Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Giving Voices to Women

          Like many a dutiful spouse, Pilate’s wife moved for the sake of her husband, but not happily.

     “I wasn’t thrilled about uprooting the entire household and moving to some place I’d never heard of,” she says. “After all, Judea isn’t exactly a household word in Rome.  But Pontius was elated.  It was his first important posting, and he saw it as the first step to bigger and better things.”

     How Mrs. Pilate really felt we don’t know, since she is little more than a one-liner of biblical history.  But to Katie Sherrod, the author who brought her to life in Women of the Passion, A Journey to the Cross, her concerns, and those of other women whose lives intersected with Jesus’, are all too real. 

     As Sherrod thought about them, she felt their presence as if “they were standing behind me at my shoulder urging me to write.”  When she would consider a station, she could almost hear a voice saying, “Here I am.  It’s me.”  She says it was the most powerful writing experience in a 30-year career.

     “I’m really reluctant to say I wrote it,” she said. “The women wrote it.”
     Sherrod, an independent writer, producer and commentator, always intended the stories in her book to be read out loud, but lately they have found their way into processions of the Stations of the Cross with women, and occasionally men, donning veils to tell the stories of the female followers behind Jesus’ passion.  This past Lent, composer Ana Hernandez created music for the performance at Sherrod’s Episcopal church, St. Luke’s in the Meadow, in Fort Worth, TX.

     Creating backstories and dialogue for these overlooked participants has quite naturally been welcomed by women, but Sherrod said men who have put themselves in the women’s places have been just as touched.

     “I’ve had men say is was the most meaningful thing they’ve ever done, that it opened the passion for them in a way that they had never experienced.” 

     In a telephone interview from her home in Fort Worth, Sherrod said the idea of letting the women speak came to her in 1996 while she was preparing Lenten retreats for Episcopal congregations in her city and Dallas. It was a time when the bishop of her diocese, following his two predecessors, refused to ordain women to the priesthood.  

     “For many women here, that was very, very frustrating, especially the women who felt called to ministry. It was very painful even for women who didn't feel the call, but felt a hunger to see women on the altar.”

     Sherrod didn’t want to attack the bishop, but rather empower women in the diocese and feed “that hunger women had here to hear women’s voices in the church.”

     “Of course  we all have ministries, whether ordained or not,” she said.  “The church is not in control of this, not really.  God is.”

     Growing up Roman Catholic in west Texas, Sherrod found the Stations could become rote, so she discerned a way to bring them to life and offer healing for the women of the diocese who felt ignored.  Using the first person, she would present the stories from the point of view of the women whose lives had been changed all those centuries ago.

     “They wouldn’t have been cured by Jesus and then say, ‘Thanks, see you later.’  They probably would have been hanging out with him and become followers.”

     She imagined what they would have been thinking.  Having  been to Israel several times, she envisioned the city going on around them with people stopping to stare as a criminal was paraded through the streets with his followers behind him.

     “They wouldn’t have left his mother, and we know she was there.”

    While she wrote the stories in 1996, she didn’t self-published them as a 43-page book until 2006 in response to requests from the many people who had heard them over the years.  To ensure performance accessibility, she grants free one-time copying privileges.  The book is available through Amazon.

     While little is known about Pilate’s wife, other women in the book are more familiar, such as the Marys. But Sherrod presented one of these, Jesus’ mother, with an anger we don’t read about in the gospels.  This Mary shocks some people, especially when, after touching the face of her son, she licks the blood from her hand.

     “This station often makes men uncomfortable,” Sherrod said.  “Of course that is what a mother would do.  Women are more accustomed to blood than men are.”

     She thinks such vivid portrayals might have been behind the rejections she received from the few publishers she approached.  But what Sherrod was hearing from Mary couldn’t be ignored, nor her story sugarcoated.  After writing about Jesus being placed into Mary’s arms, Sherrod was in tears. Her husband, the Rev. Gaylord Pool, a retired Episcopal priest, asked her if she was OK.

     “I said, ‘I am, but Mary’s not.’  I was totally unprepared for Mary’s rage, but when you think about it, of course she was enraged.”

     Women of the Passion is used mostly in Episcopal churches, Sherrod says, although it has also been read in Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregations.  Her two most powerful experiences of its interpretation were with a group of women in their 70s, 80s and beyond who presented it as if they were reminiscing about their lives and by a group of teenagers, since many of the actual women wouldn't have been far beyond their teen years.

     This summer the Rev. Mary Janda, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, UT, will present a couple of workshops on Women of the Passion at the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women during the General Convention in Salt Lake City.

     Sherrod said she has received no criticism for her fictionalizing of the biblical women, which she compares to midrash, the Jewish tradition of interpreting scripture.  

     As she was preparing the stories, she read some to her husband but didn’t seek out any scripture scholars for direction, relying on her impressions from her visits to Israel and the deep grounding in the Bible the Sisters of the Incarnate Word had instilled in the girls at her Catholic boarding school in San Antonio. She also did a great deal of research into the political and cultural ways of the era. She hopes one day to see professional actresses perform the stories.

     “I am very, very privileged to have had this experience with these women,” she says, adding that when people compliment her on the book, she gives credit where she thinks credit is due.  She tells people, “I didn’t exactly write it by myself.  I had a lot of help and you just heard them.”

