit. "The pro-life skit is rarely ever done because most people don't want it," Gasko said. "They think 'ventriloquist,' they think 'slapstick.' It's frustrating." But fighting abortion is not her primary agenda. Her mission is to bring salvation to children through ventriloquism. Like Nearpass, she always ends with the Sinner's Prayer, a plea for eternal salvation, to encourage children to accept Jesus. It's not the same every time, but it usually goes something like this:

"Lord, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I'm a sinner. I know that I can't make it without you. I ask that you would forgive me of all the wrongs I've done and ever will do. I ask that you would come into my heart, be the lord of my life. I need you. I love you. Make me a new creation in you. Thank you, Lord. I love you."

Gasko doesn't have her dummy read the Sinner's Prayer, since puppets really can't be saved, and she's careful not to claim any supernatural powers for the doll. By and large, the evangelists say that their dummies are only a way of grabbing people's attention. "The dummy is just a tool," she said, "to bring children to Christ."

Fine-tuning technique was Gasko's focus for the workshops she was teaching this year at I-Fest, which included "Introducing Ventriloquism," "The Artistry of Manipulation," and "If God Is Calling You, He Will Equip You." A few points she advised attendees to keep in mind:

Make sure the dummy seems to have its own agenda

Give your dummy the appearance of breathing

Make your dummy think

Do not be predictable!

Learn the ventriloquial alphabet: A C D E G H I J K L N O Q R S T U X Z

Make sure your character's voice isn't so obnoxious your audience would want to leave

Pray before you do anything and everything!

Finish in such a way that you can have an effective "altar call"

Go out, the harvest is ripe!

I met Gasko and her puppet Tasha for coffee after the morning chapel service, where the awards were dispensed between the devotion and offertory. Fuzzball and Daniel lost to a Southern Baptist singing a ventriloquial duet of "Amazing Grace." Pamela Spivey took third. Puppetry first place went to (big surprise) Jason Bonilla and CIA.

Gasko was seated in a corner booth in the basement cafeteria. The piped-in song at the moment was a knockoff of "Bohemian Rhapsody." I'm just a pastor, nobody loves me / He's just a pastor, called to the ministry / Preaching his sermon for eternity / Sundays come, Sundays go, will he let us go (Hey preacher!) No, he will not let us go (Let us go!). There were a few others in the cafeteria, some looking over their purchases from the megamall. A woman sitting alone with a Diet Pepsi experimented with a new starter dummy. You could hear its plastic mandible clack shut from across the room. Jason Bonilla, the Christian puppetry heartthrob, sat packed into a booth with a bunch of teenage girls, stroking his goatee. He looked like a walking advertisement for One Way Street. He wore the Superman shirt (Phil. 4:13) and a little coconut-shell cross, on sale in the megamall for $5. One of the girls showed off a new puppet. Bonilla took the puppet, inspected it, and improvised something I couldn't hear, which was met with gales of laughter. From the smirk on his face (and the girls' shrieks) you'd have thought for all the world it was something less than chaste.

A black suitcase, Tasha's bassinet of sorts, lay open on the floor. Gasko dandled Tasha, who wore a yellow knit hat, a yellow onesie, and a flowered bib from Gymboree. She had chubby ears, dimples, long eyelashes, cornsilk hair. Just a few feet away, by the trash can, a real live infant scrabbled in pursuit of a bottle cap. The infant's presumed parents sat in the booth behind Gasko. Tasha, gripping Gasko's thumb, appeared to watch the live baby. Though Gasko manipulated Tasha's brainstem, the headstick, she didn't seem overly aware of the doll. Gasko said it's second nature, that the doll is a subconscious extension. The doll is also a conscious extension. For the pro-life skit, Gasko said, Tasha "talks about her friend Susie, who was a choice because her mommy and daddy had many choices in their belly and they decided to send Susie to Jesus, and then one, Joey, Joey was broken, and they wanted a perfect baby, not a broken baby, so they decided to send him to Jesus, and how Trisha was just an inconvenience..." As Gasko spoke, Tasha's tiny foot lolled in the crook of her elbow. Periodically the doll emitted a sweet gurgle or asked me a question, like whether I wanted to hear her sing. It was remarkably lifelike yet not lifelike at all. "I talk about someone else who was an inconvenience too," Gasko said, smiling, "and that was Jesus."

Gasko got saved by a hairdresser in 1989, when she was 22 years old. The hairdresser saw right away that Gasko--who'd already been hospitalized three times in eight years--was bulimic. The hairdresser also saw that Gasko didn't know Jesus. The hairdresser took one look at Gasko and told her, "On the outside you look fine, but on the inside you're rotting. If you continue the way you're going, you're going to hell."

