November 25, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther
Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast, and I'm your host, Roger Lowther. This episode, I am honored to introduce you to some of the people I met at the GCAMM Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, the Global Consultation on Arts and Music in Missions. It took place September 11-14, 2023 at Southwestern Baptist University. This conference doesn't happen very often, only once every few years. Some of the other ones I’ve been able to go to were in Nairobi, Kenya and Chiang Mai, Thailand.
It really is the largest gathering of missionary artists in the world, and in this gathering you get to meet artists who are missionaries through all the media: dancers, videographers, visual artists, musicians and so many others serving around the world to build the church of Christ specifically through the arts. The attendees really do come from all over the world, as you're about to see. So I decided to take my microphone on a little walk during lunch time, and just mosey on through the lunch tables and see who was willing to speak with me. I hope this interaction gives you just a little picture of the type of people who come to the conference.
Why, Hello! I'm Luke. I am an independent film and video editor and digital comms officer. And I'm here as part of Endeavor 8-1 and Arts & Justice Collective here at GCAMM.
And where are you from?
I'm from the UK. I was born in Birmingham, which is Slap Bang in the middle of the UK. And I currently live and work in Wales.
Awesome. Great to meet you.
And who are you?
I'm Gayle Craven. I'm from Duncanville, Texas, and I currently live in De Soto, Texas, which are both cities south of Dallas. I'm a student at Dallas International University, and I've come to the conference for a class to learn about GCoMM and all the work that everyone's doing around the world.
Are you an undergrad or grad student?
I'm an undergrad. I'm working on my B.A. in International Service with a minor in World Arts.
Awesome. What do you hope to do after this?
I don't know yet. I'm still figuring that out, but I do definitely want to pursue visual arts, and I'm also very interested in film and music, so wherever God takes me, I guess.
Very cool. Well, it's great to meet you.
Thank you. It's nice to meet you, too.
Well, it's good to meet you. So who are you?
Hi, I'm Karen, and I'm from England.
Oh, and what do you do.
In England? Well, I don't work in England. I work in Kenya. I work in the juvenile justice system. We help children to know about Jesus and learn how that they can get healed from their trauma that has caused them to commit serious crimes.
Is it arts-related?
Yeah, I would say that I am not a creative person, but I facilitate very creative people. I work in a context where the youth write their own songs in the dead of night when they can't sleep, and they draw pictures of things that they can't put words to. So I facilitate that. Through their healing process, the art is crucial. It forms how they heal. It is an outlet, but also a beautiful creation in itself.
That's cool. Yeah, definitely the arts has power to heal.
Okay, good to meet you.
And who are you?
Well, I am an ethnodoxologist who's been working in Central Africa for about three decades now. I'm considered a charter member of GCAMM. I was here in 2003. I've been able to come to each one except the one held in Singapore, which I couldn't get out of Africa to get to that one.
And what do you do through the arts?
Well, I'm actually involved in theological education, introducing the arts and encouraging future pastors to understand how important the arts are in ministry. I'm also working with arts and trauma healing, where people are given the ability to express the pain they have in their hearts through movement and drama and song and dance and all of that.
That's amazing. Thank you.
Yeah, you're welcome.
And so, who are you?
Yes, I am Heber from Brazil, involved in Ethno Arts Ministry since 2006, when I first attended the second GCAMM. I am the Ethnoarts Coordinator in Brazil, with the Wycliffe organization there. And currently, I am taking my PhD studies at Dallas International University in World Arts.
Oh, that's awesome.
Okay, and who are you?
Are you? I am Juan Arvelo coming from Spain, although I'm Venezuelan. I've been living in Spain for the last 13 years, working with WEC International, among the Basque group on Northern Spain.
Great. And what do you do there?
I'm basically working with arts, trying to use arts for ministry locally, also globally, because I'm a WEC Arts Consultant also. My vision is to get them excited about the arts and ministry.
That's awesome. It’s great to meet you.
Yeah, and who are you?
Hi. My name is Pam.
And where do you live? What do you do?
What do you do? My husband and I live in Germany, an hour north of Dusseldorf. And we work with TACO International that creatively proclaims the gospel to Muslims.
Wow, and what art forms do you use to do that?
We use every art form. Our logo is a kaleidoscope, because if you've ever noticed when you look through a kaleidoscope, you change it just a little bit and the picture completely changes. We add new people to our team, take one away, and the picture completely changes. So God is able to give us creative things to do with whoever we have at the time.
Wow, that's great. Thank you very much.
It really was wonderful getting to meet all these different people from all over the world, and I'm looking forward to introducing more of them to you in the next two podcasts as well. But I want to stop there for now to share with you a longer conversation I had with Dr. Julisa Rowe. She is an actress and director serving in Nairobi, Kenya. And she is also the Kenya director for Artists in Christian Testimony International, a missions organization for artists. I had the privilege of getting to know Julisa during the GCAMM Conference that she led in 2018. She really did an amazing job putting together the conference, a week of concerts, dances, art exhibits, and talks from people in Kenya and all over the world. And I’ve stayed in touch with her ever since. You know, as an actor she really draws you in. I remember watching her during one drama and thinking, “Is she really okay? Maybe we need to help her?” And then, when you talk to her in person, she seems like such a normal person! Anyway, without further ado, here is our conversation.
