FAITH IS A PRIVATE ISSUE
I gave the closing keynote at the Artivate Summit last Wednesday. It’s a wonderful conference on art and healing, hosted by the Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston Salem. Obviously the in-person conference was cancelled due to the shutdown but it happened online. So, I gave my keynote on zoom.
The keynote was what is also called a plenary--meaning attended by all participants. It was the final event of the conference and folks who had been taking part in all kinds of workshops and talks would be in attendance.
I didn’t know the word plenary before this summer so I learned something new.
The person who first approached me about taking part in the program was an old friend of mine from LA theater. She’s known my work for many years and followed me as I moved to New York. Then I started The Secret City and she’s watched as the organization has grown over the years.
The angle she was interested in was my work in building community.
So I wrote my talk. I called it: We Need Each Other--Community as Salvation. I added some sexy slides from past events. I talked about growing up in the Mojave desert, in a nuclear family. How I found theater and it saved my life.
I explained to them that several years before discovering theater--I was fifteen when that happened--I had started going to church. I was 12 and my best friend and his mother invited me to come with them one Sunday. They stopped going but I stayed--even getting myself baptized and confirmed at the age of 13.
But what happened for me there that day in the pews wasn’t a religious awakening. I didn’t feel god--I felt the people. The music, the ritual, the sitting together and kneeling together. The call and response. The outfits that the priest and the choir and altar boys wore. I felt the container, and I felt it containing me--and was deeply moved.
When theater came along I dove headlong into a new container. I didn’t quit church, not yet anyway--but I became more inspired and a deeper sense of belonging in performing and the life of the theater.
To me these things--theater and church--felt fairly compatible. A sort of braid of performance, ritual, gathering--both settings were ripe for a young person seeking connection, community.
But ironically, it was in the theater that I found faith. In practices that have been handed down from over centuries. I often say that I believe religion grew out of the theater. Walk into any house of worship and you’ll hear a script, with stories, characters and valuable lessons.
In my twenties I became a spiritual seeker--buddhism, paganism, the radical faeries, I got swept in several new age movements, I hung out with wiccans for a while. Before I moved to New York City I was attending a Congregational Church in Holywood.
The pastor was a gay man. He and his husband worked the services.The church had an extraordinary history of social activism. It was the first integrated congregation in Los Angeles and the congregation still reflected that--black and white families filled the pews. During WW 2, the congregation had bought up property of many Japanese American families and stored their furniture in the basement of the church so that when the Japanese American families were released from the internment camps, they would have homes to return to, businesses to run. Every week the church had a food drive so you’d arrive for Sunday service with a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna, these items were donated to the local food bank. It was a place of service and many of the aspects of that church have informed the community we have today.
It was what is called an open and affirming congregation, meaning I could walk in there and sit down and believe whatever I wanted and still feel welcome. And in that church I experienced service, silence, solace--and, yes, community.
Following the keynote, there was a q and a. One of the questions was from a self identified, “person of faith,” asking how I felt about making work that excluded people of faith.
I was baffled. At no time has my work with The Secret City ever excluded “people of faith.” One of the great things about The Secret City is that all kinds of folks take part--we’ve got jews, atheists, folks from the Ethical Culture Society, buddhists, yogis, tons of pagans, christians, agnostics; we get a lot of children of clergy who have told me they feel healed by our events. The thing that unites us all is art and our reliance upon it. The container of The Secret City holds them as I hope it holds everyone, without asking anyone to believe anything. Meaning, you can believe whatever you want with us. We’re not anti-religion, we’re just not religious. I’ve always loved this quote by the poet Muriel Rukeyser from her epic poem about visiting the ancient caves of Ajanta: ”Try to live as if there were a god.”
Nobody owns faith. As we heard in the etymology, the word faith doesn’t have anything to do with god or religion. It’s the ability to trust. To believe. And--as a side note--it’s not as if religious people are lacking in opportunities for places to gather. But the rest of us? I wanted to make a place for folks like me.
To me, faith is like sex--it’s private. I don’t know what people believe when they come here--and it’s none of my business. My job is to build the container, the thing that holds people together. To provide a period of connection. And I want as many people as possible to take part in that, whatever they believe. Or to believe nothing at all, but to gather with us.
I have found my faith in poems and pictures, songs and shows, dances and movies and photos--all of these things have given me strength. The ability to keep going when I didn’t know how. They’ve helped me trust that life is ok, or it will be ok again soon. It is art that has taught me, strengthened me, made me a better person.