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Lion lays down with lamb

May 24, 1997

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - Most kids have seen "The Lion King" movie, but not many have seen the king of beasts in person.

Local children got that chance Friday night when the Rev. Jim Lavender of Richmond, Va., brought his "Thank God for Kids" show to the Byron Memorial Park in Williamsport.

Lavender, who has appeared on the "700 Club," uses dozens of animals, some of them exotic and endangered species, to preach the gospel to kids in his traveling, nonprofit ministry. He said he and his wife raised most of the animals from infancy.

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Kids dotted a hillside and sat on the grass in front of Lavender, who showed them animals - a baby bear, a white dove, a lion, a little rabbit named Flops, and a llama "with an attitude" and a spitting distance of 12 feet. A message came with each animal.

Lavender held skunk Earlene. "Have you been a stinker?" he asked the children. "Do you need God's forgiveness tonight? I do."

The preacher talked about a rare Siberian tiger in the show. "If this tiger is worth saving, so are you," he told the children.

Amy Fiorita, 9, of Williamsport, said the lion impressed her the most. What about Lavender's stories? "They're weird," she said. James Fiorita, 9, said he liked the black panther, and the stories.

Diane Osbourne, who lives outside Williamsport, tried unsuccessfully to give 3-year-old granddaughter Devon a close look at a lion. "I'm scared of him," Devon said.

Williamsport sisters Ashley Mullendore, 12, and Heather Mullendore, 15, thought the show was a good idea.

"I think it's nice that they're doing this for the kids," said Ashley. "It gets them more involved. It makes them more anxious to hear, and to go to church."

"I think it really helps. It gets the children involved with God," said Heather. "It gets them paying attention more than they do in church."

"This is great, with him preaching and saying these things to these kids," said Evelyn Barron, 70, of Williamsport. "I hope some of the older people come, too. They need it, with them getting on this dope. They're the ones who really need it."

Lavender's free one-hour show was sponsored by an interdenominational group of Williamsport-area community churches.

The Rev. James E. Swecker, pastor of Rehoboth United Methodist Church in Williamsport, was instrumental in getting Lavender to town. Sweckert said he was "tickled to death with the turnout," which he estimated at between 350 and 400.

For his hard work, Sweckert had the dubious honor of being invited inside a large cage for the finale, when a lamb named Lucky was laid down across the back of a lioness. Someone standing nearby said it was a true test of faith.

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