This was strange, because just six months earlier, Gasko had gone on a European vacation with her sister, who hoped to "keep me from bingeing and purging for three weeks." It had gotten that bad. Two dozen donuts in one sitting was not unusual. Gasko stole jewelry from her mom to buy food. Her dad had put a padlock on the fridge. In London, Gasko and her sister were staying at a hotel near Hyde Park. One afternoon they took a walk through the park to grab lunch at the Hard Rock. Just inside the park they came across an American evangelist preaching to a small crowd. Gasko, being the sort of person who gets in people's faces, got in his, "and I said, 'Hey, you, judge not lest thou be judged!'"

And then the evangelist got in her face. He wasn't a deranged park bench prophet but a respectable-looking man: middle-aged, balding, dressed in an Oxford shirt and gray wool jacket. "He looked like a dad," Gasko said. He turned his angry blue eyes on Gasko and bellowed: "You, with your Jordache jeans and your long hair, you think that you have it all together on the outside, but on the inside you're rotting! You're dead man's bones! If you continue the way you're going, you are going to hell!" Gasko was terrified. "He had seen to the inside of my soul. I felt it. There was a jolt inside of me, and I could not say anything. It was almost like he silenced me. It wasn't so much what he said. It was the look that he gave me. He knew. He knew that I was rotting inside."

Six months later her hairdresser told her the same thing. The hairdresser, a preacher's daughter, told Gasko that if she didn't get right with the Lord that she was going to hell and that she had better pray. Gasko knew it was true. She knew that if she died from bulimia it would be suicide, a mortal sin, certain perdition. Sobbing, Gasko got on her knees. "I came home that day and I said, 'Mom, I do not blame you anymore. I do not blame you, dad, I'm a born-again Christian now.' And my mom said, 'Oh boy,' because not long ago I had already said I was in the New Age, and then before that I was a Buddhist."

In order to better defend her faith against her father, a well-educated international businessman who scorned literal interpretation of the Bible, she read books and listened to tapes. She listened to tapes until it all made sense to her: not just the spiritual truths, but the natural history of all of God's creation as set out in Genesis. She felt she could finally accommodate both science and the Bible. She felt intellectually aligned with God, and as such, ready to defend him as a true apologist. She thinks that evolution made defending the faith truly necessary: "It started with evolution because we dehumanized man. We made him just subject to his own passions and desires and he can't control himself. It's this whole mind-set of 'Man is just subject to his own feelings and kids are gonna be messin' around anyway so just give 'em condoms.' You really have no purpose in life: you came from an amoeba blob, so, you know, just do whatever you want. If it feels good, do it. The self-centeredness, I think, started from evolution." The only natural selection she believes in is the one where the Christian elect triumph. She doesn't know if Satan was a dinosaur or not--Doug Nearpass thinks maybe so--but she does believe that man and dinosaurs existed at the same time. She presents some of her ideas dramatically through ventriloquism and puppetry to give kids "trapped in public schools" a different view.

Gasko was quick to say she doesn't force her ideas on people. She doesn't say that if you don't believe in a young earth, or that Noah had dinosaurs on the ark, you can't be saved. "It's not a salvation issue....But let's be realistic--obviously he took baby dinosaurs, not fully grown ones. C'mon, I'm sure he took babies of everything."

However, she did work some on her father, whom she worshiped. A big vaudeville fan, he'd raised her listening to all the old radio shows. "He believed in the Bible to a point," Gasko said. "He was very confused because he worked overseas in extremely Muslim countries....He loved his Muslim friends and felt that they could not be wrong....He was also confused because he was so book smart. You could not win a game of Trivial Pursuit with this man. I used to quote the scripture that said, 'God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.' I was desperately trying to point him to Jesus....The last time I saw my dad, we were having a conversation about the Bible not being scientific. I told him that indeed it was and that Isaac Newton referred to the Bible in many of his studies." She had a book called Wilmington's Guide to the Bible that explained, using quotes from scientists like Pasteur and Newton, "how their famous discoveries were based on their faith in Jesus and what they read in the Bible," she said. "I showed that book to my dad. He was speechless for the first time." She was sure that her father's speechlessness meant that he was wavering and possibly considering a religious conversion. She would never know. Only a few days later a commercial jet he was traveling on crashed into the mountains of Colombia.

