Lutherans in the Twin Cities

[These kids] realize they aren’t so different after all

Minnesota’s oldest Lutheran congregation found a creative way of reaching neighborhood kids.

“We’re offering a place where young people of different faiths, ethnic backgrounds and talents can embrace their differences,” says Jef-ferson Fietek, president of Youth Arts Initiative (YAI), an outreach program of First Lutheran Church, St. Paul (ELCA). “Once they find other arts-minded people, they realize they aren’t so different after all.
“Everybody wants to feel that they belong, but arts-minded kids realize that they think differently from other people. In YAI they aren’t competing, they’re here for the fun of being together, feeling safe to be who they are.” Participants are elementary, middle and high school students.

YAI assembles a variety of classes, spring and fall arts jams, summer theater camp, and youth arts internships. Their recent successful season includes a summer production of “Godspell” in northern Minnesota; a return to the city for Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Com-munity Building; and Sep-tember’s East Side Family Festival with games, food, arts projects and entertainment.

In October 2006 YAI is rehearsing its first-ever dinner theater production, Dahl’s “The Witches.” [See box on page 9 for location, dates and times.]

“When you attend the show, you are at the witch’s convention,” Fietek explains. “It’s family-friendly and not too scary.”

YAI keeps its ambitious program alive by virtue of its committed volunteers, both arts professionals and community members. The program has grown from a theater arts program established in 2004 by Fietek and another arts educator, Benjamin Lacina. Their expanded program includes training in dance, voice, acting, playwriting, design, painting, photography, and other visual and performing arts. They hope to add poetry and creative writing.

“Our classes, offices and rehearsals are at First Lutheran Church,” Fietek says. “We owe our existence to First Lutheran. They are our fiscal agent. In theatrical terms, they’re the producer. We’re not a religious organization; we’re a community organization just as a church is. We’re open to all faiths. We want to be a part of the community and the community to be a part of us.”

First Lutheran, St. Paul, at 152 years, is the oldest Lutheran church in Minn-esota. At one point, the congregation thought of leaving the city. “We decided to stay,” says Pastor Chris Berthelsen. “We’re constantly brainstorming for ways to reach out to the community, and one of the best ways is through children.” The relationship with YAI has been a good fit.
“Our mission statements are similar,” says Berthelsen. “We each believe that cost should not stand in the way of kids’ opportunities. Mem-bers of our congregation who have expertise in the arts offer classes in YAI.”

According to Berthelsen, First Lutheran Church gets back at least as much as it gives. “It’s great for us as a congregation, instilling us with young energy.”
“Volunteers from the church work on costumes and scenery and make lunch for our student actors,” Fietek says. “People contribute their time because they believe in what we’re doing.”

Fietek, who teaches at Fred Moore Middle School Center for the Arts in Anoka, is himself a full-time volunteer with YAI in summer, part-time during the school year.

YAI remains accessible and diverse. “We thought we’d be providing services for kids from the East Side of St. Paul,” Fietek explains, “but we’re filling a need citywide. If a youngster can’t afford our classes, they write us a letter explaining why, and we make sure they get in.”

Donations are always welcome, he says, and all contributions go straight into programs. Most gifts come from individuals and families.

“We try to find shows with a mix of roles for boys and girls, and shows that are as ethnically open as possible. We do blind casting, which means, for example, that a brother and sister [as cast in a play] might be from different ethnic backgrounds, but there are families like that,” Fietek says, citing African-American, Hispanic and Hmong as ethnicities represented in YAI.

He continues, “Kids are waiting to register for our summer 2007 camp, when we plan to produce Disney’s ‘Aladdin Jr.’” Bay Lake Camp, near Deerwood, is owned by First Lutheran Church. Sessions there are for campers ages 12-18. A shorter in-town theater camp caters to ages 9 and up.

“Aladdin” performances are set for June 29—July 1, 2007, in Deerwood. Other plans for 2007 include a spring show, Stephen Sond-heim’s “Into the Woods Jr.,” March 16-25, and “Alice in Wonderland,” at the Well-stone Center, August 17-26.

Fietek is enthusiastic about YAI’s youth internship program. “We stand back and let them run the show, whether it’s working on costumes, makeup or lighting. An intern going into tenth grade directed ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ A costume intern going into seventh grade researched fashions of 1978 for the show.

“Sometimes adult volunteers are surprised that if something goes wrong and student interns ask, ‘What should we do?’ our response is ‘What do you think we should do?’ If you set the bar low, they’ll [perform] low. If you set it high, they’ll go high to reach or exceed our expectations.”

* * *

Young Artists Initiative Interactive Dinner Theater production

* What: “The Witches” by Roald Dahl

* Where: First Lutheran Church, 463 Maria Ave., St. Paul

* When: October 20, 21, 27, 28 at 7 p.m.; October 22, 29 at 1:00 p.m.

* For ticket prices and further information, call 651/776-7210 or visit www.youngartistsmn.org.