Using the Church’s Empty Spaces for Theater and the Arts
By Jerry Miller
Ed. Note: This is the personal Foreword to a forthcoming book about how to combine ministry, theater, and the arts by a former campus minister who did just that. His story is so engaging and inspiring that I wanted to include it in our Sages collection. It illustrates how our ministries on campus also nurture US and prepare us for further callings in other stages of our lives!
I have started theaters in four churches in the Chicago area from the ground up over the last 14 years with the help of others both within the church and in the community. Let me tell you a little bit about my journey and how I came to this place of passion .
When I was 13 years old I was the narrator for the Putnam Junior High School Christmas Pageant in Oklahoma City. The only role available for me in the pageant, other than the narrator, was the role of a shepherd. I didn’t want to be just a shepherd in the pageant and besides most of the shepherds were playing poker backstage while the rest of the pageant was going on. It didn’t seem that they were really into the story of Mary and Joseph and the babe in swaddling clothes in the manger.
I loved having the chance to narrate the play. I loved the spotlight shining on me and my ability to move the audience emotionally as I read the words of Scripture and contemporary narrative. It was magic. I was home. Everybody told me how wonderful I was. My mom said, “When people tell you how wonderful you are just tell them that it is a gift that God gave you.” And I thought to myself, “I worked really hard on this; why should I tell them that?” Even then my ego was a little inflated. But my mom was right. It was a gift.
My dad didn’t like the idea of my being an actor. He wanted me to become a minister because acting was “sissy” stuff but my mom liked the idea of me being in theater, and she chauffeured me to all my acting events.
In deference to my dad, I chose the ministry although that was not the only reason. The church had nurtured me and loved me as a young person. I was involved with regional youth events and camps. I was elected to youth leadership positions in the Disciples of Christ Church in Oklahoma and was encouraged and mentored to enter the ministry. And the church also nurtured me to use my gift of acting Dr. Ralph Stone and Reverend Royce Makin of the Disciples of Christ denomination created opportunities for me to perform in the plays that they had written for Crown Heights Christian Church in Oklahoma City, as well as at regional events for Disciples of Christ Churches both within and without the state. So it was the church that enabled me to use my gifts of ministry and acting. And it was also a minister in the church who literally saved my life.
I grew up as a young gay man in the ’60s in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma– a difficult experience. At school I was told by peers who were not in my church group or theater group, that to be gay was a sin, that it was wrong, and that God didn’t make “queers.” I was beaten up. I was yelled at. I was rejected by the majority of my peers at school. This was a painful journey and I contemplated suicide at the age of 15. But I found solace in the church and on the stage. From the church, I learned in Vacation Bible School that “Jesus loved me and all the little children of the world.” It was a youth minister who encouraged me to continue my journey even when I wanted to end it all. I am eternally grateful for the unconditional love of Reverend Ken Compton. In theater I found an inclusive community. I felt safe with these adventurous and talented people. They enjoyed acting as much as I did. I set a goal to win the Drama Award in both junior high and high school, and I did!
I received my undergraduate degree from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, a small private religious university funded by the Disciples of Christ. I loved Phillips, where I was included and had great fun being a member of the Varsity Fraternity, serving as Vice-President of the Phillips Student Senate and parliamentarian for the Oklahoma State Student Senate and as a dorm counselor. I was exposed to a larger world by later living in a large city as compared to the small town of Enid, but I will always be grateful to Phillips because it offered me many opportunities for leadership; I was also able to take a study trip to Europe and visit nine countries on a trip led by Dr. Robert Simpson, my philosophy professor who made me fall in love with philosophy.
After graduating in 1967, I attended Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. My friend Lance Roberds encouraged me to attend Perkins rather than continue my graduate education in Theology at Phillips because he felt that Dallas would be a larger arena for coming into contact with people at the forefront of social justice.
My roommate at Perkins served as the Student Body President. The Dean of Perkins at the time asked my roommate to let him know if there were any “gay” students as he would “like to weed them out.” So I was very closeted during my time in Theology School, but I am happy to say that my roommate friend is now a Bishop in the United Methodist Church and very supportive of my journey. Perkins School of Theology, despite the homophobia of the Dean, was great in instructing me about injustice and oppression. The Vietnam War was going on at the time and we were taught that it was not a “Just War.” I participated in rallies against the war, and I remember seeing members of the CIA taking photos of people in the crowd.
I learned about racial injustice when I picketed a “Whites Only” washateria across from the S.M.U. campus. I was asked by an undergraduate student who had initiated and led the picket for several months to continue as the leader because he had grown weary, and his studies were suffering due to the time required of him. Several Perkins professors and theology students joined me in the picket, and eventually there was a resolution with the owner of the washeteria and the sign was taken down. But I saw first hand the hate directed at people of color. The (? Dallas?) police would arrest us unless we kept moving and had $5.00 in our pocket; the American Nazi party came out in their uniforms and threatened us; many Southern Methodist undergraduates would drive by and yell “N…….Lover;” and the owner placed a sprinkler hose outside so our shoes and pants would get wet during the winter. But because we picketed and persisted in dialogue with the owner, the sign finally came down.
