Chapter Thirteen / Opal
As I think back upon my teaching at Tri-Valley I'm reminded how blessed Faith and I were to have our summers free for ministry. Our 45 minute program of illusions, music and Riddles the Clown was well received by many churches. There were a few who struggled with the concept of "magic." The Bible refers to the avoidance of the supernatural in collaboration of evil spirits and some churches would identify this negative with our positive inclusion of illusions as "visual puzzles" to enhance our ministry message.
Faith and I were always careful to identify what we did as a puzzle to be solved. We spoke of an object as hiding, not disappearing. Our program began with, "Everything we do is a puzzle and a mystery. There's a simple answer to how these illusions work. If you figure it out, that's okay, because we know how it's done, too. But the most important part is the message."
Then I would give an example of what was meant by an illusion. I would hold a book in one hand while the other hand grabbed my wrist. "God never lets us down," I would pronounce as my fingers would extend out with the book seemingly "stuck" in my hand. When I would reveal the other side of the book, the children would laugh when the simple trick was revealed. One finger from my left hand was holding the book in place. "You see, there is always a simple solution. It's just a puzzle or a trick. The only real magic is what God can do in our lives and we call these God's miracles."
At the beginning of our ministry, a church might be willing to have us in their basement, but not in the sanctuary because we used illusions in our presentation. We never questioned their decision since it was always a priveledge to have the opportunity to minister wherever God chose to send us. I would discuss with Faith, however, the notion that doing something "wrong" was okay in the basement but not upstairs. There would be many encounters of differences in doctrine and Christian thinking throughout our over 25 years of summer ministry.
We didn't have any churches booked yet two months prior to our third year of summer ministry. We received a call.
"Hello," I heard in a Canadian accent. "Is this the clown show? I saw your van and trailer going down interstate 90 and wrote down the phone number from the trailer."
Faith and I could often be seen moving down the road with our conversion van and the highly decorated trailer which followed. It was a small Wells Fargo trailer proudly stating the words: "Gospel Illusion with Riddles the Clown." Our phone number was placed underneath just in case the visual promotion would catch someone's attention. And it did.
"My name is Opal," she said. "We are having a Vacation Bible School in Sioux City, Iowa and I was wondering if you would be available for this summer? Can you do the entire week?"
"Well," I answered, "we only have one 45 minute program. Since we use illusions in our show, there wouldn't be enough to fill a full week. Each of the small illusions we have has a cost of around 20 - 60 dollars and we show around 15 of them in a 45 minute program."
Opal had a solution to our dilemma. She suggested, "Maybe you could add stories and music. Do some Bible stories with props and maybe some puppets. I'm sure you could come up with something for a week. We would have you do the entire VBS so it would only be two hours each day."
I thought she was crazy. How would I just "develop something" for a full week in two months with no money to purchase more illusions.
"Steve," Faith whispered. "I think you could do it."
"No," I said. "I'm sorry. I just can't think of how we'd come up with that much material. Thank you for asking, though."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "Thank you for your time."
I was relieved. It just seemed like too much of a mind explosion to think of how I could fill up that much time with children who are the most difficult audiences to keep happy. An audience full of children will let you know immediately if they are bored or think the show is "dumb." They'll just shout it out right in the middle of the show....."This is boring!" There was no way to develop ten hours of programming in two months.
Several weeks later I received another call from Opal.
"Hello, this is Opal. Have you decided you'd like to come to Iowa for our VBS yet?"
"Well, I just don't think it's possible to develop that much material," I answered in total amazement she was still trying to make this arrangement possible.
"I know you can do it. Just say 'yes' and we'll help you as much as we can," she offered.
"I'll still decline, I think, but thanks for your call," I said.
"Okay, have a great day in the Lord," she stated in a tone of disappointment.
"Steve," Faith inquired. "Was that the Opal lady again?"
"She just won't give it up," I complained.
"I think she's knows this is what you're supposed to do. You should tell her we'll do it," Faith advised.
"It's just too much material for a children's audience. I can't imagine thinking up ten hours of stuff to keep kids attentive," I said knowing this was an impossible task.
The subject was silent until again, another call.
"Hello, this is Opal," proclaimed the familiar voice I thought I would never hear from again. "Have you decided yet you'd like to come for our VBS?"
"Yes," I said. "We'll come." Did I just say that? What was wrong with me? My mouth knew I should speak the words but my mind was swirling with confusion.
