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Finding Her Voice

Janet Alexander incorporates ventriloquism in her nursing-home ministry.

What had its origins as a painful jaw condition four decades ago, has turned into a ministry to senior adults the past 14 years for Janet Green Alexander, a North Texas District U.S. missionary associate serving with Church Mobilization.

With her husband, Kirk, Janet travels across the South and Midwest. But they are not alone; they bring along Janet’s ventriloquist dummy, Suzie. And it’s Suzie who steals the show.

Janet, 67, didn't start out with a childhood goal of becoming a traveling adult ventriloquist, although she received a ventriloquist dummy as a Christmas present at 9 years old.

“Like many children my age in the 1960s, I tried ventriloquism for about a day and then gave it up,” recalls Alexander, a graduate of Southwestern Assemblies of God University who lives in Waxahachie, Texas. “It just wasn't something that interested me long term."

As a young adult, Alexander managed a church day care of 40 children when she began to experience intense jaw pain that severely limited her ability to move her mouth. An orthodontist put braces on Alexander and wired her jaw shut with headgear she had to wear 23 hours a day — for two years. Alexander began learning to speak without moving her mouth. During this time, she acquired another ventriloquist dummy, named her Suzie, and managed to animate Suzie with more dexterity than during her childhood years.

After two years of Alexander wearing the headgear, the Lord miraculously healed her of jaw issues, canceling a planned reconstructive surgery. She set aside Suzie once more, but not before word got out about the ventriloquist duo. In 2008, Janet received an invitation to bring Suzie to a ministers’ Christmas banquet. As a result of the success of her program, she began receiving calls from various churches and nursing homes.

At the first event, the electric power went out as she stepped to the microphone, leaving her without the soundtracks she planned to use.

“However, being the daughter of two ordained Assemblies of God ministers, I did what I knew to do: sing!” she says. Alexander grabbed a nearby hymnal and had Suzie vocalize a few hymns. The crowd responded enthusiastically.

“To my surprise, this is exactly what these older friends craved,” Alexander remembers. “They sang, they cried, they smiled, and I realized that Suzie could bring back beautiful memories to our seniors.” After the service, ministry to seniors became a clear calling for her. From 2008-10, Suzie graced 80 seniors’ services.

In 2013, Suzie began ministering more frequently in nursing homes and memory care facilities. Janet is grateful to Kirk, 68, for operating the sound system, greeting the residents as they enter the room, and drawing shy folks into singing. Kirk also lives with cerebral palsy. Janet notes that when residents see Kirk’s physical struggles, it often provides another ministry connection point.

Suzie, dressed as a young girl, garners laughs from many onlookers.

“We keep a pretty light routine with Suzie making jokes and her papa (Kirk) always being the hero if she gets into a predicament,” Janet says. “Then we slow things down by singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’” Afterward, Janet takes Suzie around to chat with residents individually.

Janet occasionally speaks without Suzie at the close of their program.

“I share that without my hand moving Suzie, she’s just a lifeless cloth doll, without my voice, she’s silent,” Janet says. “And in the same way, without the hand of God guiding me, I can do nothing. Without His voice speaking through me, my words have no meaning.”

One of the most meaningful ministry encounters for the Alexanders involved an assisted living facility resident named Michael, one of Suzie’s biggest fans. He consistently phoned the couple to confirm their next scheduled appearance and sat in the front row during their program. One day, Michael met their faces with a vacant stare, and the Alexanders realized that Alzheimer’s disease had taken its toll. He sat with his back to everyone during the show until Suzie came over to greet him personally.

“Michael pulled Suzie close and said tearfully, 'You are my only friend, and I love you,’” Alexander recalls. “I wept silently as he hugged her. Suzie brought him the comfort he needed."

Pastors throughout North Texas often partner with the Alexanders, hosting them at the nursing homes and memory care facilities where their congregants have forged relationships with residents. One such pastor, Dale L. Griswold of First Assembly of God in Memphis, Texas, says Suzie has made an impact.

At the nursing home where First Assembly ministers, one woman who came to see Suzie perform hadn’t said a word to anyone in eight months of living at the facility.

“After Janet and Suzie did their program, this woman suddenly grabbed Suzie’s arm and said, ‘You have the most beautiful blue eyes,’” Janet says. “From then on, even when we returned to this nursing home without the Alexanders, this woman would speak. It chokes me up every time I think about it.”

While some residents are unresponsive until Suzie breaks down barriers, others engage her right away. Pastor Len H. McLaughlin of Heritage Church in McKinney, Texas, notes how quickly Suzie responds to rapid-fire questioning from eager residents.

“It’s incredible how quickly Suzie, through Janet, keeps up conversation with residents, tells jokes, allows them to hug or even dance with her,” McLaughlin says. “Suzie is a way to break through the sadness that dementia so often causes.”

By 2019, the Alexanders’ schedule had grown to accommodate more than 150 nursing homes per year across Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Post COVID-19, the couple are slowly regaining entrance to facilities.

PHOTO: Janet Alexander (right) has the help of Suzie (middle) to minister to Katie Wainwright.

Renée Griffith Grantham

Renée Griffith Grantham holds a Master of Divinity from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. After serving overseas with Assemblies of God World Missions, she relocated to Springfield, Missouri, where she resides with her husband, Mark. Together they engage in disability ministry throughout the Ozarks. She also serves as adjunct faculty in the Theology and Global Church Ministries Department of Evangel University.