When I was still living in Silverlake, there was a church I used to go to. Someone once said that telling people in LA that you go to church is far more dangerous than admitting you do hard drugs or any other shameful vices.
I was first exposed to this church by my neighbor Christine Berry, who made wonderful site-specific performances and she had found this church basement in Los Feliz, at the border between Hollywood and Silverlake. She asked if I wanted to see the space, it might be a good place to do something.
The congregation of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church was founded in 1904. The sanctuary, where the basement was, was built in the early 1920s. The basement was sweet: pale green linoleum floors, diffused light from the small windows up at the ceiling, a small stage at the far end of the room.
Christine and I decided to attend a service to see what the place was all about. This was not a simple decision—Christine had grown up in a difficult religious family and I was a certified and happy heathen, non-religious but seeking. But we got up on a Sunday morning and headed over.
The sanctuary was gracious but not formal, cream walls and tall stained glass windows. The pastor was a doughy-faced fellow who referred to his husband during his sermon, the choir was comprised of mostly old people. But it was the congregation, not very large, that struck me. The pews were filled pretty evenly with black and white people.
The service was sweet, almost non religious, but so deep and meaningful. I sat there crying at the end, moved by the space, more than the content. I think Buddhists would call this equanimity.
The church was the first integrated church in Los Angeles, meaning it was ok for black and white people to worship together. Many of the people present were descended from those early members. In the 1940s, the congregation offered care for the property of Japanese Americans whose homes and businesses were being taken from them when they were being sent off to internment camps. When the war was over, their properties were returned to them. The cross above the altar was made from camphor wood taken from a tree in the yard of a church that had been bombed during Hiroshima. Every pastor the church has ever had has been a pacifist. I attended services there often until I moved away from LA and every month they had a food drive for a different food item—March was peanut butter, September was canned tuna—these foods were donated to the LA food pantry.
On top of all of the amazing social justice and the community history of the place, what struck me most is that I could sit there and think about anything I wanted. I’m not a Christian but I could sit in that Christian space and think about whatever is holy to me, I could look within for what I find sacred, without being told what that should be. This is what made me cry.
That church inspired much of what I wanted to achieve when I founded The Secret City, worship without dogma. Providing people, in our case, artists, art lovers, those who look to art for inspiration, a place to gather, providing solace, connection, community and inspiration.
Over the years of running The Secret City, I’ve never quite managed to successfully address social justice causes. We did do a food drive for several years and donated a lot of food to the food bank of New York City. Partly this is because I want to remember at all times that we are an arts organization, art is where we find meaning. And yet, in my experiences, art spaces have a tendency to be quite segregated. The theater companies I’ve belonged to always had one or two people of color in predominantly white companies. And The Secret City audience, in spite of good intentions and dedication to representation, our community has always been predominantly white.
The word of the day is RACE. Because even in the midst of a global pandemic and all that it has brought, some white cop has managed to murder a black man in broad daylight in view of bystanders. And three other cops stood there and helped it to happen. At this point it’s got to dawn on us that some part of our nation likes its racism.
We are capable of creating a new world and for those of us who are artists, or conscious, creative people—we have an even greater ability to influence the thing being made.
I’m scared of talking about race, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, offend someone, turn someone off--but as the leader of this community, I invite us all to engage with this messy, scary challenge. I invite all of us, whatever your platform or influence, to address the racism at the heart of our country and, if you’re white, like me, at the heart of ourselves, too.
Race is a construct. Created by people to make distinctions between those who look different from one another usually for purposes of gaining or maintaining power. There is no biological basis for these differences. And yet, for something so shifting and changeable, race is not an illusion. It has a real impact on human bodies, especially those with less power than the dominant folks.
In all of my years of making things, books, plays, songs, dances, bands, communities, I have learned that there is nothing better than to just dive in. If we want to create a new idea of race, let us, the creators, dive in to the mess, begin. Scared of what we’re doing, at least we’ll be on our way