VICTOR — The scene from the road July 14 was unusual but peaceful. On the lawn behind St. Patrick Church stood a large red and white striped circus tent, complete with blue and orange flags fluttering from its tips in the gentle breeze. Beside it stood a smaller tent and a mobile concession stand.
Up close, however, the word “peaceful” could no longer be used to describe the scene. Loud music — everything from “The Hokey Pokey” to “Who Let the Dogs Out” — blared from the tent. Underneath the tent, 11 teens danced, jumped and frolicked onstage in front of dozens of children, parents, grandparents and recreation leaders.
The teens, who along with 12 staff members collectively are known as Tent Troupe, were in the midst of their children’s matinee. When they weren’t entertaining their young audience with such silly songs as “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and “Hippopotamus Rock,” they acted out such stories as the “Bremen Town Musicians” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”
Later that night, the teens staged a comedy for the entire family. “The Curious Savage” told the story of Ethel Savage, a widow who had inherited millions of dollars from her late husband and wanted to make good use of it. In an attempt to take the money, her greedy children tried to commit her to a sanatorium, where she meets a number of delightful characters and learns there still are kind people in the world.
Tent Troupe is a ministry of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Md. For four weeks each summer the teens and staff of Tent Troupe tour the region, performing two shows a day, six days a week. Most of the troupe members are current or former members of St. Luke’s youth group, and they provide excellent role models for young and old alike, said Lori Cunliffe, youth and parish-life coordinator at St. Patrick Parish.
Cunliffe belongs to LINC, a recently formed group of youth ministers from seven churches in the Victor and Farmington areas. These youth ministers hope to work together to offer combined fellowship and service opportunities for the children in their churches. Although the Christian churches don’t agree on everything, fellowship and service are key in all of them, so that’s what LINC will focus on, Cunliffe said.
Many of the youth ministers had known each other for years, mostly because their children went to school together. In February they decided to formally bring their communities together through what they dubbed LINC.
“We all started thinking that we were in a pretty unique time and place right now with our pastors getting along so well, and all of us youth ministers have known each other in other areas,” Cunliffe said. “If we get together, then we might create something that’s unifying and that the kids might enjoy.”
The Tent Troupe performance was the second LINC-sponsored event. The first, a Christian concert called Unity Rocks the Tent, was held several weeks ago. LINC decided to host Tent Troupe because the group performed in Victor several years ago and left a lasting impression on church leaders.
“They were so much fun. They’re just such a great group of kids, and so when they were coming back through here again we decided we would have them again,” Cunliffe said.
The teens of Tent Troupe mingled with teens from the seven LINC churches that evening, when the Victor and Farmington teens hosted a dinner for the performers, she added.
“The kids of Tent Troupe are just so committed to their faith and so outgoing. They’re just such good role models,” Cunliffe said.
Indeed, faith is the foundation of Tent Troupe and its traveling performance ministry, member Molly Martinez told the Catholic Courier.
“That’s kind of the foundation of all of this,” she said.
This is Martinez’s third summer performing with Tent Troupe, but her affiliation with the group began several years before that.
“My brother went as a trouper way back in the day, and my parents were kind of apprehensive at first because you’re giving up your kids to the circus,” said Martinez, 18.
Life on the road with the troupe can be grueling, she admitted. The troupe travels daily and performs in a new town almost every day.
“Sometimes they are early wake-ups,” she said. “We had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up the other day. You have to be in the new town by 8 a.m.”
“We’re in a town less than 24 hours,” added Tent Troupe staff member Sandra Stehman, 23.
After arriving in their new location, called a lot, all 23 Tent Troupe members help erect the big-top tent as well as their sleeping quarters. The first show, a children’s matinee, always starts at 1:45 p.m., followed by the family show at 7:45 p.m. In between, the hosting churches provide the troupe members with showers, dinner and sometimes even a place to swim.
The experience is rather exhausting, Martinez said, noting she’s learned how to be peppy in front of audiences even when she’s only had four hours of sleep. Lack of sleep is just one of the troupers’ troubles.
“Hygiene goes out the window,” Martinez said. “I haven’t looked attractive in a month.”
Roughing it in a tent for a month isn’t all bad, however. The experience helped Stehman become more independent and faith-filled, she said.
“It deepened my faith. I was able to reflect and appreciate all I have at home,” she added.
Their shared experience also created a deep bond between all the troupe members, Martinez added. They’ve lived together for a month, but when the troupers’ tour wraps up July 18 they’ll probably still spend most of their free time together, she said.