On Christmas Eve Sunday morning’s “Meet The Press,” Rev. Rick Warren of “The Purpose Driven Life” (who seems like a decent enough fellow though we disagree completely on homosexuality) made the comment that progress in social areas such as poverty and AIDS can only be achieved when government, business and faith leaders join together in a single purpose. His analogy was that you needed three legs in order to be stable -- "Government is one leg. Unstable. Business is one leg. Two legs are unstable. 'Churches' are the third leg. That's stable." I would suggest that there is a fourth leg missing from the equation: The Arts.
Put a bunch of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the same room, all claiming that God "gave" them the land that building sits on and you have Lebanon. Or Palestine. Or Jerusalem. But sing them a song! Then watch the magic. Or put on a really good movie. Or a musical!
This past year, a small synagogue steeped in theatrical history – one which provided a home for rejected entertainers early in the 20th century – was shrinking due to changing demographics and the tides of history. Enter: A cantor turned rabbi looking for a creative solution who chooses to convert the house of worship, part-time, into an Off-Broadway house, and who extends an invitation to a little musical about a gay marriage between a displaced Catholic and an ostracized Baptist which was looking for a theatrical home in New York City.
Result: A NY Times rave for “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” and phones ringing off the hook along with an influx of new members.
Rev. Warren, I like the comment you made on that show that we need civility in our culture again, to learn to work with people with whom we have a common goal even when we disagree on other things. The other evangelicals lambasted you for sharing your pulpit with Barack Obama. You said you'd work with any openly gay person as long as it meant doing something about AIDS. I never dreamed when we opened at the Actors' Temple that part of our mission would be to help save a synagogue.
But on Saturday, when Jimmy and I were walking down there, we took a little detour into St. Malachy's Catholic Church, also known as "The Actors' Chapel." Jim wanted to see who the pastor was.
We saw a couple of men in work clothes up near the pulpit area, fixing the place up for Christmas services and decided to ask. Before we got 10 feet away, he said, "It couldn't be."
And sure enough, the Pastor was a man Jimmy went to seminary with, Rev. Richard Baker. A handsome young man, he beamed at Jimmy and hugged him, exclaiming, "I've heard all about your show! I love Rabbi Jill. In fact, just last week, she was here and we were helping deliver flyers for the Temple all through the neighborhood. They were on one side and we were on the other."
And suddenly I fell totally in love with New York City.
The other night, we were on our way to the theater. We were walking down 9th Avenue passing 51st street. The trees along the street were wrapped in white Christmas light and I heard the clop, clop, clopping of a horse and buggy. The sound echoed down the quiet street and it suddenly felt like "Christmastime in the city."
But nothing prepared me for the image of the Church helping out the synagogue by printing flyers for them, joining hands together in mutual support.
Rev. Warren, who is in California, has angered the southern evangelicals by insisting that "others" are not the enemy simply because people don't agree with us on everything. It saddens me that most of the exuberant anger and religious incivility in our culture is coming from the south, especially since I come from the south and I know that people down there are, at heart, really good people. But it doesn't only come from there. In Jerusalem, it was Orthodox Jews who threatened violence against a gay pride parade. In the Baghdad, one type of Muslim is dying at the hand of another type of Muslim for simply having the wrong name.
The culture of incivility can change. What it takes is leadership from a few souls who simply refuse to take part in the culture war, and who provide the role models of civility.
Our show lives because of Rabbi Jill. The Actors' Synagogue has a new lease on life because of The Big Voice and The Actor's Chapel. Rev. Warren is leading evangelicals to work on AIDS, hunger and poverty. We all can have mutual goals. But it takes all four legs to make a chair. Footstools are nice, but chairs are so much more stable. And comfy, too!