Lis E. Valle-Ruiz, Presbytery of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and
Nancy Hawthorne, Tennessee Annual Conference
Birthing a global church may look like the anxiety of a teenage mother hosting the Savior of the world in her womb: preparing with openness, creating collaboratively, and finally sharing the Word with the world. These three actions reflect the process of the Advent Collective, an experiment in collaborative preaching through artistic means that embodies what global church means to us.
The first stage of the process was preparing. During the summer of 2014, the Rev. Lis Valle-Ruiz, the Rev. Nancy Hawthorne, and the Rev. Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, three clergywomen representing three different denominations and two ethnicities, set the values, boundaries, and invitation for the project. We brainstormed and decided to focus on diversity in both interpretations of Scripture shaped by social contexts and means of communicating artistically. Two other important values that guided our work were openness and non-hierarchical ways of working together. Openness invited us to listen to the Holy Spirit, to different perspectives and to yet-unimagined ways of proclaiming the Word. Non-hierarchical ways of working together meant for us that we are all children of God, equally loved, gifted, and inspired by the Holy One.
We also set boundaries that arose mostly through recognition of our limitations, privileges, and admittedly subjective perspectives, as well as from our daily lives. The time boundary was Advent, with an earlier delivery required due to the end of the academic semester for two of us. The Word to be interpreted was provided by the Revised Common Lectionary and covered the first Sunday of Advent through Epiphany. We also needed the project to be life-giving rather than time-consuming and heavily onerous. With our time and Scripture established, we wrote a simple, clear, and wide-open invitation to reach out to theology students who are also artists.
In drafting the invitation, the name of the endeavor came into existence like the rush of wind. We wrote for our invitation, “The—Advent Collective—seeks partners in the work of interpreting the experience of waiting for Emmanuel to come, bringing ancient biblical text to our contexts in unconventional sermonic forms.” We asked the artists/preachers to choose one of the biblical stories from the lectionary and to interpret it from the perspective of their own particular context, aware of their own race, gender, age, class, and sexual orientation, and using their preferred medium of artistic expression. The final liturgy encompassed three ethnicities, two languages, and twelve interpretations through different artistic expressions including drama, song, poetry, dance, and sculpture.
Once we had our partners, creating collaboratively continued to the next stage of the process. Each individual wrote his or her own work, knowing that we would come back together to create the worship event. For example, Nancy wrote a short musical about John the Baptist and Lis wrote a modern-day Mary monologue about deciding to keep her unborn child. Trying to speak about creativity is like trying to talk about God, but when we started our individual pursuits, we tried to strike a relationship with the space above, below, or to the side of the traditional narratives to show that there is room for more than one interpretation.
Sometimes the hardest part of creativity is remaining open to what might arise during the process. When Nancy wrote her short musical, she started with John the Baptist and Jesus. Yet through the process, a third character joined the narrative. At the end, Nancy said, with surprise and distress, “I had no idea the Woman at the Well was going to show up!” In hindsight, we can see that both the Woman at the Well and John the Baptist are unusual evangelists, so what better way to create a play about “preparing the way” for Jesus than by using these two characters.
In many ways, the same climate and temperature needed for creativity is what we need to birth a global church. We make room, collaborate, and remain open for what or who might show up because in doing so, we might encounter divine beings, as Hebrews illuminates. In our collaborations we utilized the help of technology, which enabled the Rev. Elisabel Ruiz, pastor in Puerto Rico, to translate and adapt the final script to the Puerto Rican context. Elisabel’s favorite adaptation was contextualizing Nancy’s scene where John the Baptist and Jesus share their message through music on Nashville’s streets. Elisabel used Puerto Rican folklore music and instruments, with people enjoying playing around the familiar Caribbean and Latino dominoes table while they share the good news through their conversation. Jesus sang Americana in Nashville and trova in Puerto Rico. At the end of the project, Elisabel said, “For me to be part of an online creative process that goes beyond ethnicities, denominations, education, and social contexts is to be part of the global church, here and now. Thanks be to God!”
The last stage of the process was sharing. In sharing, like in birthing, came the pain of letting go and becoming even more open for the Word to be able to go out into the world. When we had our first conversation in the summer of 2014, we did not set up to birth a global church. Yet our openness, commitment to diversity, creativity, and collaboration led us to at least five worshiping experiences in two different languages. The Advent Collective shared the Creative Spirit of the Word in December 2014 at Vanderbilt Divinity School and West End United Methodist Church in Nashville and at three Presbyterian Churches in Puerto Rico: Rincón, Guacio, and Sión, San Sebastián.
As part of the liturgy, we invited the rest of the congregation gathered to participate as the artists/preachers did and make connections between the Advent and Christmas stories and their own contexts. In response to that invitation, the Spirit took our breath away once more when a teenage woman in San Sebastián prayed for teenage mothers. Yes, we are birthing a global church with this young woman as well. And we continue to share the Advent Collective through the Internet in English and Spanish for others to translate, contextualize, adapt, or just be inspired to conduct their own experiments of being open to the Holy Spirit and watch the Word that is born. Listening to God and to one another is an opening to a world of possibility.