I was not expecting to meet the Holy Spirit when watching The Color Purple, but I am positive I did.
“God is inside me and everyone else. That is or ever will be.” These were the words I heard sung over me at Bernard B. Jacobs Theater in New York City in the Summer of 2016 watching Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Celie.
I was a newly minted high school theater director at the time, who came very honestly by my love for the art of theater. Unlike most children, I could sing the whole Les Misérables soundtrack for anyone willing to listen by the age of seven.
For much of my life, I was told to not let my love of theater intertwine with my faith. It was understood that there were appropriate forms of worship, like the music selected by the music minister, that fit within the very narrow parameters where the church was comfortable.
Of course, there were outliers – some of my fondest youth group memories were spent waving scarves through the air to “Power in the Blood.”
But I wanted to take that concept of faith and arts further. My disappointment came when I realized that most of the people around me did not believe that God was meeting me in the musicals and stories I found in the theater.
My love for the art of storytelling was first discovered in Sunday school classes in church. I have vivid memories of such fun and creative storytelling, from puppetry to active storytelling with sounds, smells and tastes.
This creativity inspired my love for Scripture, opening my eyes to the love God has for the life and story within each person. I’m reminded of the story of Ruth, with its focus on inclusion and its emphasis on the importance of sharing our stories.
Thanks to the creativity of faithful church leaders, Scripture came alive for me, and I began to recognize the themes of Scripture all around.
After developing this love of people and their stories in the church, I went on to seek out those opportunities at school and in hobbies.
I found the communal nature of theater to be such a life-giving outlet. In the stories we told, I was reminded of the image of God each person carries with them.
The different experiences each character carried with them reminded me of the different experiences I saw in my own community and communities around me. I saw tragic stories of heartbreak and loss, redemptive stories of forgiveness and silly stories of everyday life experiences.
It helped me understand the sacredness in every person and every story before I even understood what it meant for every person to carry the image of God.
In seminary, I learned more about the worship expressions of different denominations and faith traditions.
I was especially excited to hear about the varied worship styles in Black churches, like the use of mime and interpretive dance. From classmates, I heard about the creative ways their current and past congregations have led them in worship.
For someone who desperately wanted her art and faith to go together, it was comforting to know that there were faith traditions already doing it. I was not alone in this hope!
University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, the church I’ve attended during seminary, provided me with language to better understand my dilemma of finding value and sacred moments in what was known to me as “secular art.”
Through their teaching on the false divide between the sacred and secular, UBC encourages their congregants to encounter God in creation, art, culture and the everyday/ordinary.
In Scripture, we see God value artistry and artists.
In Exodus 28, for example, God asks Moses to prepare garments for Aaron as he prepares to be a priest and explains that God endowed these artisans with the wisdom to make these garments.
And Isaiah 64:8 compares our relationship with God to that of an artist: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Understanding of the false divide between the sacred and the secular has helped me make sense of the times I was certain the Holy Spirit was meeting me in different experiences outside of a church building.
As I was wrapped up in the story of Mrs. Celie, I saw how she experienced God through the love of her sister and dear friends.
Despite the work of many to convince her that she was unworthy of love, Celie eventually comes to understand herself to be worthy of love from others, herself and God.
I was not expecting to find a gospel story on Broadway, but there it was – this beautiful embodiment of the gospel story within theater.
By limiting our understanding of what can be “worship” and where God can meet us, we are missing the fullness of creation and God’s work in the world.
When we engage in worship styles that might be outside of our comfort zone, we are learning new things about ourselves and God.
Admittedly, it is scary to trust someone with our stories and our art. But what if this vulnerability is exactly what our faith communities are for? How might we live in a way that honors the stories of each person as they carry the image of God?
As we seek to be formed more fully in the way of Christ, may we seek to be creative and inclusive in the ways we worship in our faith spaces.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An intern at the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I) at Baylor University and a dual degree student, she is pursuing her Master of Divinity from Truett Seminary and her Master of Social Work from the Diana Garland School of Social Work.