Artistic Acts of Encounter: Seeking the Divine in Community Stories Untold
by Jamilah George
With an ever-growing passion for the fine and performing arts, coupled with obedience to a call to carry out the gospel of Jesus Christ, the members of Holy Trinity Anglican Church possess a fiery passion to transform their church and greater community. “The whole thing is relational and about community building,” the rector, Dr. Christopher Pappas, mentioned during the church’s self-introduction on the first day of the seminar. From the outset, it was clear that Holy Trinity is deeply concerned with utilizing art, not only to create community, but to also provoke discussion, and even to formulate faith – that of both the congregants and the artists themselves.
Holy Trinity Anglican Church is an urban, and variously diverse, 400-family congregation, located in the entertainment quarter of Edmonton, Alberta. As one might imagine, the church is extremely artistic with several resident artists; two of whom, the journalist in residence, Margaret Macpherson, and the playwright in residence, David Belke, were present at the Congregations Project this year, along with the rector. Holy Trinity is also a very choral parish: it has both a sung and a spoken Eucharist on Sundays, has four different choirs, and has presented several different concert series. The church also has a history of musical theatre (dating back to 1903), having completed numerous musicals, such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Jesus Christ Super Star.” It comes as no surprise that the congregation’s mission statement is “Making Christ Visible through the Arts.” This mission articulates the church’s unabashed commitment to both the ministry of Jesus Christ and the beauty of art and art-making in community with others. They believe that by simply putting themselves out into the community, God is working through them, creating opportunities for encounter.
During their project session, Rev. Chris highlighted two types of art: art that is for light, and art that is used to reveal light. He emphasizes that their project is about the latter; they are engaged in art, but not for art’s sake. The art they make is “pointing to something beyond themselves,” something that transcends who it is that they are. At the same time, they acknowledge that in the process of making art, one must dig deep, probing and looking within the self; in so doing, there lies an encounter with the divine. “If we believe that God is within us, then there is an act of encounter in the act of creating [art],” Rev. Chris suggested. This approach allows the church to pique the interests of a larger number of people, in that discussions do not begin (or even end) as overtly Christian. The challenge then is that, though it is artistic, it is in fact a Christian ministry. Margaret’s response to the core of this challenge is that, “the art is one of the ways that we are telling the good news because that’s what redeems us—life in Christ!”
Through the planned project, “Who Goes There: God’s Presence in Transitional Moments,” Holy Trinity is committed to formulating a dramatic production made up of the stories of people from their larger community. Their hope is to share in a communal experience where God might be found in the midst of that community. They will listen to stories about birth, death, marriage, divorce, and other often shared experiences, seeking to find commonality among them; connect resonant images; and, finally, craft a drama for the community. As they begin this work, the process begs the question, “how can we shape [their stories] into the comfort, joy, and love that we find in Jesus Christ?” Yet they are confident that the stories they gather, from secular and non-churched people, will demonstrate that there is still joy and comfort in the good news of the Christian narrative, despite the pain and grief of some of our stories. The production will convey the notion that, with God, transitional moments contain meaning and purpose for life.
David, as the playwright, is seeking as rich a gathering of stories as possible, in order to help people recognize the presence of the holy in their lives and find counterpoints that are both unique and shared. He noted the community value found in such commonality: “though we are different, we share the same life-changing experiences and milestones: privileged and non, educated and non, and so on.” Planning to “spread the net as wide as possible,” he also emphasized the beauty and the value of difference in the community and the different points of view on the same topics. “It won’t be a static project,” he reminded us, “it will imaginatively open doors and continue to evolve, change, and grow.”
The drama that will emerge, Margaret suggested, “is a marriage between the sacred and the secular. It will be a worship service, but also a performance.” The piece will incorporate art into the liturgy, including a dramatic interpretation of the Gospel reading, congregation engagement during the production, storytelling, visual art, dance, a sermon done half-spoken and half sung, and so on. It will be a living document, tailored to the people present and inspired by true stories. Rev. Chris plans for the audience members to be engaged the entire time, “not just watching then at the end saying ‘hear our prayer.’”
Though there is much excitement and many expectations around what will come of this process and production, the shape of the larger narrative to be told is unknown. What they do know is that, though it may or may not have a “happy ending,” it will arrive at a place where we recognize that our stories, too, are found in God’s story. It will not lose sight of the Gospel narrative, but it also will not restrict the development and outcome of the larger collaborative and communal story. They hope it to be a cyclical production in that ministry will flow from the church to the artists, the artists to the community, and the community back to the church. As the gathering of stories commences, Rev. Chris, Margaret, and David will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as they shape and connect the stories into one fluid, communal, and transformative piece of art.