Tifton Gazette


August 26, 2012

Independence, Mo.: Faith for a journey, and stupendous puppetry too

TIFTON — Church on Sunday’s one thing; a holiday in Missouri religious centers with history is quite another.  

Seems helpful to me to get a glimpse of what drives other people’s faith: in family and community, and around the world.

New bucket list perhaps? Journeys about faith.  That could get a little heavy so I’d recommend building in some levity too in a religious destination.

For me in Independence, Missouri, that was puppets. Thousands of them. More soon; let’s start with the faith traveling notion.

Same early story told from different perspectives made this journey interesting to me. Two big church organizations one and the same their first 14 years with Joseph Smith Jr. at the helm, then branching off after his death.

One considers this western Missouri town next door to Kansas City to be their church headquarters. Community of Christ is their name and visiting their building is also an art event.  

The other calls Salt Lake City the main town but welcomes visitors with detailed, interesting history displays and video in the Mormon Visitors Center.

Vastly different experiences directly across the street from one another. I don’t think it matters which order you immerse.

The contrast will be stark, and that’s fodder for thought. If committed people of similar starting faith drew such different conclusions, then what are the rest of us concluding about anything and everything?

The Mormon Visitors Center tells the history of the church in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s with a recreated settler homestead, fully furnished and narrated by a variety of voices speaking from actual diaries of the era.

Cabin windows are backlit, photography showing the changing seasons. Engaging stories, the kind that are almost too good to be true but come from diaries.

I particularly enjoyed the fully stocked printing office, with historic typesetting equipment I knew about and a binding machine I’d never seen.

The faith journeyers had the first printing press east of the Mississippi River, the story is told. “The Evening and the Morning Star” was the paper’s name.

Historians say church founder Joseph Smith Jr. held strong opinions, and the tour here tells a great tale about two 12-year-old girls, Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins, who retrieved plates intended for the printing press that were thrown out the windows in a raid by citizens not approving of Smith’s philosophies.

Bravery and faithfulness-to-the-cause stories filter throughout the Mormon Visitors Center tour, always docent led.

    So do questions, the kind with long pauses, suggesting no time is too much to wait for answers.

Questions like, “What do you think of the Temple sacrament that makes it possible for families to be united eternally?”

Different considerations across the street. The Community of Christ building soars in a spiral reminiscent of a nautilus seashell.

Organ recitals happen in here, daily in the summer, Sunday afternoons the rest of the year.  5,685 pipes, 102 ranks for this organ.

Daily is also the schedule for a 15-minute prayer for peace, wrapped within readings, hymns and some silence.

Docents guide tours here too, but you can also help yourself to “The worshiper’s path” booklet or ask for headphones for a self-guided audio stroll.

Etched glass, sculpture of copper, iron, steel, Ikebana-style floral arrangements, oil paintings eight by ten feet, Japanese meditation garden and much more art delightful to see simply for the purpose of seeing.

The tour adds consideration questions, like “How could balance be better achieved in your life. in your community…in the world?”

Perhaps I should have visited both centers several times to absorb the teachings and the contrasts more.

Community of Christ also has a do-touch children’s museum called the Peace Pavilion, using puppets, games, art, books and more to help children build skills for peace building.  

Elsewhere in Independence is the Midwest Genealogy Center with 70,000 reference books, 6,000 historical maps, 480,000 microfiche and census record categories including slavery, agriculture, mortality and manufacturers.

Talk about special niches. You can look at the papers of the Saint Louis Fur Trade, Southern antebellum industries and Native American and African American resources.

And talk about building the family tree on a vacation with a purpose.

Walking the faith journey is an Independence possibility too.  One mile with 14 plaques depicting key sites from the early settling days called the Missouri Mormon Walking Trail.

The City of Independence and a non-sectarian, non-profit group designed this tour and the tour booklet bubbles with history.

No theology-filled questions here. Wish I had figured this out first – then I would have approached the church buildings with background.

 Perspective like Independence was the western edge of America in 1830, only wilderness beyond.

Into the midst of gathering pioneers, slaves and freemen, immigrants and entrepreneurs came missionaries too.

Five from New York launched the story of this walking trail. Their new religion suggested that Native Americans were part of the lost tribes of Israel and these men wanted to share the news with the tribes.

Federal law prohibited access so historians say the men shared their new-found church understandings with the community.

This Missouri Mormon Walking Trail winds by their homes, church lot, school, printing office, courthouse, public square and more offering historical tidbits.

“The rapid growth of the colony fostered concern among non-member observers,” is one observation. “Church members were tarred and feathered on the public square,” is another.

“Social cohesiveness coupled with competition over scarce resources proved a threat to rugged individualistic frontier values. Fears erupted into violence.”

Not your average architectural walking tour, I’d say.

Puppetry balance

I’d never been in a room with 50,000 heads until I explored the Puppetry Arts Institute in an Independence neighborhood known as Englewood.

Choices to enjoy when you sign up for a workshop here to make a hand puppet or clown marionette!

Sure you’ll find professional puppet performances too, and a stage to perform a puppet show with your own creation.

Beyond those special experiences is the collection of the largest puppet designer and manufacturer in the world—Hazelle Rollins.

Born in 1910, she started a factory to manufacture toy marionettes in 1935 in her father’s basement in Kansas City.

Three patents later, she had also created 300 original puppet character designs, says Puppetry Arts Institute director Diane Houk.

Marionette mouth mechanism is one of her patents. I’ve always admired the skill of ventriloquists but never thought of being in the midst of the designer’s other creations too.

Ankle/shoe movement and airplane control are her other two patents. Some of her works are in the Smithsonian and there is a permanent exhibit in the Moscow Puppet Museum, but the lion’s share is in Independence.

Figures ready to dance fill the walls in one room – puppets from around the world. Houk says Hazelle had a strong interest in international puppetry and she does too, adding to the collection with her own.

     See puppets from India, England, Southeast Asia, France, China, Taiwan and more lands. Houk says every country has some form of puppetry.

Grand way to immerse in world culture and heritage while in Independence.  USA history with a local twist has extra meaning here too.

To be in Missouri, near the banks of the Missouri River, and watch a professional puppet show about Lewis & Clark strikes me as spectacular.

Fun too since the tale of the explorers is told through their traveling dog Seaman.

One wall is filled with images of professional puppeteers who performed here; another with a collection of Punch & Judy puppets and stages and others with many kinds of puppets.

Can’t say I’ve been in the presence of hand puppets and shadow style, rod puppets and marionettes, original designs for the “Nunsense” characters, including Sister Mary Annette.

“They’re all theatrical figures under human control,” Houk says. “With puppetry, all of us get live human connection and we’ve got to use that more.”

Seems to be another faith and philosophy journey in this city, focusing on human connections.

That’s why prices are low, Houk says. “Accessibility is very important to us.”  Six dollars will register you for a hand puppet workshop; splurge for $25 for a fancy clown marionette named Tito.

A whopping $3.00 admission for adults and $1.50 for children offers hours of amazement simply gazing at the immense collection.


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