Virtuous veggies ‘leaf’ big impression

Julie Filby

VeggieTales, a popular children’s series delivering faith and fun to viewers’ homes via vegetables, marks its 20th anniversary next month. Since 1993, lovable characters such as Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato have shared Bible lessons and Christian values with families through hundreds of DVDs, CDs, TV programs and feature films.

The Denver Catholic Register recently spoke with co-founder and executive vice president Mike Nawrocki, the voice of Larry the Cucumber, about VeggieTales’ history, mission and future; and the latest DVD “Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas.” But first he addressed the question: Why veggies?

“Most of it just had to do with the fact that necessity was the mother of invention,” Nawrocki said in a phone conversation. “At the time computer animation was so limited, and with our (small) budget, we just needed characters with no limbs, no hair and no clothes.

“Vegetables were a great alternative,” he continued. “Then we could really focus on the facial animation and the body movement.”

VeggieTales was the first-ever computer-generated imagery video series in the consumer market. The first episode was a big hurdle to overcome technologically.

“Of course over the years computer animation has advanced leaps and bounds and we’ve been able to make characters much more complex,” Nawrocki said of the dozen veggies that make up the mainstay cast. “But the characters themselves we’ve kept, I just think they have a charm.”

Nawrocki co-founded VeggieTales and Big Idea Entertainment with college friend, Phil Vischer, voice of Bob the Tomato, when they were working in the video post-production industry in Chicago in the late ’80s, early ’90s.

“We wanted to tell stories with a biblical worldview,” he said. “(To share that) there’s a God who made us, who loves us, who wants a relationship with us—and there’s this new technology to tell these little stories that support that worldview.”

After cobbling together personal funds as well as funds from family and friends, they bought their first computer and released “Where’s God When I’m Scared?” in December 1993. Initial response was limited, but eventually through ads in parenting magazines, placement in Christian bookstores and through word of mouth, the concept caught on.

“Parents take their kids to church, they want them to learn spiritual things, they want them to have a relationship with their Creator,” said the husband and father of two. “But that isn’t represented in most stories kids hear, in the media they take in.”

VeggieTales reaches young children, targeting 3- to 6-year-olds, with entertaining stories, engaging characters, silly songs and biblical messages such as thankfulness, forgiveness, sharing and love of neighbor.

“(We) weave those topics into a story that a kid can remember and live out in their life and ultimately be pointed toward God,” he said. “And I think there is that hunger from parents who say: ‘Yes, that is really what I want for my kids.’”

The latest DVD “Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas” was released Oct. 22. In the film, Larry the Cucumber is a mall Christmas elf who meets a little girl whose only Christmas wish is to help her neighbor whose house has burned down. “Merry Larry” sets off to help the neighbor-in-need and rallies the town to get onboard as well.

“In the end it’s about the true light of Christmas and the central message: Christmas shines most bright and true when you give the love God gave to you,” Nawrocki relayed.

The film guest starsTV personality Si Robertson most well-known for his role on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” and for speaking openly about his Christian faith.

“Old Uncle Si’s on board as narrator,” he said. “He shows up as the wise old mall custodian.”

Going forward, Nawrocki said, VeggieTales will continue releasing DVDs and next fall will launch a video series on Netflix: “Bob and Larry in the House.”

“We spent the first 10 years on VHS, our next 10 years on DVD and Blu-ray,” he continued. “And the next phase for us is the streaming format.”

He’s excited to continue to tell stories that remind kids that “God made them very special, and he loves them very much.”

“We feel it’s an important thing to do and we take that very seriously.” For more information, visit www.veggietales.com.

 

VeggieTales Christmas DVD

“Merry Larry and the True Meaning of Christmas”

Available: www.veggietales.com, Amazon, Christian bookstores

Price: $14.99

 

 

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”