Blessed Union: Religious Communities/Secular Theatres

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June 2014 in Sightings - An online publication of The University of Chicago Divinity School.  Revised in 2017.

Sacred Stages: A Church, a Theatre, and a Story (28 min, 36 sec) is a new documentary film produced by Silk Road Rising, the Chicago-based non-profit theatre company that I co-founded with my life partner, Malik Gillani, in 2002. Malik and I felt galvanized to develop a proactive, artistic response both to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that quickly ensued. Drawing upon Malik’s Pakistani Muslim, and my Syrian Christian heritage, we established as a prevailing metaphor the historic Silk Road and set out to conquer fear, racism, and Islamophobia through the transformative power of storytelling.

That our endeavor would blend artistic and activist impulses was a given — we are activists and artists, after all. We didn’t anticipate, however, that our vision of a theatre company showcasing Asian American and Middle Eastern American playwrights would come to fruition in the basement of a Methodist church. Hence Sacred Stages, which documents the story of this unique and inspiring partnership between the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple –Chicago’s oldest Christian congregation — and Silk Road Rising, a relative newcomer to Chicago’s much-vaunted art and theatre scene.

I must admit, save for the occasional news story about some intra-denominational gay rights squabble, Middle Protestants were so not on my radar in those early days. A blissful, self-imposed exile from the Orthodox Church pretty much summoned up my ecclesiastical status (and still does: love the liturgy, hate the homophobia). But what seemed an unlikely alliance at first soon revealed itself in mission alignment: a religious community, and a secular arts organization, with a shared commitment to storytelling, racial and economic justice, and LGBT inclusion.

Inadvertently, we had each happened upon something inspiring, and the inspiration was in the overlap. Cut from a similar narrative cloth, we had co-authored a theatrical storyline—a horrific tragedy in Manhattan that begets a beautiful marriage in Chicago. Call it a blessed union, and a civil union. Could the written genealogy of Western theatre be traced through church basements, then we could contribute a whole chapter. One that illuminates the intersection of art and religion as being built on not only a performative, but a metadramatic and even spiritual foundation.

Who knew that earning a Master of Arts in Religious Studies degree (1992) from The University of Chicago Divinity School would prove so invaluable to producing theatre? And yet it has, in more ways than I ever imagined.

I like to think there is a theology that encapsulates our relationship with the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. One that appears, at first, artistic for us and religious for them, until it reveals this binary to be utterly false. This isn’t a dichotomous relationship. Thereare throughlines to this work-in-progress; ours relationship that predates either institution individually. Arguably by several millennia.

Churches and theatres share a common origin and come from a place in common. We’re each on a quest for transcendence, and each in the business of storytelling. We use stories to discover and to uncover truths, to evoke empathy, create change, and to elevate the human condition. The power of representation leaves each of us awestruck. When narratives succeed, they can change the heart, mind, and soul, and for the better. We each exist to inspire, to unleash dreams, to offer hope and salvation.

Both churches and theatres revere the written text. We ascribe great meaning to words, narrative, parable, fable, and myth. We are as liturgical as we are theatrical. We stage ritual and dramatize passions, and we each have a penchant for pageantry. We’re performers and drama queens who love production and crave an audience, forever coveting those venerated “butts in seats.” For us, it’s about characters and staging, transitions and plot points, conflict and resolution. We rely heavily on sets and costumes, lighting and sound, props and paraphernalia.

We are sinners and we are holymen, and both hats fit perfectly. We strive to be students as well as teachers; acolytes as well as celebrants. Ours is an eternal journey towards knowledge and wisdom, catharsis and renewal.

In the beginning and at the end of the day, churches and theatres are about building community, sharing collective experience, and communing with the Divine (however we choose to imagine the Divine). Evangelism and discipleship are woven through our shared DNA. We’re missionaries seeking converts. And we will preach to the choir till we’re blue in the face. We each strive to be relevant, to matter, to make a difference, to affect people’s lives, to help people heal. We strive to be timely, yet timeless. We cry for justice, battle for redemption, and speak each our truth to their power. We’re not afraid to recontextualize and reinvent ourselves in response to the 21st Century with its myriad new technologies and degrees of connectedness (and disconnectedness) previously unheard of.

Altars are stages and stages altars. Silk Road Rising and the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple have builded, figuratively, a Sacred Stage. Watch the film and then come for the blessings!

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