Some weeks ago I received an e-mail from a friend telling me her pastor had referenced my book Staging Ground in his Sunday sermon. That’s a first. What’s more, he’s a Mennonite pastor, and when I mentioned this to friends in Michigan, they said, to a person, Mennonite?! I thought they were conservative.
It’s not anything I expected—a Mennonite pastor citing my book about a theater in a part of Pennsylvania that’s more Bible than Borscht Belt.
But it’s the sort of impact I hoped Staging Ground might make. Ever since I learned about the massacre of the Conestoga Indians on the grounds of what later became the Fulton Theatre, I’ve wanted to write about the event. (The same desire to shed light on a horrific injustice lies behind my biography of García Lorca.)
My friend’s pastor, Chad Martin, spoke at length about social justice in his sermon. I listened to it online: he had a soft, thoughtful voice, and a gently deliberate way of making his points. He talked about the “systematic oppression” of various groups: Palestinians, African-Americans, sexual and religious minorities, the innocent Indians who were massacred on the grounds of the Fulton Theatre in 1763, just a couple of blocks from the church where Martin was preaching. He quoted what I’d said about the massacre and talked broadly about the necessity of respecting people outside our own cultural and social and religious norms. More astonishingly, he called for compassion for the transgender community—many of whose lives “have been lost to discriminatory and hateful violence.” Martin said he mourns “the many ways our community and our churches have judged and ridiculed transgendered people.”
“Our history is riddled with glass ceilings, red lines and gated communities,” he said.
In her new book, the evocatively titled Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit writes of “how change can be wrought in the streets and by retelling the story.”
One of the ways we retell stories is through ritual. More than once, Martin repeated a a point I’d tried to make in Staging Ground, that “in the performance of symbolic actions we apprehend the sacred.” He described how simple acts, such as the public recitation of the names of transgender victims of violence, can summon the sacred and go some distance toward achieving social justice. Theater, of course, is all about the performance of symbolic actions—and at its best, like all the arts, nudges us toward compassion for the sacred Other. I’m indebted to a Mennonite pastor for helping to make that point.