Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Yes, Lets..." a Yale Student's reflection on the RW Spiritual Arts Collective Project

Yes, Lets…
The Spiritual Arts Collective Project of Robertson-Wesley United Church, Edmonton, Alberta.
Reverend Karen Bridges put down her blue pen and picked up a red one.  Presently, she put down the red pen in favor of a black one.  And then, back to red.  When she noticed my raised eyebrows, she smiled and slid her sketchbook over the table to give me a closer look.

“Red is for important themes.”  She whispered.

The page was a pastiche of color—her notes meandering and clustering capriciously over its expanse. 

“Plenty of red,” she said, sotto voce.

We were in the midst of the first plenary on the first day of the ISM Congregations Project, and though our feet were barely wet, it was already abundantly clear (or should I say “red”) that Karen, was getting a lot out of it. 

And the casual way that Karen took the pedestrian act of taking notes and gave it panache… well, it was more then charming—it was a welcome confirmation of my best hope.  I’d read the profile for the Robertson-Wesley United Church (henceforth “RWUC”) and was impressed by the barely contained dynamism I found there.  This church, I thought, was poised to try new and exciting things.

RWUC’s website identifies Reverend Karen Bridges as their “Minister of Congregation and Community Development” a title smacks a bit too corporate until it dawns on you that Karen herself is that “and” in human form – the one that connects congregation and community.  With a double-major bachelor’s in theater and religion, over a decade of youth ministry work, a Master of Theological Studies from St. Stephen's College and a denominational diploma from Vancouver School of Theology to her credit, Reverend Bridges’ has perfected the art of transforming potential energy into kinetic energy, idea into action, notion into movement, theology into praxis. 

Add Tammy-Jo Mortensen, RWUC’s music director and Casey Edmunds, an accomplished dancer/choreographer and singer, to the mix, and performance spontaneously generates.  To introduce themselves and their church, a slide show by itself just wouldn’t cut it.  Pictures of the RWUC community appeared in counterpoint with the verses of an anthem that sang an ethic of radical inclusivity. The positive present tense-ness of RWUC’s spirit came through Tammy-Jo’s legato meditations from the piano and Casey’s encircling, gestural dance.  The cycle even included an impromptu painting that was revealed at its conclusion.

It was a risky move – it might easily have bombed.  But no—it was impressive.  Hitting the sweet spot between “too many cooks in the kitchen” and “many hands make light work” RWUC’s introduction was the product of a functioning collective of artistic minds.  Artistic minds brought together by the spirit.

And the point was manifestly evident to all present: RWUC’s introduction-cum-performance was, itself, an elegant rendering—an enactment in living modes—of the project that Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey had come all the way from Alberta to perfect.

Spiritual Arts Collective
The Spiritual Arts Collective Project springs organically from the Matthian promise sown into RWUC’s mission statement – that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," (Matt 18:20).  The project’s central premise is that collaborative creativity (where two or three are gathered) is a process that, by its very nature, summons the spirit (I am there).  The art that results gives new meaning to both church and community.

But creativity, that evanescent and unpredictable sprite, cannot be taken for granted – it must be wooed.  To this end, Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey have been brainstorming the logistics of fruition. Fortunately, each of them has experience being an artist in a collective project, and each also has relevant administrative experience.  They’ve walked the walk so they’re prepared to talk the talk.

The fulcrum around which RWUC’s Spiritual Arts Collective Project will turn is none other than our gifted friend Casey Edmunds, who is its grant-funded program curator.  Casey will, in consultation with his colleagues Karen and Tammy-Jo, publicize and promote the project during church events, in this way assembling the curious.  He will then recruit four artists-in-residence (poets? painters? dancers? musicians? videographers?) who’s flint will ignite the gathered tinder. A premium will be placed on artistic freedom—guidance being limited to the prescription of an overarching theme.  The resulting alchemy will have 2 months to mature and form into a collaborative work of art that, upon completion, will be presented to the larger community (including but not limited to the congregation). The cycle will then repeat, making use of lessons learned.

