All this church is a stage
A minister's vision of church as a public art space redefines what a congregation is.
BANGOR, MAINE — There aren't any pews in the sanctuary of the majestic Union Street Brick Church in downtown Bangor but spotlights are strung along the mezzanine facing the altar. It's as if God Himself were shedding light on this particular space that has opened itself to more than worship.
In the past eight years, the Congregational church – which draws only about a dozen or so faithful on Sunday mornings – has attracted thousands into its stained-glass enclave for some activities that may seem far removed from the sacred. It has been a stage for original passion plays adapted from the Gospels; a coffeehouse for "Open Mic Nights" featuring rock 'n' roll and slam poetry; a movie theater for art and foreign films; a ring for professional wrestling matches; and a dance studio for bare-midriff belly dancing that could make saints and sinners alike blush.
"Life should happen in a church," asserts the pastor, the Rev. Leland Witting, "not just prayer."
"Pastor Lee" to his congregants, Mr. Witting has the look of a scholarly monk: gray-haired, bespectacled, clad in holey sweaters, and a face filled with compassion. He's intent on making the historic Union Street Brick Church – which he purchased for about $125,000 in 1998 while a student at Bangor Theological Seminary – into a sanctuary for artistic expression.
The result is this experiment of church as public art space. The minister isn't interested in building the congregation but in embracing the notion of small New England reformed churches as more than simply Sunday-go-to-meeting places.
"Our church has set a relatively unique task for itself – and yet one that is completely within the mainstream tradition of Christian church history – that is, to foster creativity in the arts as a means of praising the creator, and of helping one another reach our highest and best potential in this world," says Witting, who has a Master of Divinity degree.
"We're going to make mistakes. And we're going to offend some people," he adds, shrugging.
Religious leaders and residents in this blue-collar town have begun to take notice of Witting's unusual and inspired outreach, and both participation and press coverage are up.
"He has opened the door to people who would not set foot in any of the mainline churches, including my own," says the Rev. Elaine Hewes, pastor of Bangor's Redeemer Lutheran Church. "It's about taking down walls that separate people from knowing the love of God."
Adds lay pastor and seminarian Matthew McDonald: "It's not how big the congregation is or how big the audience is, it's how big the body of Christ is."
The ornate Italianate church with its quintessential white steeple pointing 140 feet into the heavens was dedicated in 1853, after the original edifice burned down following a fiery antislavery sermon. Generally known as the Unitarian church, it was founded in 1818 as an Independent Congregational Society after a schism with another church over doctrinal differences between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. Liberal thinkers like Frederic Hedge, a leader of the 19th-century Transcendental movement, preached a progressive brand of spiritualism from the church's pulpit. Ralph Waldo Emerson was interim minister in 1834; Henry David Thoreau occasionally visited. Ten years ago, when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists across town, the church was put up for sale
"There's a theme that runs through my life – a fascination with sacred places," says Witting. "For me, this church is a sacred site."
Called to the ministry at an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Witting says his Christian baptism and rebirth occurred when he nearly drowned at age 7. On vacation at the family's summer home, he waded out too far into New Jersey's Lake Kemah when his mother stepped inside to change clothes for church.
"My lungs filled up with water, and I was at the bottom of the lake. But, I wasn't! I was somewhere up here," Witting says, his hand hovering high in the air, "watching this whole scene as my mother comes tearing out of the cottage in her red dress, and she dives – barrels – into the lake, and pulls me out, throws me over a log, and pumps the water out of me."
Witting was raised a Catholic, but in his 20s and 30s became fascinated by Eastern religions and, during the Vietnam War, attended Quaker services. "Like the lake, I was always going out of my depth before I should have," he jokes. "I was really pacing myself spiritually."
For more than 30 years, Witting had disparate careers — including stints as a real estate agent, social worker in Harlem, and publisher of a weekly Maine newspaper — but today the grandfather of three splits his time between running the Union Street Brick Church and duties as a part-time chaplain at Bangor's Eastern Maine Medical Center, where he ministers to the sick. He plans to enter the Doctor of Ministry program at Bangor Theological Seminary in the fall and study mysticism, in particular near-death experiences.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, thespians dressed in terra-cotta scrubs, their faces painted like various animals, performed "When Animals Could Talk," an original play by Witting's wife, Charlene Kent Witting, that explores the notion that animals spoke in the Garden of Eden and at Jesus' birth – and will be able to speak again after the Second Coming.
Kelly Nelson-Santiago, a Methodist and a mother, got to play God. "Acting in a Christian play deepens your faith," she says. "You see that man has fallen and, in spite of that, God – like a parent – is still a loving God."
The Brick Church typically stages a version of the "Passion Play" and two other religious plays a year, bringing together amateur actors from area churches, including Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Mormons, and others.
"The whole history of Christianity has been division and subdivision – churches breaking away from other churches and congregations splitting up," Witting says. "It's time that the body of Christ started pulling together."
Small but appreciative audiences of a few dozen per show donate $5 each and pack into stackable plastic chairs. (The pews, stored in a barn during a renovation project in the 1970s, were reportedly burned for firewood.) Prayer is said aloud backstage before rehearsals and performances.
"Our purpose is to do this – we don't know the reasons why," says Ms. Kent Witting. "We just want to put it out there and let God work."
The nonprofit Union Street Brick Church, with a $33,300 annual budget, sponsors the dramas and "Open Mic Night" on Thursdays but relies heavily on donations from outside groups, as well as interfaith and nondenominational weddings, to pay its bills.
There are regular gigs like the performances by the Bangor Belly Dance troupe (it's "the dance of the Holy Land," quips instructor Lorien Wood), the Bangor Art Society's annual fundraising auction, and an October rummage sale by fellow Congregationalists from nearby All Souls Church to raise money for mission trips.
In addition, the niche church – located in one of Bangor's poorest neighborhoods – has been the venue for random barbershop quartet shows, children's piano recitals, CD release parties, and a talk by a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The church steeple houses a 50-watt transmitter for WERU community radio (102.9 FM).
"The more people we can bring in and involve in one aspect or another of this church, the more people will get to know one another, to understand one another, to love one another, and ultimately to love God," Witting says. "It may be simplistic, but I don't know any other way to do it."
Though the pastor is open to a broad range of ecumenical ideas on how to celebrate worship through his arts ministry, in his good book there are definitely some things heaven forbids.
"I would not want this sacred space of mine to be used for worshiping a god outside of the Judeo-Christian religion," Witting says flatly. "No devil worshipers need apply."