Tales of a Faith-Led Artivist

I was born into PCUSA with both parents as pastors, youth leaders, teachers and organizers. They introduced me to the social gospel and have offered wise and unflinching support through my ventures into more radical, faith-led resistance. They’ve  provided steady support to my unconventional (and financially risky) vocational work as a self-producing dance theater artist. I have felt the weight of responsibility as I unpack and recognize my economic and social privilege, while also discerning how to steward the gifts that have come through my blessings. With such things in mind, my life has been a zigzag journey of knitting together faith, art and activism.

As a dancer, I have seen how the body can be viewed with suspicion or antagonism in Christian circles, pulling spiritual matters away from the fleshy rawness of human existence. I believe this has had detrimental consequences on the whole of the church, stunting our growth as we attempt to grieve and give thanks together. Some of my most beloved, spiritually renewing practices have come  through my work in the movement world. The great convergences for contact improvisation that link people from all over the world; our weekly practice of “dancing in the hallways” of the McGuffey Art Center that lasted years (some years with improvising musicians); the all night authentic movement vigils (a dance therapy practice) or the “dancing on the land” days with the Zen Monkey Project in Charlottesville, VA.  Each practice built relationships of vulnerability, skills for developing presence, self awareness and a communion beyond words and rational naming. Working out meaning, emotion and story through my body has been a potent form of prayer and deep worship in my lifetime. What’s more, good music can usher in cathartic dancing, good storytelling can grab our hearts, and beautiful art can help us see with new eyes. I believe the worlds of movement, music, story and art have great gifts to offer  the church of the future, if it is to address the deep needs for gospel embodiment.

Carnival de Resistance

The activist community is full of those disenchanted or wounded by Christianity, who recognize certain patterns of historic injustice by Christian Institutions that have traumatized our world and the fundamentalists of today who rally around line-drawing “special” issues. But at the same time, Christianity contains a legacy of resistance to injustice. Those compelled by such a legacy have a useful critique of the theologies and philosophies that engender domination and destruction. I have experienced the challenge of inhabiting activist circles where my declarations of faith would be taboo, suspect or could trigger pain. While I cannot dismiss any trauma perpetuated by the Church, I also cannot dismiss my own faith which compels my dream for justice, restoration and reconciliation. Some of the most emotionally engaging protests that I’ve attended have drawn on the moral imperative of faith to fuel the movement. I believe the worlds of spirituality and faith and the stories of our traditions have great gifts to offer the social and environmental movements of the future, if those movements are to address the need for personal and cultural transformation.

My vocational calling as a faith-led “artivist" contains a bias toward those artists who are culture keepers, healers, vision casters, whistle-blowers, mirrors to society and midwives to the world we dream is possible. My most moving experiences of dance, theater, music, poetry, and art is when it addresses the social and political climate in which it exists. Many artists, feeling the need to break the shackles of traditional structures, have put their curiosity and impulses above any responsibility to their audience. The undercurrents of social critique preserved in folk-art and in older cultural traditions do not have the same visibility in our world of high production value, novelty, and cleverness. Yet, those justice minded artists keep pouring out their hearts (check out the myriad examples on www.creativeresistance.org). I say we keep returning to the question, what does the art that we create serve? What does the art that we consume serve? I believe that peace & justice movements have great gifts to give the art of the future, if it is to address the deep needs for healthy imaginations in our transition through the ecological storm that is upon us.

I could retrograde back through my points and suggest how to bridge these worlds in the reverse order. What important gifts do artists have to offer our movement work? What can activists offer to the Church of today? What can those, driven by a theology of liberation, contribute to our art forms? Where do you fit in here? What bridging work are you compelled to support?

I am the Director of a project called the Carnival de Resistance that works to connect across such worlds, and build earth-honoring cultures full of resilience, spiritual depth and joyous resistance. We are both lifestyle project, big band protest, alternative school and carnival revival. This project is carried by a community of generous and talented folk driven to do this bridging work. The photos above, taken by Tim Naziger, are from the September 2015 Carnival de Resistance, and more can be found at this blog post.

May you draw inspiration from our witness. May your gifts and convictions combine to meet the deep needs of the world. May you carry hope within the wild and beautiful nature of God, who will be with us in the storm.