Gasko detached Tasha's head from her trunk to show me the intricate thumb-operable levers on the dummy's headstick, which give Tasha expression. Suddenly meditative, she held the headstick with both hands and fiddled with it absentmindedly. The disembodied baby head blinked irritably. "I never saw his conversion, but I believe that as the American Airlines plane was going down he made his peace with God. He certainly knew how. I have to believe that."

After being saved by the hairdresser, Gasko got a job at a salon, hoping she too could combine hair and ministry. She discovered other employees were stealing. She had robbed people her whole life to feed the bulimia, but she felt uncomfortable when her coworkers started pressuring her to steal too. "They knew I was a born-again Christian, even though I wasn't living like one yet." But Gasko finally gave in to temptation. Her husband, Joe, who designs plastic trim for car interiors, came home that night and found her in bed with the lights off, buried under the covers. "For the first time in my life I feel guilty about stealing," she cried, muffled under the blanket. She told her husband she thought the Holy Spirit was living inside her. Joe just gave her a weird look. He'd always said that the Bible was just a book of fairy tales. And besides, in case she'd forgotten, something was living inside her. She was three months pregnant.

One night not too long after this, Joe was driving home after bowling. It was raining. The road was slick. He started to hydroplane and his car swerved into oncoming traffic. He couldn't steer out of the swerve. That's when he heard the voice of God. God said, "Either you're mine or I'm taking you out." Joe screamed, "I'm yours, Lord!" And then, Shh-zoom! The oncoming car sailed past. "He came home crying and shaking and he picked the Bible up from the table--I thought he was going to hit me with it, I was so nervous--and I thought, 'Oh my gosh he's drunk, he's gonna hit me,' and he just started weeping, and yelling, 'What is that? Romans 10:9? Romans 10? What is it? What is it?'" He was crazed. "Something about confessing and believing!" he yelled. Gasko had no clue. "I knew what he was talking about, but I didn't have any idea how to lead someone in a Sinner's Prayer." Joe ended up reading Romans 10:9, "That if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

After that, Joe became "a steamroller for the Lord," Gasko said. He began reading the Bible ravenously. "In my pride, I didn't want him to know more than me," Gasko said, "so I started to plow through the Bible myself." At first it was competitive. But it lit a fire under Gasko. The time to take her faith seriously had arrived.

She prayed incessantly for the Lord to find a use for her. The couple were leaders of the music ministry at their church and had been looking into getting some decent entertainment for the kids. The answer came to Gasko while watching some children's videos. It inspired her to see how real they made Jesus for her own children. "God became real to them in a very fun way," Gasko said. "My daughter got saved after a big discussion about the Donut Man."

She found an ad for One Way Street in the back of a catalog and fell in love with their custom-made puppets. Sadly, they were too expensive.

"My dream became fulfilled," she said (and laughed the laugh of the truly wry), on December 20, 1995, when her dad's airplane, American Airlines flight 965, struck near the summit of El Deluvio, "and from the insurance money I was able to buy the puppets." She bought custom-made puppets, a puppet stage, a fog machine, and scripts from One Way Street. Tasha, who was made by Tim Selberg, the same builder who created a life-size replica of magician David Copperfield, cost $6,000. Another factor that led her to her particular ministry was the not insignificant experience of hearing the voice of God. She said she's heard it three times--always when she was minding her own business. The first time had to do with a Yamaha keyboard. The second to do with the death of her dad. This was number three. The still, small voice told her: You're going to be a ventriloquist. As clear as day. Why ventriloquism? She doesn't know. Except maybe that she grew up on vaudeville.

Gasko twisted Tasha's head back into the neck hole. The doll was ready to sing. Her voice was sweet, a bit like Tweety Bird's:

So many people, they talk about choice,

How to dispose of their problem

Who would have thought we would not have a voice

Here in this land where there's freedom

Now I sing this lullaby, not usually what babies do

I sit here and thank my mommy and daddy

For what they hold onto

[Gasko: A world full of hatred and deepest despair, oh what are we all to do?]

Thank you mommy and daddy

Thank you God most of all

That I was never considered a choice

I went looking for Nearpass at the Museum of Creativity, set up in a small room just down the hall from the megamall. There were antique dolls and black-and-white photos of the early puppet missionaries. There was memorabilia from the heyday of the revivalist Kids' Crusade. The largest exhibit was a robot puppet by the name of GIAAG (God Is an Awesome God), which looked like several bistro tables stacked and bolted together and cinched by an oversize neon corset. There was a framed photo on the wall from the Times Square millennial celebration showing Nearpass and a dirigible fish puppet. Nearpass was still working churches and attending festivals, but he was "leaning now more toward getting away from the puppet-on-the-knee kind of thing to getting into dramatic use of ventriloquism." He was writing a passion play for puppets. His small hands steadicammed across an imaginary set: "It's behind a scrim and in the darkness you hear the footsteps, the crowd, the pounding of the cross going into the ground..."