So I'm sitting here with Dr. Julisa Rowe at the GCAMM Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. And I wanted to introduce y’all to her. So Julisa, thank you so much for being willing to be interviewed for this podcast.
Absolutely. My pleasure.
Yeah. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you…?
Well, as you said, my name is Julisa Rowe. And currently, I am living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. I am an ethnodramatologist. I could say that I am the world's foremost Christian ethnodramatologist because I'm probably the only one.
Yeah, so ethnodramatologist. What is that exactly?
Yes. Well, I'm sure many people have heard of ethnomusicology, which is the study of music of different cultures. Ethnodramatology is, in that sense, just what it sounds. It is the study of the drama forms of different cultures. And my particular interest is how to use those drama forms to communicate the gospel of Christ.
Wow. So is there only one kind of form in Kenya? What does that look like in your context?
Yeah. Well, the statement that has been made about music is that music is the universal language. And ethnomusicologists come along and say, No, no, no, no, no, no, no … music is a language. Music is universal, but there are many different kinds. The same can be said of drama. When people think drama, they think of the Western Aristotelean style of drama, where you've got performers acting out a story on stage in a realistic way, and an audience watching and applauding at the end. But as I discovered in my research, you don't even have to be a research person to observe and see the differences. There are many different styles of drama, even within an apparently homogeneous society. I don't know. I'm not sure that there are many truly homogeneous societies anymore.
That's true. Yeah.
There are so many different cultures living together. And because the arts are a reflection of our worldview and our cultural values, they are naturally going to appear different according to those cultures. So when you get into Kenya, for example, if you look at the dramas, the theater being done in the city, even in the villages, there is a strong resemblance to Western-style drama. But when you scratch a little deeper, you realize, no, it's not quite the same. What they value in it is a little bit different, perhaps a more melodramatic style of acting, more community involvement, give and take, improvisation, doing things off the cuff. But then that is just what we think of as spoken drama. But then you look at the other art forms and there's dance, and they are actually doing drama through dance, dance-drama forms. Their music are stories. Now for me, as a dramatist, I view all of that under the umbrella of drama. We have all those different styles within Kenya.
Let me get back to the basics of just this idea of using drama or working through drama, I guess, to tell a story. I know in my experience, I've had exposure to amazing live acting that has really changed me. I think that it is the most powerful art form. When you're next to an actor and you're seeing their sweat, you're seeing their heart racing, you just naturally get caught up in it. You can't help it. When you see it through film, through screen, there's some separation that ends up happening there. I want more and more people to be exposed to live theater. I think we're lacking in that, though, in American culture as well, but certainly in Japan. How do we get this powerful art form? How do you bring it to more people? What are the challenges here?
Yeah, well, I'm not going to argue with you. I do also believe it is the strongest, most powerful art form. That's why I'm in it. It does speak to me and draw me. I think more and more research is showing that when people connect emotionally with something, they understand it on a deeper level. And there is that intangible energy that passes between actor, performer, and audience that is what draws us in. And that doesn't happen in film. It's a dead medium, they say, because of that. And they have to add in that energy through music and lights and effects and angles and everything and try and replicate that. I guess it's a little bit like AI versus a human person writing something. It's like, yeah, you can go through the motions, but you're going to lack the soul of it.
That's such a good point. With the music, it really makes a big difference in a movie to have that music. But with live theater, you don't need that.
And you can still have that same effect even more powerfully.
Yeah, you can have one person on stage with no costume, no lights, just emoting the story. Yeah. So...I forgot what the question was.
Just the challenges then. If it's such a powerful art form, then why aren't more people being exposed to it? Why isn't it being used more in missions?
That is an excellent question. I have spent the last 35+ years doing it in church and in mission and trying to teach and encourage pastors and missionaries to use it more, particularly in teaching. It's a powerful way to disciple and teach. And when people see it, they agree. But I think partly we are up against hundreds of years of tradition that is hard to overcome. It's like, Well, but this is how we do church. We have a singing set, we have announcements, we have a sermon, and that sermon is so deeply embedded in people's understanding of what church is that it's hard to go against it. It takes a special leader, a special pastor whose mind is open to the possibilities of the arts to give space to it if we are in that traditional church setting. We have to have the permission of the leaders to do it, to incorporate it for anything beyond music, and it's hard to find them. I think we have to start at the beginning, and I think that's what this conference is all about, like-minded people coming together and realizing that we don't have to do it the expected traditional way, but how can we do it differently? How can we let art speak for itself and learn theology through the arts? Because a lot of artists are not administrators. They are not the traditional leaders in that sense of setting things up, of guiding a church. They just want to worship God through their arts. Then I think the other thing is that it takes a lot of resource and time and energy, unless you're going to improvise everything on the spur of the moment in drama. For it to be the most powerful and impactful, you have to spend time with it. You have to have a group of people that will spend time and help develop it. You've got to develop a script that is biblically sound, artistically excellent, culturally relevant. You have to practice it, and that takes time. One person can do a sermon in a few days and then get up and preach it. It's a whole team of people. Then if you want to go more elaborate with it, you've got the cost of it. If you've got lights and costumes and props and sets. Yeah, it's very resource-heavy in that regard. But even if you want to go simple, it takes a lot of demand on you.
