In the hands of Sam Harden, a rope isn't just a rope. It's the beginning of a gospel message, a story of man's sin and of God's redemption.
He holds up the rope's broken segments: "Our sin separates us from God."
He ties the rope's ends together: "The knots we make show how we're trying to use works or tithing to get us to heaven. But none actually restore the rope and make it whole."
With a flick of his hand, the knots fly off and he reveals a single, whole rope.
"Only God restores," the Rev. Harden said.
"Pastor" isn't his only title. The Rev. Harden is known at his church as the "Christian Conjurer" or the "Evangelical Illusionist."
His stage name is Uncle Sam, and he practices a rare brand of magic that places the gospel at the center of his illusions.
"I know it may seem contrary to some people. They say that magic shouldn't have any place in ministry," he said. "But people will go see a Christian magician in ways they won't go see a gospel singer or an evangelist."
The Augusta native is the minister of media outreach at Christ Baptist Church in North Augusta, which will play host to one of his performances June 28. The gospel trio Redeemed -- Melissa Wood, Ben Smith and Bobby Paschal -- also will perform.
His act is interactive, the Rev. Harden said, because "people love magic."
"They're captivated," he said. "They get involved."
The Rev. Harden remembers watching, as a boy, a movie about master illusionist Harry Houdini on television.
"I thought it was so cool. I wanted to be a magician when I grew up," he said. He checked out library books and tried to learn the tricks.
"I couldn't do any of them because my hands were too small, but I kept at it," he said.
Three years ago, he joined the Fellowship of Christian Magicians, an organization dedicated to evangelism through magic.
"Magic" isn't the preferred term of Christian magicians, the Rev. Harden said.
"What we do is illusion. It's an art, just like singing or dancing or playing the guitar. I have no magic powers," he said. "God does the miracles. I just perform simple tricks."
Done well, the illusions can serve as a powerful means to convey the gospel, the Rev. Harden said. He used his illusions during a mission trip to Mexico in 2005.
"We were there doing street ministry, gospel magic and clowning with the people right there," he said. "People connect with it."
The Rev. Harden's upcoming performance is free, but an offering will support a mission to Italy in October.
"It's amazing that I can use the same trick here as I can there," he said. "On one hand, it's just an illusion. But then you remember, if you love your neighbor, you don't want them to go to hell. Eternities are at stake."
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Uncle Sam's Magic Show
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 28
WHERE: Christ Baptist Church, 770 W. Five Notch Road, North Augusta
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call (706) 631-6596.