Nearpass described a favorite skit that he and DigDag do about a boy named Johnny who prays for a bunny and a kindly old lady, Mrs. Anderson, who owns a magic cabinet that produces it in the end. In order to achieve its moral destination, this act relies on multiple deus ex machinas. Johnny ends up not only with the coveted bunny but with a gift certificate to a toy store. (Mrs. Anderson's son just happens to own a toy store.) Nearpass explained the moral: "Just like Mrs. Anderson's son paid the price for that gift certificate, Jesus paid the price for our sins." I asked him to expand on this line and he obliged. "You go to the Old Testament, you always had the lamb, it had to be a perfect lamb, it had to be one year old and oftentimes it was the most precious little lamb because you didn't always get perfect little lambs, and you know how cute lambs are, how could you kill such a precious creature--we pass laws today to protect whales, never mind lambs, right?" He smiled and then lowered his voice. "The whole concept of blood paying for sin is gross to us, but it's a picture of how gross sin is to God. We get squeamish at blood, we can't stand it. Well, God can't stand the sight of sin. So he required blood....Finally God said, 'I'm going to send a lamb to pay for all of the sins and then you won't have to go through all these sacrifices anymore.' Jesus came to be that sacrificial lamb so that there would never have to be another sacrifice ever made again. His sacrifice would be for all sins past, present, and future." He slaps his thigh in conclusion: "Wouldn't Johnny have been silly to say, 'No thanks, I don't want the bunny'? Of course. He wanted the bunny very much. So he accepted the gift."

Nearpass, like Gasko, invites children to repent but doesn't have the puppet say the Sinner's Prayer. "I'm very cautious of the impact of the puppet. I know, especially with kids, they will listen to that puppet ten times faster than they will listen to an adult. So if that puppet said, 'You've got to trust Jesus,' boom, hey OK! I want them to believe it because it's God's word. I don't just want them to buy it because a puppet said so." He wants them to make an "honest decision."

(For what it's worth, some gospel vents do let their dolls lead children to Christ one-on-one. One pastor told me about a nine-year-old saved by a puppet. The boy, who had cancer, and the puppet, a green-spotted gecko, had "gained a friendship talking about Christ." When the child died, the puppet spoke at the funeral.)

"I don't like to present my puppet as going to heaven," Nearpass said. "I don't give kids the opportunity to ask. If a kid asks if the dummy's going to heaven, I'll turn it around on the child: Well do you trust Jesus as your savior? Are you going to heaven?"

One morning late in the week, daily devotions, led by an evangelist from Manchester, England, started off with a little group karaoke, but then things settled down. During prayer a few worshipers swayed, standing, arms outstretched, casually pontifical. A few cradled sleepy puppets, their own diminutive hands outstretched, casually pontifical. The offering was taken up in our aisle by an usher with a 44-ounce Dairy Queen cup overflowing with dollar bills. He tamped it down every other row. A synthesizer set to what sounded like Peruvian panpipes accompanied the giving. The megascreens showed the keyboard, propped on the stage. The money collected would go toward a fund to help people overseas attend I-Fest the following year. (Certainly not the South African gospel vent whom we'd all just heard a rumor about: seemed he'd gone swimming naked with the kids at a birthday party where he'd been left unattended.)

The preacher asked who'd come the farthest to attend this year, and a woman at the back yelled that she had friends here from the Amazon. Hoots met the announcement, and the preacher was impressed too, but, he smirked, "just think about how far Jesus came from heaven!" More hoots and half a dozen hearty amens.

Then the preacher called up to the stage a shy young South African woman (no relation to the pervert) who spoke briefly, in faltering English, about her missionary work in Capetown. Urged on by the minister, she brought out from behind her back a little yellow duck and fit it over her hand. As the audience grew hushed, the duck put its orange bill to the microphone, cleared its throat, and sang. A knowing gasp rippled through the crowd. A collective nod. The downy little vessel of God had a distinctive tenor both ducky and mellifluous. It sang in Sesotho, but the melody was unmistakable. Jesu wa nthata le nna. A few in the audience couldn't help but sing along. Jesus loves me this I know / For the Bible tells me so / Little ones to him belong / They are weak but he is strong.

When she finished, the British preacher made an altar call welcoming anyone ready to join the family of Christ.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Elayne Gross.

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