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Passion for Performance

three shriners and patient in wheelchair wearing costumes

John-Michael Phillips and friends dressed up as Ghostbusters

‘Cosplaying For a Cause’ Inspires New Mexico Shriners

With a huge heart for giving back to children’s causes and a passion for dressing up, John-Michael Phillips started the Cause-Players, a cosplay unit at his chapter, Ballut Abyad Shriners in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aficionados of this trendy activity play superheroes and characters in costume.

John-Michael Phillips came up with the name after taking the advice of his wife.

”She mentioned that our slogan should be ‘Cosplaying for a Cause’ and from there the pun was made,” he said.

Officially a chartered unit as of this year, the group started as a Ghostbusters unit. Interest has grown rapidly, both for the nobles of Ballut Abyad and within the community, with requests for the group to appear in schools, parades and community events, and to partner with local non-profits.

“The reason I developed this unit was because, as someone who has a background in child development, human life sciences and children advocacy, I saw that our patients at the hospitals became excited to talk about what they were interested in,” John-Michael said. “I could sit down next to a kid, and they would be elated talking about their favorite superhero. When we would pass out comics, they would line up just to get a comic with one of their favorite heroes on it,” he said. “I wanted to develop a unit that supported their passions and their interests.”

So, John-Michael found local cosplayers who could teach him what it means to be a cosplayer and why they dress up and do this for children.

The cosplay unit recently hosted a kids’ lunch at their chapter, where nobles outfitted as superheroes joined the kids in eating and watching cartoons. This colorful crew fundraises, too, accepting gigs to organize trunk-or-treats, fun fairs and even haunted houses, dressed as Ghostbusters of course. The group makes appearances at events such as Free Comic Book Day or the drop of a new game or comic series. All these events add up, allowing them to have fun and stay active while raising money that they put back into their operations.

mean wearing Ghostbusters costumes a nd several children

‘Ghostbusters’ appearing at a school where they teach an anti-bullying and inclusion program

Clowning Around

John-Michael, who had a successful career in the military, first became a Shriner in San Antonio, Texas, with the Alzafar Shriners. One of the many committees he was involved with was the clowns, known as the Nemnufs. This experience gave him the opportunity to go to the Shriners Children’s hospitals in Texas to cheer up the children.

“From there, I found my niche performing as a clown reading books and doing voices while reading. This then led me to just sitting down and talking with the kids and learning that many of them were fans, like all children, of Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, the X-Men, the Avengers, and a plethora of other heroes and pop culture series,” he said.

During the COVID pandemic, John-Michael performed voice acting for the kids through Zoom by reading books to them virtually, whether it was in a hospital, classroom, event center, community center, church, or even in their own homes.

“I performed for kids and got to learn what interests them the most,” he said.

In 2021, John-Michael and his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he became a Ballut Abyad Shriner and continued to use his Shriners social group to perform for children.

“The first actual cosplay unit we developed was a Ghostbusters unit, and we started performing at schools teaching children about Shriners Children's and what the hospitals do for the children,” John-Michael said. “That quickly evolved into an anti-bullying and inclusion program that had the cosplayers dressed up as superheroes. We asked the children not to be bullies to kids with medical issues.”

man wearing superman costume, shriner and child

John-Michael Phillips wearing his fez at an event alongside Superman and his daughter

The Hero In All of Us

Ballut Abyad then partnered with an Albuquerque non-profit that supports children, called Blessed and Beautiful.

“They reached out to us, because they saw what Shriners Children’s does and the children we help,” he said. “In many aspects, we share a common core ideology.”

The two groups, wanting to do something for the community and for Shriners Children’s patients, created the Comic/Cosplay called The Hero In All of Us. That name gives a nod to the idea that everyone – a child, an adult, a patient, the friend of a patient – has the ability to be a hero and stand up against bullying when they see it.

The great thing about a Shriners unit pairing up with a community organization is that they are able to teach the younger generation about Shriners. John-Michael said they’ve had quite a few high school kids who want to be a part of Shriners join the unit as part of its auxiliary support committee.

“It shows that Shriners are still here for our community,” he said.

two children wearing costumes, two shriners

Left: John-Michael Phillips' young daughters dressed up like Ghostbusters. Right: John-Michael Phillips posing with his daughter and another man, holding up superhero artwork at an event.

Shriner Story: Meet John-Michael Phillips

Get to know John-Michael Phillips, a member of Ballut Abyad Shriners in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who started Cause-Players, a cosplay unit for a cause.
View Transcript

Speaker 1:

I became a Shriner about six, almost seven years ago now, same thing that inspired me to become a Freemason was my grandfather. And as a way to reconnect with him, I joined Freemasonry. And after he passed, I always remembered him as being a Shriner. And my first thing to do was to get into the Shriners, just to be part of what he was part of. So one of the units I started was the cosplayers. We cosplay for a cause. Of course, that causes Shriners Children's. We dress up as superheroes, everything from Ghostbusters to Spiderman, Superman. We march in the parades. We actually advocate for anti-bullying and inclusion programs in our community by going to street fairs, going to schools. We've even been asked to meet Shrine patients in their schools and advocate for them at that level. And so it's one thing to be told being a bully is wrong or it's one thing to be told being inclusive is a good thing, but when Superman comes up and tells you it, it changes the way you do it.

