Lutherans in the Twin Cities

First Lutheran, St. Paul, embraces the arts

ELCA congregation revisits a medieval tradition

During the Middle Ages,when civic institutions were in collapse, the Church
served as custodian of the arts. Monasteries copied sacred Scripture,
preserving it for the coming of the printing press. Artistry was preserved in
saintly statuary and stained glass. And morality plays were performed under
church auspices in town squares and, sometimes, on the front steps of
church buildings.

Western civilization moved to take back the arts during the Renaissance, an
explosion of learning and culture which began just before Martin Luther’s
birth. Today, Twin Citians expect to see great drama at the Guthrie Theatre,
not at Central Lutheran Church.

But changes are afoot once again. Hard economic times are savaging arts
programs in western culture. Budgets are being slashed. Orchestras in major
cities are disbanding. School funding for “peripheral” programs is declining.
While sports usually escape the axe, the early casualties are often music,
graphic arts, and drama programs.

A pair of arts champions decided to confront the challenge of declining arts
education. They created Young Artists Initiative (YAI), a non-profit
organization, six years ago. Benjamin Lacinda and Jefferson Fietek began the
initiative with a conviction that youngsters in the Twin Cities should have
access to performance opportunities. Both graduates of Minnesota State
University Moorhead (formerly Moorhead State), and both currently on staff at
an arts magnet middle school in Coon Rapids, Lacinda and Fietek wanted to
find a way to fill the gap created by cutbacks in public school arts education.

The founders of YAI set high standards for their program. According to their
publicity, they seek to reach “young artists unable to enroll in arts training
because of high tuition [required] by many arts groups. [YAI] aims to provide
both quality programs, affordable prices with a number of [the] students
receiving scholarship support, and access to high quality theatrical
productions.”

So, what does all of this have to do with Twin Cities Lutheranism? When
Lacinda and Fietek created YAI, their project had no permanent address. But,
says Fietek, a moment of serendipity changed everything. Unexpectedly, one
Lutheran congregation in the Twin Cities came to the rescue. First Lutheran
Church (ELCA), on St. Paul’s east side, has revisited the medieval tradition of
hospitality to the arts. It’s become the sponsor and home for YAI.

“We struck up a relationship with First Lutheran,” Fietek explains. “It was
really a happy accident. We needed adequate space for our workshops and
performances. A friend of mine, a member of First [Lutheran] Church,
suggested YAI consider locating there. We checked it out. We found the
parish to be an arts-based community, and the pastor, the Rev. Chris
Berthelsen, to be arts-friendly. It felt like a perfect match.”

These days, YAI holds its workshops and rehearsals at First Lutheran. An
occasional performance takes place there. Once a year a drama is staged on
an island, at First Lutheran’s Bay Lake Lutheran Camp, north of the Twin
Cities. Most of the productions are offered at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone
Community Center, 179 Robie Street East, in St. Paul, where Neighborhood
House Theatre is located.

While Pastor Berthelsen was on board from the outset, not all the members at
First Lutheran embraced the program right out of the gate. “At first,” says
Fietek, “members didn’t get who or what we were. But they gave it some time
and waited — and checked us out. Now they get it.”

Fietek senses that some of the families whose young people enroll in YAI end
up affiliating with First Lutheran, partly because they spend so much time
there. “My son and I are now members of First Lutheran. For me, it was a
matter of getting back to my own Lutheran roots.”

Using the slogan “bringing the arts to every child,” YAI takes its mission
seriously. There is tuition for classes, but if children can’t afford it they get a
reduction or — if they can demonstrate need and write a convincing essay —
they may get in free. Even with the tuition YAI collects, however, the program
operates on a shoestring. All of the leadership, including Lacinda and Fietek,
are volunteers. Tuition is used to pay for artists and supplies, and to cover
other expenses.

YAI currently offers four stage plays a year, all performed by young people in
the program. “Sometimes audiences show up thinking they’re going to see
something fairly amateurish,” Fietek says. “They always get surprised by the
high-end, high quality productions we stage.”

Says Fietek, “Arts are not entertainment. They are life-enrichers. They help
enhance all of academics. I’ve discovered that some kids, who were potential
school drop-outs, get excited about school for the first time when they can
link it to their participation in a drama event.”

For his part, Fietek says he’s not in it for fame or fortune, or even to fill his
free time (of which he has precious little these days). “We do this because we
love it,” he says, speaking for Lacinda and himself. It’s their goal to lead
young artists-in-training to love the arts just as much as they do.
More information about YAI, and its next scheduled stage production, is
available at www.youngartistsmn.org.