It’s a risky move.  To be sure, there is no lack of precedent for the collaborative efforts of artists and ecclesial bodies – but unlike the sculptors and glaziers of Medieval Europe who were firmly under the thumb of their pious taskmasters, 21st century artists who have Dadaism and the avant-garde at their beck, may not be so obliging.  A collective that sets sail with little more then a theme to fill its sails and an artist at its helm, may soon find itself in uncharted waters.  The results may be threatening or subversive.  How does RWUC’s ethos square with this possibility?

When I asked Karen this question, she matter-of-factly placed her trust in the wisdom of the collective and the presence of the spirit. To hobble artistic freedom would be tantamount to clipping the wings of the spirit.  The whole idea at the heart of the Spiritual Arts Collective is that art, in its present tense, creates as God created.  Besides, are we so sure that the artist is the only threat? Who knows, maybe it is through the incendiary matrix of art and gospel that we can be recalled to the destabilizing strain within the truths that Jesus taught us.

Effective art is threatening because it is about transformation.  A similar assertion can certainly be made about the church – though in church, the threat is decidedly inflected by a community’s awareness of the love of God.  The beauty of RWUC’s Spiritual Arts Collective Project is that it yokes the artist’s personal transformative power, giving it expression within the context of a community’s corporate commitment to a God of Love, a God of Justice, a God of radical inclusion. 

It is not hard to hear the palpable excitement in Casey’s voice when the mercurial possibilities of the Spiritual Arts Collective Project brim forth. What does art look like when its spiritual and its artistic integrity remain intact?  What strange and wonderful creature is born when its DNA is woven with neither fellowship hall piety nor wine-and-cheese posturing? How will the use of sacred space alter the crucible of the creative mind?  How, in turn, will the personal imperatives of the artist’s inclinations radiate outward through the collective to influence a church community’s vision of itself?  These unknowns are at the heart of the Spiritual Arts Collective Project.  These questions are its lifeblood—questions that the RWUC team asks, no matter the answer.  It is by taking such risks that we show our commitment, as Dr. David Bartlett put it during RWUC’s plenary session, to “help people discover their souls.”

A Jubilee of Cross-pollination
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. When the representatives of nine churches from many denominations converge from all over the United States and Canada and dive into a dialogue jump started by top-notch theologians…well, marvelous things happen.  The ISM Congregations Project is an example par excellence of a phenomenon whose product is far greater then the sum of its parts.  And since those parts are all so excellent, that’s saying a lot.

It was within this habitat of collegiality that it gradually became apparent that certain congregations could, by virtue of their particularity, be depended upon to give voice to certain theological or practical inclinations.  The chaplains from St. Olaf College, for example, brought to the table the variable of physical space, as they brainstormed ways to engage students, while the team from St. Paul’s Episcopal in Richmond, Virginia struggled with the contrasting narratives of its slave market history, and its social justice present. 

RWUC’s contribution to the jubilee of ecclesial cross-pollination was its strong bent toward movement.  Many of the week’s worship services, for example, shamelessly availed themselves of the rich addition of Casey’s fine liturgical dance.  In plenary discussions too, Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey frequently weighed in with suggestions that privileged the kinetic, the physical, the in-the-moment quality of liturgy as embodied theology.

During the plenary discussion brainstorming the project brought by the First United Church of Christ of Northfield Minnesota, for example, Karen recommended an activity that she’d picked up in her days doing improv that she has since used to good effect in church settings.  The activity, which she called “Yes, lets…” involved a circle of participants who would take turns suggesting a simple physical movement with the word: “Let’s…”  For example: “Let’s pray with our hands.”  In unison, the rest of the circle responds with “Yes, lets...” and performs the action.

This simple activity, with its two-word title says a great deal about the Christian world-view. Like church itself, it depends fundamentally on community – on a coming together: “Let’s.”  And like church, it situates transformation within a community that affirms: “Yes.” 

RWUC embeds itself in the life of the larger Edmonton community by actively collaborating in the development of its cultural riches.  With its Spiritual Arts Collective Project the church reaches out with courage and integrity, asking the artist community to come out and play.  I think I know how the artist community of Edmonton will respond to the invitation.

“Yes, lets…”

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