"Oh, that is so wonderful," Opal declared with great emotion. "I just knew this was something that would be so perfect for our children. Thank you so much! And we usually end the final day with a night for the parents. Anything you would like to come up with for that would be fantastic."
Well, that was it. Now I did it. I agreed to an impossible task and had less than two months to make this happen. Faith and I knew we could develop props to use with Bible stories. We began to develop the concept of having two large eyes drawn and cut out of cardboard for the story of the "Pair Of Eyes" man would translate to the story of the "Paralyzed Man." Thoughts of props, music, and the addition of a few puppets were all quickly put on paper. We soon had our ten hours and the Grand Finale show for the parents mapped out. But nothing was made.
Faith and I have discussed the miracle of the "booked summer" often. Somehow, the word got out. The entire summer became totally booked with full week committments. The Iowa ministry was the third week in so we had two weeks to perfect our ten hours with a Grand Finale for Opal.
Arriving at our first destination Faith and I began day one with props for the stories, illusions with a message, music and BURNNIE the Bunnie for the first hour. The idea of a faster pace with "crazy fun" was brought into the second hour, since we thought the kids might be getting restless after coming back from the first session break. The second hour included more music, Riddles the Clown, BURNNIE the Bunnie, and the additional puppets of Top Hat the Dog and Gonzo the Gorilla. Top Hat was an "older gentleman" with a bit of a British accent who presented advice and wisdom. Gonzo presented impatience and would often be in conflict with BURNNIE with the audience hearing them arguing "back stage." Faith would intervene as the puppets popped up from behind the curtain. Since I was in "Riddles the Clown mode" I could not bring them out front as I would when I was just "Steve" in the first hour.
The audience loved BURNNIE'S frequent interruptions when Faith was trying to explain something front of stage.
"Gonzo, it will be great!" everyone could hear BURNNIE pleading. "Jump on the trampoline."
"I don't want to jump on a trampoline," Gonzo would explain. "I don't like going up in the air like that."
Faith would intervene with, "BURNNIE, Gonzo doesn't have to jump on the trampoline. And you are distracting from what I'm trying do out here with the kids."
"I know, but it's great. The trampoline is great. See, Gozo, here let me help you," BURNNIE would say as the audience could hear, but not see from behind the curtain, BURNNIE helping Gonzo to the trampoline and bouncing him up and down. Suddenly Gonzo would fly up to the ceiling in protest.
"No, " he would yell as he came close to the ceiling and back down again. "I do not like this and I do not want to do it again."
"Okay," BURNNIE would give in. "But I think it's fun."
"Not everyone has to like all the same things, " Faith would instruct. She would then progress to a message of how God has created us all to be unique so we can work together as a team bringing many talents into one purpose. Riddles the Clown would then make an appearance to reinforce the message with an illusion. This was our first day.
We only had scripts and ideas for the second day of this first week. Proven throughout weeks, months and years of following God's plan, Faith and I knew, "God's got this." Miraculously, our first host offered to assist in the construction of the next day's props. Her husband was a truck driver and was gone all this week. She knew our story of how we committed to a full week of ministry and said she would be willing to help us put everything together. That evening, with cardboard, duct tape, and paint, the props for day two were constructed. Each evening, we would build the props for the following day.
The Grand Finale came together with the children singing many of the "Scripture Songs" I wrote as the basis for each day's lesson. Some of our best illusions were saved for that evening and we had one large illusion. I had a friend build the "Metamorphis Illusion" to close the show. It was a huge box with a lid. Faith and I would walk the lid out into the audience for examination. Back to the stage, I would step into the box, receive handcuffs and be placed in a green bag tied to the top with the help of an audience member. The heavy lid would be placed on top. Faith would stand on top of the box and a curtain was raised, still viewing Faith's head from above the cloth. "One, two, three, " she would say and the curtain would go above her head for one second and then fall to the floor revealing me in her place. I would jump down. The lid was removed to find Faith in the green bag and handcuffs. We would take our final bow and were so thankful the first week was a success.
Our week with Opal, Melvin and Scott was an incredible blessing. In all of our years of travel, she has been the host of hostesses. Incredibly, God placed her at the same time and location next to us on the road when she first jotted down the phone number from our trailer. She didn't take "no" for an answer. God orchestrated our connection to Opal who helped guide us down the path He had prepared. I finally gave in and the rest became our full summer ministry of VBS and camp programs. We performed additional times for Opal and her church and for the next 25 years we would travel across the United States and minister to children.
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