I went to my first gay bar on a field trip at Perkins designed to desensitize me to the gay population in Dallas and how to minister to them. There, I talked to our “tour” guide who had a friend who was 16 and suicidal and asked me to visit with him. I was sent into a poorer, all black section of Dallas to survey people about their medical needs. The experience of being the only “white” person in the neighborhood was eye opening. My time in Dallas expanded my experience with different cultures, political issues, and the arts.
After Perkins I served as Director of The Corner at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. The Corner was a community arts and recreation center that had an afterschool program for “latch key” youth, a summer day camp program, and a variety of activities for all ages. The program also hosted Emeritus Educational and Arts courses for Older Adults. Unfortunately, all the creative emerging ministries at Highland Park UMC were disbanded because the church was suffering budget deficit, but I will always be grateful to Reverend Bill Dickinson, the pastor who was so supportive of creative ministries prior to his death.
After my service at Highland Park United Methodist Church, I served as Minister of Education at First Christian Church in Denton, Texas, where I produced my first play with the youth group. We grew a youth choir that started with four people and, with the help of our Youth Choir Director, expanded to 50 youth.
Back in Dallas, I worked as a campus minister for the Greater Dallas Community of Churches Community College Ministry, where I had the opportunity to meet such people as Robert Short, the author of the Gospel According Peanuts, and Maggie Kuhn who started the Gray Panthers to fight against ageism in all its forms. Maggie Kuhn taught me that there are no limits due to age. Kuhn was an outstanding advocate for older adults, and I was later inspired by her to produce a play on successful aging called Don’t Wait Up for Me at Lincoln Square Arts Center in Chicago.
Maggie also inspired me to write a course with twenty of my older adult friends at the Mesquite Senior Center in Denton, Texas entitled “Successful Aging.” It was the only course in the 1970’s written and taught by older adults. This course was recognized by the National Science Foundation, and I was invited to attend a conference on “Society and the Senior Citizen” with other persons on the forefront of addressing the needs of seniors in Higher Education.
Under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Betsy Alden at GDCCC, I was able to create a workshop and course book on Successful Aging, an Emeritus Chorus and Senior Citizen Camp, and, inspired by the model created by Noel Buell in California, I started an Emeritus Institute for seniors on three of the campuses of the Dallas Community Colleges. This was an innovative concept at the time—an “idea whose time had come,” and I was at the forefront of this movement to develop Lifelong Learning opportunities. Seniors could take community college courses from the community service division for only $5.00, so I hired the teachers and created a variety of courses, including Computers, How to Create Your Own Cable TV Show, Book Studies, and Basic Acting. We also published a book containing the “oral histories” of some of these students to give to their families.
Through the Praxis Project that was part of our ministry on campus, we placed undergraduate students as volunteers in over 50 social service agencies in Dallas, and many of them had a chance to work with the older population in senior citizen centers and nursing homes This service-learning model, in which student service was part of their academic coursework, was replicated on many other campuses across the country.
After serving 8 years for the Greater Dallas Community of Churches Community College Ministry, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to work in an Antique Shop and Art Gallery that my mother had opened. We carried the works of a variety of artists including my older brother Willis and my sister Sallie. We also sold Indian jewelry made by our friends from the Pueblos, and I worked for five dollars an hour in my mother’s shop. I lived with my mom, and when I wasn’t working in the shop I pursued my acting career, performing in several productions of Santa Fe’s Shakespeare in the Park. I took acting classes from Nicholas Ballas, secured a talent agent, and earned my Screen Actor’s Guild Card. I acted in a lot of plays in Santa Fe but I had done about all I could do with my acting career there.
At the age of 50, I made a big move–I decided to go back to school to obtain my MFA in acting. To be considered for a professional acting school at the time you had to audition for the University Regional Theatre Audition Committee before two judges. My regional audition was at the University of Arizona, and the two judges had to agree that you had talent in order for you to be passed on to the national auditions. At the regional audition, I performed two monologues and sang a song. The audition site had a tape recorder for us to use, but there was something wrong with the volume control on the tape recorder, and I could not hear the music as I sang. The two judges passed me on to the national audition but told me, “Please do not sing at the next audition.” Luckily, I can now sing in musicals after taking voice classes. And I am very thankful for my current vocal coach, Marc Embree at DePaul University in Chicago.
The national audition was in Long Beach, California. I remember students some 30 years younger than I was asking me if I was a judge or professor. I informed them that I was auditioning to attend graduate school as a student. I felt quite comfortable auditioning for graduate school as an older adult. As I learned from Maggie Kuhn “There are no limits. Use It or Lose It.” Here, there were about twenty judges from various professional schools of acting in the United States. I was nervous, to say the least. I did my best and I did not sing. The auditions were in the morning, and in the afternoon, each person who had auditioned was handed an envelope with a list of the schools that wanted to interview you as possible MFA candidates. I was thrilled to be invited for interviews by five schools .