Everybody in today's society, especially in my generation, say I want to be part of something bigger. Getting in the Freemasonry meant a lot, but getting into the shrine, I actually have seen things I've done make a change. And you want to be part of something that big. Being a Shriner has definitely changed me. When I got out of the military, I was lost. It's structured. People are held to a certain standard. You can look to someone who has rank over you and assume they could be your mentor. And when I got out, I was a young husband, I was a young father. I was 24 hours from the closest relative, someone I could rely on all the time. And getting into Masonry and the Shrine gave me mentors.

But we have a young guns group that's doing some newer things that are helping out with our young guys. They like to do things like October Fest, whiskey tastings, social hour for a purpose, not Social hour, for the purpose of just being there. If I wasn't a Shriner, I'd be lost. I was at a place where I needed the fraternity. I needed the brotherhood. It was one of those things where I didn't know how to act outside the military. It was such a part of my social life that I was clinging to everything and maybe overdoing it. You'd hang out with a friend, they'd be like, "Let's go do this. Let's go do that." And you kind of clung to them because it was your new social network, video games, hobbies. I felt empty. I didn't have a greater purpose.

And so my wife said it all the time. I got into Freemasonry. And well, it was a little boring sometimes. She said, "I have no problem spending an hour or two at the lodge with the other ladies while you're there. You guys plan stuff." And she's like, "You seem happier and less antsy." And when I got into Shrine, she honestly said, "I've never seen you more involved in something." And she enjoyed being around me that way and being passionate in that way.

It is hard to kind of think, what would I be? Becoming a Shriner has definitely made me a better man. I know we see it on the posters, it's out there. It kind of sounds like a line, but it's not. So having a young family, I do. And having a wife that wants to be active, I have two young daughters and we cosplay together. We dress up the car like a Ghostbuster car. We drive in the parade. We go to the Comic-Con. It can do multiple stages. It can do as a young man with nothing. It can do it as a young family man. You can do it as a man whose children are about to leave him, and you can do it as a man who's about to retire. There is a stage and a season in Shriners always for a man. The great thing about Shriners, Shriner's Children or the transportation Fund, it's specific.

A group of Shriners down in Tampa, a group of Shriners down in San Antonio, Cheyenne, Wyoming, or even Albuquerque, when we raise money, there's a possibility that each of those dollars is going to the same kid. We could all look on television and go, that kid is where they are today because of the brisket we cooked ,the apple orchards, things that we did. I had the ability to go to Galveston as a clown and read books afterwards in a suit with just a nose. And so there was a kid that had been burned at least 70 plus percent of his body, his face, his arms, and he was from Mexico. And we didn't speak the same language, but we spoke to each other and he would teach me things. And even though he was completely wrapped in pain, because he would stop every once in a while and stop, when I commented on his face mask and things of that nature, he stood up on the bed and struck a pose and did the arm things and just got so excited.

And we spent 15 minutes talking, or he spent 15 minutes talking. And I nodded very, very much so in agreeance with whatever he said. And I broke down multiple times because he had been in there for I think a couple of months. And mom was like, "This is the most excited he's been because he was a child who had a fandom of something. It was Mexican based wrestling." And he was excited that I was excited. He'd say a word and I would question it. Oh, I'd say the word back to him in a question. And he'd go, "Yes, yes." And he'd explain it. And it was so overwhelming. I came home to my wife and I said, "If I never do another thing in the world, I want to come back and just support those kids." And I tell the story to other people and they go, "I've been there too. I was there."

I've met men, 80 years old, 50 years old, 20 years old. And we all have the same aspect. I tell people, if I could try to describe it, it's like taking a breath so big that your lungs hurt because that's what it feels like to talk to them and know that they're excited for you when you meet them. That's the connection. This kid received treatment from the hundreds of thousands of Shriners who raised at least a dollar to help him out.

So one of the questions I'm always asked is, why superheroes? Why be a superhero? My daughter actually is probably the first one who came up with the idea that that was daddy's superhero outfit when you put on the hat. So it led to that, that and kids like superheroes. Our unit, the cosplayers, has a unique opportunity we do each year going forward. Now that we finally got chartered and got going, we're going to call it the hero in all of us. It celebrates children because children are heroes when they stand up against bully, when they stand up against diversity. And that's what our Shrine patients are. They're children of extreme situations that didn't ask for this. It wasn't their fault. And here they are having to embrace it. That's why I love going to the hospitals. But then again, the Shriners who are involved, they're also heroes. And I want them to know that too. You're not just a man who puts on a funny hat and drives a little car in a parade.

When a child sees this hat, it's your logo. It is your chess piece. It is when you stand to the wind and your cape falls back, you are a hero. That's why we say the hero in all of us. Shriners think sometimes that they're just fundraising. Shriners think sometimes that they're just showing up to help. A lot of them don't realize what they do in the long run, that they truly save lives. And I have the ability to say that because I've met ambassadors. I've met children from hospitals who say that. I actually had the luxury of meeting a woman who was 62 years old. And she said had it not been for Shriners, she was told as a little girl, not only would she never walk, but she'd never have the ability to have children. And when we were together, she introduced me to at least five of her grandchildren.

And a 62-year-old woman hugged me and thanked me for the work I did as if my work was the reason she was walking today. And it dawned on me that's not because she sees me as an individual Shriner, she sees Shriner as this superhero standing with its red cape flowing in the back, the fez ready to take on the world and save children. And so when a Shriner becomes a Shriner, that's one of the things you get to do. You get to be a hero and it's in you. You just need to put on the hat, put on your costume and go take on the world.