By Jessica Carreras
GRAND RAPIDS – For local director Stephanie Sandberg, the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity is more than a question asked by some of her students at Christian school Calvin College. “It’s an obsession,” she admits.
Apparently, she’s not alone in her fixation.
On Sept. 27, Sandberg’s play on that very issue, “Seven Passages: The Stories of Gay Christians,” opens at Grand Rapids Community College’s Spectrum Theater with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Arcus Gay and Lesbian Fund. An offshoot of the Kalamazoo-based Arcus Foundation, the fund seeks to promote LGBT equality in southwestern Michigan and beyond.
During the past few months, Sandberg has worked in conjunction with a production team and seven actors from Grand Rapids’ Actors’ Theatre to put together pieces of interviews on the subject, as well as relevant passages from scripture. The hope is to bring up an issue that often is swept under the rug in Christianity and show its relevance, especially to Christian churches.
“One of the things that’s missing from the church is the sense of listening and conducting respectful dialogue,” Sandberg explained. “People can’t talk to each other about this.”
“Seven Passages,” she hopes, will ignite the discussion that’s been absent from so many of these churches. “Art can be a mediating force,” she added.
Moreover, Sandberg hopes that her play will agitate audiences that may have been set in their beliefs, forcing them to look at things from a different point of view. “I want them to see the kind of conflict that people who are gay and Christian actually go through,” she said. “That’s what really produces empathy.”
Sandberg, a director and professor at Calvin, said that the idea began with conversations with her students. Then, more than four years ago, she began conducting interviews with them and others about the balance between being LGBT and being a Christian. Interviews with students turned into interviews with over 100 people in western Michigan.
For her research, Sandberg and her colleagues talked with people who were both for and against the melding of homosexuality and the Christian church, as well as those who have grappled with it their entire life and have yet to find an answer. Though Sandberg herself falls on the side of openness and discussion about sexuality, she felt that the views of those against it were important to include in “Seven Passages.”
“I wanted to make sure that there was room for them to come and talk,” she explained.
Although only about one-third of the interviews were used the play, the script also contains pieces of scripture relevant to the topic. “It deals with ‘clobber’ passages that are traditionally used to suppress homosexuality in the church,” Sandberg said.
She was quick to add, however, that the play is far from preachy and makes no attempts to deconstruct such passages. “We let people’s stories speak to the scriptures,” she said.
Also, while the topic of homosexuality and Christianity is a serious one, Sandberg and the Actors’ Theatre made sure to mix humor into the script. “(We) tempered some of the more tragic stories with some who took a stance of resilience and humor,” she said.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, “humor is your only weapon.”
While “Seven Passages” already is turning heads in the theater community a week before its opening, Sandberg confesses that acceptance is a long way away. Calvin College, for example, maintains a non-practicing clause, which states that while it’s OK to be Christian and LGBT, it’s not ok to practice it.
For Sandberg, who loves her job and the church it represents, it’s a difficult issue to grapple with. “It’s going to take a while,” she said of affecting change at the school. “Students really want to talk about it.”
Not one to suppress her beliefs, Sandberg said she’ll stay at Calvin and keep fighting for acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity in the community. “How long it’s going to take, I’m not sure,” she said. “But I’m going to be there to help the dialogue along.”
‘Seven Passages: The Stories of Gay Christians’
Actors’ Theatre at Spectrum Theater on the campus of Grand Rapids Community College. Tickets: $25. For information: 616-234-3946 or http://www.actorsatspectrum.org