It is very hard to get into a professional school of acting for a graduate degree. Most schools take five to ten students per year. Some graduate schools take a lot more than ten and tell the students that they will get scholarships in their second year but then cut many from the program after the first year. It seems unfair but this is the way it is. After the interviews in Long Beach, I was extended an invitation by the University of South Carolina to be a graduate MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Acting) candidate. Attending a professional acting school was something I had always wanted to do. I was honoring a lifelong love.
The MFA program at the University of South Carolina is a three-year program– two years taking classes, teaching classes to undergraduates in acting and public speaking, and performing in main stage productions; then the third year is an internship. My internship was at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I was the first MFA acting candidate from the University of South Carolina to intern (most students interned at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.), and being there was a tremendous experience. It is a “state of the art theater” with incredible productions and a large subscribership. The theatre can seat up to 4,086 people. I understudied most of the major male roles of the season and performed small roles in the productions. . I had the opportunity to meet and work with Actors Equity Union actors from all over United States and even a director from Russia who directed his adaptation of The Gambler, a short novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky reflecting on his own addiction to Roulette. Included in the roles I understudied, were the father in Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello and the role of the father, the tenant farmer Phil Hogan, in Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill.
After my internship in Milwaukee, I moved to Chicago. I had acquired my union cards in both the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and I worked as an Equity actor quite a bit the first two years in Chicago, but acting does not pay well so I decided to enter the corporate world, working as a trainer for Arthur Anderson. (But I continued to perform in local Chicago Theaters in the Evening). I worked at Arthur Andersen for almost five years when the firm was indicted in June of 2002 for obstruction of justice for shredding documents pertaining to its audit of Enron. The indictment put 28,000 people out of work in the United States and 85,000 people living outside of the US. The Supreme Court removed the indictment in May of 2005 on the basis of the jury not being given clear instructions on what it was to decide.
It has been said that God does not shut one door without opening another one. Someone also said that the journey in the hallways leading to the next door can be difficult. But as a result of Arthur Anderson closing its doors, I I made some interesting detours along my journey! I generated income by cleaning houses, being a personal assistant to a doctor friend, and serving as a part-time executive assistant. I was very poor.
I started attending Berry Memorial United Methodist Church in Chicago– just a couple of blocks away from where I lived. I served on several committees at the church and suggested to the pastor, Reverend Sherry Lowly, who was quite receptive, that we do a play. The play was Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis. The play has two characters, Mark, a bisexual seminarian, and Father Farley, an alcoholic Catholic Priest. It is a story of a friendship that occurs even though Mark and Father Farley are at the opposite ends of the theological spectrum and demonstrates how religious institutions can be oppressive to an individual’s life and journey. I have initiated this play at three theaters that I have started.
After the play in 2001 a Fine Arts Committee was formed to create a season of plays at Berry Memorial UMC, and Dr. Marti Scott, who was the District Superintendent of the Northwestern District of the United Methodist Church at that time, appointed me as a part-time Minister of Fine Arts with Bishop Joe Sprague’s endorsement. A group of talented artists within and without the church formed a Fine Arts Committee at Berry and we established the Lincoln Square Arts Center, including Beast on the Moon, Godspell, The Gin Game, The Normal Heart, David and Lisa, Angels in America, and Bang Bang You’re Dead. The Lincoln Square Arts Center continues to this day and, since 2001, has produced nearly 30 plays.
Since that first theater was established, I have created three other theaters in United Methodist Churches in cooperation with others from both within and outside the church. I served as Artistic Director/Minister of Fine Arts at the James Downing Theatre at Edison Park United Methodist Church in Chicago, Passion Theatre at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park and am currently working with Edge Theatre at Epworth United Methodist Church in Chicago. I owe a great deal of gratitude to. Reverend Dr. Marti Scott who placed me in three of these positions of ministry. Had it not been for her there would be no story to tell.
As a result of all these experiences, I believe that overcoming oppression and rejection to arrive at a place of self -love has made me more sensitive to issues of social justice. And I believe that theater, in conjunction with the church, can address social justice issues in an extremely significant way– not just for LGBTQ people but for oppression wherever it occurs.
Today I am an active actor, director, writer, grant writer, producer and consultant to churches on doing theater in their empty spaces. I retired from full-time ministry in October of 2012 but continue to perform, write and produce arts events for churches. The church has encouraged me to fight for justice for those living on the margins–to be the Body of Christ for the world.
The theatre has demonstrated inclusiveness, creativity, and communicating through the art form. Addressing social justice issues through theatre in the church has been and continues to be my passion, and my hope is that this book inspires and encourages you to do theater in your church’s “empty spaces” for social justice.
Empty Space: Creating a Theater in Your Church, Step by Step by Jerry Miller will be published by Amazon in October, 2014. If you would like to be in touch with Jerry, you can reach him at email@example.com or 773-426-1168.