Yeah, I hear about the challenges of the practice. I once heard in an acting workshop, there was a guy, they told the story about how, Oh, that's amazing. I want to be able to be able to do that. He's like, Oh, you can. Okay, well, how do I do it? Well, you have to get up and you have to practice your lines every day, memorize them, practice saying them for a month every time, 100 times or something like that. Many, many times. He's like, Well, if I did that, of course I could do it. He's like, Okay, well, that's what I did. I hear that about the piano, too. It's like, Oh, I wish I could play the piano like that. I was like, Well, practice, practice, practice. People don't seem to realize that aspect of it and thinking, Oh, they're just doing it.
God, just drop them on the earth like this, and they just get up and go, Yeah, absolutely right.
Yeah, but I want to ask you now, what are the challenges, though, of recruiting actors into missions? Because one way I've been describing it to my college students, they'll say it's almost like having a patron of the arts, the way it used to be. You have the salary, and then you don't have to then choose which jobs you're going to do based upon how much it pays you, but what is strategic for kingdom growth? Of course, you have to raise that money. But it seems to me like it's the ideal for an artist to say, “Yes, the church is supporting me to use this ability that I've been given and to work on that.” Where is the disconnect, though? Why is it so hard to recruit artists, actors, especially?
I think the finances is a big one, and I think you've really hit the nail on the head with that. Yes, the ideal is to be fully supported or sponsored, just to be able to release into, Okay, what is the most strategic? What is the best way to do this? Our time is just devoted to this. I think any actor would love that. Where it becomes a difficulty is if you have to then go out and raise your own support, and I could speak from personal experience. I grew up on the mission field. I understand the whole faith missions network, but I'm not a good support raiser. I have to spend a lot of time trying to find the funding, trying to make ends meet. A lot of artists don't want to do that. They just want to do their art. They don't want to be a publicity person, a social media, a producer, a marketer, an administrator.
Well, when you put it that way…
Yeah. That's another aspect about the arts is that it involves a lot of behind-the-scenes people that aren't doing the art, but that make the art happen. I think that's one of the reasons that perhaps we don't get a lot of artists in missions. They don't want to engage in that aspect of it. Even using local artists, that's the challenge that I have. It can be perhaps easier with ministry-minded artists who say, Okay, I've got time outside of my job to do this. But if they're saying, I want to do this full-time, I need to put food on the table for my wife, my husband, my children. How do we do that? Then we get into the whole business of the arts, selling tickets, and how do we do that? Then we're back into the cycle of producing and fundraising. I think that is one very big detriment. The other is just the lack of understanding and appreciation for the arts. I think particularly, I would say in the West, particularly in America, where we have a very strong Puritan heritage that disavowed the arts in the church. When Oliver Cromwell went and smashed all the windows and all the art and all the iconography, we have a deep suspicion of iconography and idolatry and equate representing people on stage or through art as iconography or idolatry. I think there's that deep suspicion of it in the evangelical church, at least.
Well, certainly in Japan. They are purposely trying to stay as sparse as possible so that nothing distracts from the word of God.
Yeah. I think that is such a shame. While I understand that and respect that, when you look deeply into scripture, you see that it is rife with stories, with performance, with creation, with beauty. We lose out on the depth and the richness of our faith as expressed in these artistic ways as a pale imitation of the creator God when we try and say, no, nothing of that. So that is an ideological, philosophical, theological barrier to overcome. And that's just within the church. Then you've got missions. I think then it's back to finance. We said, well, how do I do that? And we want to take what we know as our own art to other cultures, and then we're getting into the whole ethnoarts thing about, Well, how can we now take this love of drama and do it appropriately in the culture I'm going to in Mali or wherever it might be?
Yeah, it's my hope that as I travel around and tell stories of how the arts are being used for kingdom building, for planting churches, that more and more people are then willing to give to and support these young artists to go off into the field. I think that really is a huge problem across all media, is getting more and more artists into the mission field, because if we do, I can't even begin to imagine what that'll look like as we see through the art forms of each culture, as raising up those young artists in the nations, not just American missionaries, to express the gospel in their own context. I think it'll be a really powerful thing.
Yeah, can't wait to see it.
Yeah, well, thank you so much for your time.
Thanks, Roger. Appreciate your work.
This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the Art Life Faith Podcast. As we close, I would like to share with you a short sound bite from an album of IziBongo, one of the featured worship bands at the conference.
Thank you for listening. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”
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