Caitlyn Frank admits it - she plays with puppets. And she didn't first slip one over her hand until she became a teenager.
The 17-year-old student from Lake Norman Charter School is not alone. Down the flight of stairs to the windowless basement level of University City United Methodist Church, past rooms of singing choirs and in-session Bible study classes, a pocket of teens congregate, each with a puppet in hand.
For 21 years, His Hands Puppet Ministry has turned a popular childhood pastime into a popular ministry for seventh- to 12th-graders. A way to be creative and spread the gospel at the same time, the 16-member group uses puppets to lip sync contemporary and traditional Christian songs, country music with a moral message and even silly parodies of popular hits.
Once school lets out, they travel around the country and the world, like a touring rock band of puppets, performing for homeless shelters, children's homes and senior living centers. In past years, they've visited Canada, England and at least 40 states, never charging admission except during their mid-March Puppet-thon fundraiser.
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This summer, the puppet masters head for the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, where they'll perform at least one show a day for eight days.
"They're a great group of kids," said David Frank, Caitlyn's father, who serves as an adviser along with Teresa Latta and Ken Caldwell. Together, five of their children participate in the club.
"They're very creative," said Latta, who marvels at the group's ideas, which often send the advisers into a scramble to design the needed props, from a giant cardboard whale to a yellow-lined road that can be broken in two.
For two hours on Wednesday nights, the teens practice the techniques of puppetry on a puppet stage, which resembles a gymnast's parallel bars, with its series of pipes at varying heights.
Older, more seasoned puppeteers critique the newbies, offering tips on how puppets should enter and exit.
The task can be tiring. "It takes muscles. It really does," said Latta, who has seen many kids' hands cramp from the repetitious gesturing needed to work a puppet's mouth.
Kevin Caldwell, 18, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts, has been a puppeteer with the group for six years, donning every one of the 40 puppets at one time or another, from the silver-haired lady to the rough-and-tumble biker everyone calls Johnny.
This summer marks Caldwell's last year with the puppets, before he begins college in the fall.
"I've seen it since I've been going to this church, which is since birth," said Caldwell. "It's been such an integral part of my life over the last six years and its something that's just completely unique that I've grown to love."
Frank, who has been at it for four years, just wishes she had known as a child the joys of puppets. Now she sees Sesame Street in a whole new light, and on occasion sits down to study the puppets of the show.
"Yeah, every once in a while, when my sister is watching," said Frank, before quickly adding a disclaimer to preserve her teenage reputation. "But I don't just turn it on to watch it."