Friday, September 11, 2015

Love and Death

     The Rev. Stephen Chinlund had an agenda in mind as he headed to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for the diocesan convention about a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with church governance.  He was there to court a partner.

    And he found him, luring him across Amsterdam Avenue to the Hungarian Pastry Shop where the two men bonded over coffee and decided to cast their futures together.  The consummation of that union is about to be born.

     In a city where the unusual borders on normal, Brush Strokes may be the only musical conceived at a church convention.  Its birth will take place this month in that mecca to which so many in the performing arts aspire — New York’s theatre district. 

     The other proud parent of this collaboration is the composer Bert Draesel, known in church circles as the Rev. Herbert G. Draesel Jr., whom Chinlund, the show’s book writer, sought out because of his extensive experience as a composer of musical theatre. A third parent, Jim Semmelman, a long-time television stage manager of “The View” and “Today,” wrote the lyrics to Draesel’s songs.   

     Chinlund and Draesel, both now retired from full-time church ministry, discussed their musical, which will be produced Off, Off-Broadway by the Thespis Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater, at Chinlund’s Garment District studio. Chinlund not only writes in this crowded space behind a canary yellow door on a floor filled with artists’ studios festooned with a rainbow of colorful doors, but he paints here as well.  His paintings adorn the wall, and shelves are crowded with books and photographs of his family — wife of 50 years, Caroline, two sons, a daughter and grandchildren.  It is a familiar setting in New York’s creative world, but it was actually the priesthood that brought Chinlund here.

     While rector at Trinity Church in Southport, CT, in the mid-1980s Chinlund counseled many older parishioners who felt that with their children raised and their careers behind them “nothing moved them.”

     “I thought, ‘Maybe if I wrote a play and they could see themselves onstage, they could think, ‘Maybe I could be like him or like her.’”

     Although he had only written one play, which was never produced, Chinlund gave it a go, creating a story of an older man and woman who meet at an art class, fall in love and marry.  When he showed it to friends, they were underwhelmed.

     “They said, ‘A play is about drama, and drama is about conflict.  You don’t have any.’”

     So he decided to introduce a topic dear to him — assisted suicided —something he champions heartily and which has put him at odds with his 54-year-old daughter, Sarah, now a Roman Catholic, who opposes it.  Chinlund’s position was shaped by his parents, founding members of Death With Dignity and strong believers in the right to determine one’s ending.  

     “They were terrified of being hooked up to tubes,” he said.

     Draesel said it was this element that drew him to the project.

     “It was something both of us wanted to say, and to say it as a musical would say something that mattered rather than doing Annie Get Your Gun one more time,” he said. “This is something the church should be discussing and grappling with.  What better way than as a show?”

     Chinlund hopes churches will produce the musical as a way to discuss end of life issues, but also to highlight positive aspects of aging, something he had been championing for years in his Happy Surprises in Later Life discussion groups.

     “It was the same idea as the play, that old age is not just a time to be denied or lamented, but could be the best time of life. That’s really counterculture.” 

     So is talking about death as a church topic.

     “It’s taboo,” Chinlund says.  “We don’t use the D word freely.  We’ve still got a long way to go.”

     Both men emphasize, though, that death is not the end of the love that was central to a relationship. The inspiration behind the joyful final song, “Always Together,” came from Chinlund’s sister who continued talking to her husband after he had died, making her feel he was still with her.  “Everyone in my bereavement group is doing he same thing,” she told her brother.  That line is now in the play.

     “That’s just how my sister felt about her sort of ongoing marriage,” Chinlund said. 

     “That’s not morbid,” Draesel said.  “It’s just natural.”

     While the September performances will be the first full production, the musical has been tested in public readings.

     “We got a lot of encouragement from audiences,” Draesel said.  “People were walking out crying, happy crying, and hugging each other.  But we were preaching to the choir.  I’d like to get beyond that and create study guides to be given out as they leave for people to think about these things.”

     Both men are hoping that the September production, which is being videotaped, will land them a producer who can take the show to an Off-Broadway run.  Draesel envisions a rotating cast of A-list perfumers, citing two he would love to entice — Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

     “I pray,” he said.

     This foray into the performing arts is new to Chinlund who spent nearly five decades of his priestly years working in prison ministry, becoming the chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction. Draesel, whose time was spent in parish ministry especially in urban areas, can trace his artistic involvement to when he was 5 1/2 and listened to his sister practicing her piano lessons, which she hated.  When she was finished, he took to the piano bench and played her pieces by ear.  He wrote his first song at 7.

     “Faith and the arts have been a very happy coupling all my life,” he says. “Most of the things I’ve written have been labors of love and explorations of faith.”

     He cites his musical Walden, about the abolition movement and the underground railroad.

     “Those are issues dear to my heart from my years in urban ministry,” he says.  “The church is not always terribly responsive. It says it’s interested in the arts but there’s not a lot of expression.

     “When people think about religion they think about fundamentalists and people finding Jesus.  That’s not what I do.  What I’m trying to do is be a little more subtle.  We have to find God in the ordinariness of life and we have to celebrate at every possible moment.”

     Chinlund agreed.

     “I hope people will find in the play reasons to feel fulfilled in life that have nothing to do with a checked-off list.  I think we could do more in the church to encourage people.” 

Image: Joy Franz and Chuck Muckle are the lead actors in Brush Strokes.