BLYTHEWOOD — Putting on a mascot suit and entertaining people has been a major part of Jamie Ballentine’s life. Now, the onetime Cocky at USC is using that twist to try to get children to find a connection to God.
These days, Ballentine spends his mascot time as Olly, a 6-foot otter that appears at events and church outings to capture the attention of children and families. He and his wife, who together created Otter This World, call it a mascot ministry.
Ballentine said he got the idea of using his experience as a mascot because he felt led by the Lord to use his gifts and talents as he began preaching several years ago.
“One of the most precious gifts in children is their imagination,” Ballentine said. “Mascots bring their imagination to life.”
He’s seen that through the eyes of Cocky from 2002 to 2006, as Charlie of the Charleston Riverdogs and as SCETV’s Smart Cat. Now, he’s the senior pastor at Pine View Baptist Church in Blythewood.
Twelve-year-old Brandon Strother said that in the two months he’s been going to Pine View with his family, he’s connected with both Olly and Ballentine.
“Olly is joyful, and he is just like Jamie,” Brandon said. “He likes to run around, mess with the kids, teach us about God and show us the ways of how God can help us when we need it. Jamie is energetic and likes to talk about God and how he works his miracles with us.”
On Sundays, Ballentine dedicates part of his sermon to focus on the children. He welcomes them to the front pew, selects a message from the Bible and teaches its meaning to them.
When trying to decide on an animal for the mascot, Ballentine saw a picture of an otter with its hands together, pointing toward the sky, as if praying, said his wife, Brittany.
“Then he started to research and found out that they stick together as a little family as they go through life,” she said. “River otters in the Amazon, mom, dad and kids stay together through life.”
Promoting family and togetherness is one of the ideas behind Otter This World.
“His passion is infectious,” said Rob Dow, a member of Pine View for two years, along with his wife and children. “I think he thinks on a kid’s level.
They see him as a young at heart person. I don’t think it is Olly that brings them here, I think it is his attitude towards kids.”
Dow’s 9-year-old son, Evan, said it makes him happy to come to church and see Ballentine or Olly. They’re “fun, nice and caring,” he said.
Using a mascot to minister is something new to Dan Mathewson, an associate professor of religion at Wofford College. But it doesn’t surprise him.
“What’s always been the case, especially in the United States, is evangelicals are very creative,” said Mathewson, who studies the relationship between religion and culture and how people live out their faith.
Approaching others outside their faith in non-intimidating “funny, and entertaining” ways helps establish a connection, he said. And quirky, outside-of-the-box ways of preaching are common in the Carolinas and Tennessee.
“There are clown ministries, which sound familiar. There is Christian professional wrestling,” Mathewson said. “North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee are sort of the hotbeds for that.”
Ballentine understands that using a mascot is unconventional and makes sure to spend equal time in and out of the suit.
“When we have events or outreaches, it’s important for me to be seen as the pastor,” Ballentine said. “When opportunities arise for me to step back and allow Olly to come out, then we pursue that.”
Olly makes appearances at churches that provide a show followed by a gospel message and at school pep rallies, and he even has his own music video for Pine View’s Vacation Bible School.
After receiving a calling into ministry in 2009, Ballentine served as a youth pastor in James Island before returning to his hometown of Blythewood as interim pastor at Pine View in 2014, the same year Otter This World came into being.
He became senior pastor in March.
Ballentine’s father, Neil, has been a Pine View member since Jamie’s childhood. He has seen the ebb and flow of church attendance and is glad to see his son’s efforts have gradually brought in more parishioners.
“A lot of times when you have a small church like this, when a pastor leaves, people leave to either go where he went or go somewhere else,” Neil Ballentine said.
“At first it was real frustrating for him, see the numbers go down, but that’s unfortunately part of the small church.”
Jamie said it’s challenging to balance pastoring a church and continuing to build Otter This World, but he and his wife are not content with just local outreach with Olly.
“We’ve stretched out as far as Kentucky and eventually want to write children’s books,” Brittany Ballentine said. “We originally thought it would be a ministry tool to work with churches, but we’ve really found God is opening up doors everywhere, and we really just want to be that. We want to be the light of Christ everywhere.”
John Del Bianco writes for The Columbia Voice, a South Carolina Press Association member newspaper.