Puppeteer Pulls Strings to Bring Christian Message to City Streets

Dec 20, 2002 06:10 PM EST

For children living on the front lines of poverty in Pittsburgh, faith can be found in the form of Hampton puppeteer Jill Harrington.

For more than a decade, Harrington has used puppets to bring Sunday school to the streets of some of the city's poorest neighborhoods -- Northview Heights, St. Clair Village and the Hill District.

"Most of these kids can't get to church, so we bring church to them," she said.

When Harrington's puppet brigade rolls into town, children come running from all directions to sit on a tarp and learn about God.

"For most of them, [this] is the only church they'll ever know," Harrington said.

She still remembers the first time she brought her company's puppet program to an impoverished community.

"I came upon a little boy who was digging in the snow," she recalled. "He said, 'Look what I found!' and came up with a handful of live bullets. I said, 'I'll trade you candy for those,' and he said, 'Yeah, OK!' "

Harrington's company, Prince Puppets Inc., brings a program called Kid's Kingdom Adventure -- which consists of a puppet theater, sound stage and a van full of jungle-themed puppets that Harrington makes herself -- into the city on weekdays from May to September.

"We do a one-hour program, which starts with singing, then gospel illusions [magic tricks] and object lessons, where we might make an ocean in a bottle or dress a kid up as a character," Harrington said. "Then we do a puppet Bible story and kids learn a memory verse from the Bible. And at the end, we do the wild and wacky games, which is where we ask them questions about what they learned and they get to play a game. It encourages them to pay attention."

Prince Puppets started in 1989 doing shows for church programs and school assemblies. The company still does that work and is paid an honorarium. To fund the work in the city, Harrington started making puppets for other performers. Proceeds from the puppet sales go toward Kid's Kingdom. Harrington also receives donations from church members and other Christian-based organizations and is working on getting nonprofit status for her company.

When Harrington started her company, she and her sister, Robin Kelly of Ross, went to work with Bill Wilson of Metro Ministries, who founded the Sidewalk Sunday School concept in the late 1980s on the streets of New York City.

Locally, Sidewalk Sunday School got its start when Pastor Jim "Cal" Callahan of Allison Park Assembly of God Church in Hampton was working as a truck driver in 1986 and noticed what he considered an unsettling trend on the streets of Pittsburgh.

"I used to drive trucks around the city, and I was seeing more and more churches closing down. I knew that if someone didn't tell the kids in those neighborhoods about God, there was bound to be trouble," Callahan said. "And there was," he said, referring to the escalating violence that drugs caused among street gangs.

Callahan felt compelled to go into poor areas like the Hill District to start a vacation Bible school. Hoping to help as many children as possible, he proposed that Allison Park Assembly of God sponsor an inner-city outreach program. Almost immediately, it attracted nearly 500 children hungry to hear "Pastor Cal" tell inspirational stories about the power of God.

"By 1987, we were up to 1,200 kids, so I went up to New York and trained with Bill Wilson to bring Sidewalk Sunday School to Pittsburgh," he said. By 1988, Callahan, along with hundreds of other outreach ministries in cities around the country, began a Metro Inner City Children's Campaign in Pittsburgh. "We took our in-house ministry, packed it in the van and started having Sidewalk Sunday School," Callahan said.

Unbeknownst to the pastor, puppets were about to do as effective a job of preaching to children as he did.

In 1992, the death of Harrington's 39-year-old husband turned her into both a single mother and a full-time missionary.

"I'm a Hampton girl who knew nothing about the inner city," said Harrington, who nevertheless packed up her puppets and went to New York City to be trained along with her team by Wilson in how to start at a Sidewalk Sunday School program.

She traveled with Kelly and Pastor Karey Schaffer, who was affiliated with an Assembly of God Church in the South Hills. "I knew right away that that's what I wanted to do," Harrington said.

Unaware that Callahan was already running a Sidewalk Sunday School program, Harrington, Kelly and Schaffer told Wilson that they wanted to start their own Metro ministry in Pittsburgh, and he trained them.

For the next couple of years, the two outreach ministries paralleled each other as they braved the bullets and street gangs to bring the Bible to children.

By 1994, Callahan's outreach program was operating 40 sites a week, and the workload was draining him of energy. "I had to learn to back away, because it was too much for me," said Callahan, who was overjoyed when he learned about Kid's Kingdom. "I was able to move out, knowing [Sidewalk Sunday School] would be taken care of."

For nearly eight years, Kid's Kingdom held Sidewalk Sunday School with Harrington and Schaffer busing the children in the wintertime to the church in the South Hills.

In 1999, Schaffer moved to Philadelphia, and Kid's Kingdom fell apart. Harrington and her crew were devastated. The South Hills church changed hands.

"When the new pastor came in, he decided to run a community church for the area of Brookline, not an outreach to the whole Pittsburgh area," Harrington said. The group ended its relationship with the South Hills church, although it is still affiliated with Assembly of God.

"After I packed up my trailer with all the Sunday school supplies, I was crying my head off, so I asked God to give me peace in my heart for the kids," recalled Harrington. "Like a mom, you don't stop parenting these children."

During the next year, Harrington watched the news and balked at the relentless repetition of shootings and violent crimes in the city. "Watching the news makes me mad," she said. "It makes me want to get involved. The kids had become dependent on this program we became their church -- then all of the sudden we disappeared, and they didn't know why."

Callahan had invited Harrington to get involved with the Allison Park Assembly of God while she decided what to do next, and it wasn't long before the two started planning to bring Kid's Kingdom back to the city.

"I asked her to focus on one neighborhood to start with, and she chose Northview Heights," Callahan said. By spring of 2001, Harrington was back in the neighborhoods advertising the start of another season of Sidewalk Sunday School.

"I wondered if the kids would remember us," she said, "but as soon as they saw the fliers, they started running in from everywhere, shouting, 'Kid's Kingdom!' After being gone for a year, I realized it really is needed because nothing had changed -- they still scatter when there's a drive-by shooting."

Harrington added, "The first time I went back to St. Clair Village, I started to set up the puppet stage, and a little girl peered up at me, 'That you, Miss Jill? You sure got fat!' and Sidewalk Sunday School began once again. I wouldn't miss those comments for the world."

The return of Kid's Kingdom culminated with a Christmas outreach program at Allison Park Assembly of God a year ago. Featuring the Metro Music Machine, a children's choir, the evening was a success. When Harrington and Callahan drove the children home, however, their festive mood was shattered.

"I was driving one van full of kids, leading the way, and as we pulled into the project, the joyous sounds of singing quickly turned to terror as a high-speed chase unfolded right in front of us," Harrington said. "The kids started screaming and ducking under their seats because they assumed it was a drive-by shooting, which it wasn't."

The chase ended with the car hitting a telephone pole on the sidewalk where the children normally would walk home, and chaos ensued. "Five cop cars, three criminals, two paddy wagons ...," Harrington suddenly started singing, "and a partridge in a pear tree! That's life in the ghetto."

This year's Christmas outreach, which was held Dec. 10 in Allison Park Assembly of God, had none of the drama but all of the joy. The excitement was palpable as 300 children packed the church auditorium chanting, "Mountain move out of my way -- I'm gonna live by faith!"

The parents who accompanied their children to the Hampton church strongly supported the Kid's Kingdom program.

"They have fantastic ways of teaching kids about the Bible," said Chanika James, 25, of Northview Heights. She ought to know, because as a child, James used to participate in Callahan's original outreach ministry.

"I was one of 'God's Gang,' " said the mother of three, proudly. "And I want my kids to know about God, too."

By Jill Cueni-Cohen