MANATEE -- Fifty years ago, when most families regularly attended church, synagogue or mosque, one could reasonably expect every school age child to know Noah, Jonah, Samson and David.
But Paula McKinney of Emmanuel United Methodist Churchgot a shock three years ago when she was working on a Christmas program with a group of children who attend the Kid's Club child care center at Congregational United Church of Christ in Bradenton.
"When we asked them whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas, none of them knew," McKinney said of the dozen or so children, none of whose parents attended any church. "Many children don't know the Bible stories anymore because their parents don't go to church."
But that is changing, one child at a time, with the help of some special puppets.
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McKinney has made it her mission that children smile and nod their heads when asked about Noah, Jonah, Esther, Goliath and, of course, Jesus.
She has made her stand against child Bible illiteracy at the very Kid's Club where she encountered blank stares when asked whose birthday is celebrated at Christmas.
McKinney calls her program "Talk About God," also known as TAG.
She actually started "Talk About God" seven years ago when she was at Redeemer Lutheran Church. But when she and her husband, Mike, left Redeemer and went to Emmanuel, where there are few children in the congregation, the program went into mothballs.
"But God has a way of directing me," Paula McKinney said.
She got on the Internet three years ago and discovered Kid's Club and, after a successful visit with Kid's Club director Janet Hamstra, brought TAG to the group in full force.
She does about threeBible and holiday-themed puppet shows annually, including at Easter and Christmas.
Her next show, called "Easter," is scheduled for 5 p.m. April 4 in the fellowship hall at Congregational United Church of Christ, 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton.
The show is free and open to the public and 70 to 100 are expected to attend.
"We are not sponsored by anyone," McKinney said. "Some people come up after shows and make an offering, which I put toward costumes for the puppets. But I do this on my own. It's my mission."
Perhaps the miracle of these puppet shows is not that the kids learn the Bible characters, but that their parents come out to see the show and enjoy it, Hamstra said.
"I think it gives us an opportunity to present the Gospel to many," Hamstra said.
After each show, a fellowship, with snacks like Jell-O, brings the proud puppeteers and their parents together, McKinney said.
"The idea is to plant a seed," McKinney said.
Last week, during the regular 2 p.m. Wednesday rehearsal, McKinney was encouraging the younger kids to keep their arms up, the hardest thing when you are holding a puppet above a screen.
"Let me see those puppet mouths move," McKinney told her 12 puppeteers. "Hands up, up up!"
The oldest children get the biggest parts because their arms are stronger.
"Dylan Drao, who is 12, plays Jesus in the Easter show," McKinney said. "I select them by how much they have to do. It's hard to be a puppeteer. Try putting a towel on your hand, lifting it straight in the air and holding it there."
"I think the puppet program also gives kids the opportunity to learn teamwork," Hamstra said.
When asked before rehearsal who among the children knew Noah, Jonah and Jesus, every child raised his or her hand.
"Now they want to know how and why Jonah got spit out of a whale," McKinney said, proudly.
McKinney writes the scripts for all the shows.
"Paula just has the ability to really see each of these kids," said Joan Schneider, one of two local women who help McKinney put on the shows by sewing costumes for the puppets and helping out at rehearsals. "Paula is a retired teacher. They really listen to her."
"She has a great imagination," volunteer Ruth Young said of McKinney. "Wehad Jonah being spit outof the whale. The kids loved it."
"She has patience with every child," Young added of McKinney. "She has also been known to tutor kids who are having problems. She likes kids, but she doesn't let kids walk over her. They know when she says something she means it."
If one visits a rehearsal of one of McKinney's puppet shows, it looks like everyone is doing something different. But McKinney doesn't worry one bit. "Some how, some way, it all comes together," McKinney said.
"Our rehearsals sometimes are chaotic," Young said. "But the kids pick up things fast. We are not as much in charge as we were. They are doing things up on their own. They crack me up, too. Before one program, one kid peeked through the curtain and said, 'Both my grandmothers are coming. If you see a grandma with spiked hair, she's mine.' We would all like to think the program will change lives."
McKinney grew up in tiny Payne, Ohio, and fell away from her faith in her late 20s, she said.
She came back to her faith in her late 30s.
"God had always been inside me, but I didn't follow him," she said. "But he didn't give up on me."
"People ask me all the time, 'Well, what shows are you going to do next year?'" McKinney said. "I say, 'I have no idea. God will tell me.' And it's true. I just follow his lead."
The puppet program is part of Kid's Club, which has day-care services available for children age 2 through 12 from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, Hamstra said.
Kid's Club costs parents from $50 to $120 a week, depending on the age of the child, Hamstra added.
For more information on the TAG puppet program or Kid's Club, call 941-751-4182.