Church opens doors to arts groups

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FAITH - BRENDA SUDERMAN

LIKE any good hosts, the peo­ple of Cres­cent Fort Rouge United Church go out of their way to make their guests feel at home.

They’ve re­jigged the sound sys­tem, in­stalled per­ma­nent spot­lights, en­larged their stage, and built new main floor wash­rooms, all in a bid to make their build­ing wel­com­ing to lo­cal arts groups.

“The con­gre­ga­tion here sees the build­ing hav­ing a min­istry to the com­mu­nity. One of the gifts big in­ner city churches have is the gift of space,” ex­plains Rev. Barb Janes, min­is­ter of the Os­borne Vil­lage church.

“We’re happy to in­vite the neigh­bour­hood into ex­pe­ri­ence the beau­ti­ful space.”

Blessed with a cen­tury-old sanc­tu­ary with fab­u­lous acous­tics, a high ceil­ing, and seat­ing for 400 on the main level and an­other 400 on the wrap-around bal­cony, Janes’ con­gre­ga­tion in­vites in the neigh­bour­hood for their own cul­tural pro­gram of drama, films, and mu­sic and any­time they rent their build­ing as con­cert venue to mu­sic groups.

Janes says open­ing their doors to the pub­lic for con­certs and other arts events is a bal­anc­ing act be­tween ac­com­mo­dat­ing the out­side groups and run­ning their own church func­tions. Con­vinced her con­gre­ga­tion wasn’t the only one in that sit­u­a­tion, she re­searched how other con­gre­ga­tions re­late to arts groups, vis­it­ing churches in Saska­toon, Hamil­ton, Kingston and Cleve­land, Ohio, dur­ing a re­cent three-month sab­bat­i­cal.

What she found is that con­gre­ga­tions who host arts groups play to their strengths. If they have space for vis­ual arts, they hang paint­ings, but if they can of­fer great acous­tics, they will host con­certs. Some con­gre­ga­tions screen the type of groups they host, while oth­ers, like St. James Anglican Church in Saska­toon, which has con­verted its parish hall into a not-for-profit arts cen­tre called The Re­fin­ery, have a more arm’s-length re­la­tion­ship with neigh­bour­hood groups.

Janes says be­ing hos­pitable means be­ing gen­er­ous about who uses the space and not as­sum­ing con­cert­go­ers will ever show up on for Sun­day morn­ing wor­ship.

“I think for me it is sim­i­lar to our mis­sion to feed the hun­gry,” she says. “You do it be­cause it is the right thing to do, not be­cause we hope they come to church.”

But open­ing up the venue has un­ex­pected re­wards. For the last sev­eral years, lo­cal rock, punk, metal, and acous­tic bands have played Cres­cent Fort Rouge on week­end nights, usu­ally to small but sup­port­ive au­di­ences, ex­plains church mem­ber Bill Gil­lis, who hosts the events. He says many of the band mem­bers have never been in­side a church be­fore and are over­whelmed they are wel­come to play their mu­sic in­side a tra­di­tional sanc­tu­ary out­fit­ted with pews, stained glass win­dows and a pipe or­gan.

“Lots (of them) go away with their ill-con­ceived ideas of church as shaken as the foun­da­tions of CFR (Cres­cent Fort Rouge) may be by the loud­ness of the mu­sic,” he writes in an email mes­sage.” They are deeply ap­pre­cia­tive of what’s hap­pen­ing here.”

Host­ing lo­cal mu­sic groups is much more than a busi­ness re­la­tion­ship, says Rev. Robert Camp­bell of West­min­ster United Church, a pop­u­lar con­cert venue for more than a dozen cho­ral groups, and the per­ma­nent home for the Man­i­toba Cham­ber Orches­tra.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple visit the Wolse­ley-area church an­nu­ally as con­cert-go­ers or per­form­ers, and re­cently the church has been try­ing to bridge the gap be­tween per­for­mance and wor­ship by invit­ing the pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians to play dur­ing their Sun­day ser­vice.

“For some of our peo­ple who are reg­u­lars in church and reg­u­lars in cham­ber orches­tra, it pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to hear him in a dif­fer­ent set­ting and to hear him in prayer,” says Camp­bell of a re­cent Sun­day morn­ing visit by MCO cel­list Yuri Hooker and one of his stu­dents

But groups who rent these spaces have mixed feel­ings about these venues, says Mike Thompson, pres­i­dent and man­ager of the Win­nipeg Boys’ Choir and found­ing mem­ber of Cam­er­ata Nova, an early mu­sic group, both which have rented Cres­cent Fort Rouge.

“We go into this with our eyes wide open know­ing these are churches,” says Thompson, a for­mer boy so­prano. “But as artists we long for a non-sa­cred space for cho­ral groups.”

Camp­bell says United Churches of­ten make great cho­ral venues be­cause they were de­signed as au­di­to­ri­ums with a pul­pit in the mid­dle of the plat­form with the choir lo­cated di­rectly be­hind. He says the wooden pews also con­trib­ute to good acous­tics, but they can also leave con­cert-go­ers squirm­ing dur­ing a long set, which is why West­min­ster United col­lab­o­rated with MCO on seat cush­ions to soften the im­pact of a long con­cert.

Thompson says arts groups fac­tor in the less com­fort­able seat­ing when they plan the length of their pro­grams at church venues, as well as re­al­iz­ing some po­ten­tial au­di­ence mem­bers may not feel com­fort­able in a church set­ting. He says rent­ing a church as a con­cert venue can of­fer ad­van­tages that make up for the short­com­ings around seat­ing.

“It is re­ally nice get­ting into a space like that and do­ing some­thing else in it than it was in­tended for,” says Thompson, who sings tenor in Cam­er­ata Nova. “You’re bring­ing peo­ple into the church who might never go to the church.”

Janes sees sev­eral ben­e­fits in host­ing arts groups: in­come from rental fees, a sense that the build­ing is be­ing used on more than Sun­day morn­ings, and the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with artists. She says ev­ery time the pul­pit is rolled to the side and the plat­form is cleared to make room for a choir or an orches­tra, there’s a po­ten­tial to learn from the group per­form­ing on stage.

“I think hav­ing the mo­bil­ity to move the fur­ni­ture and transform the space with still hav­ing the abil­ity to speak to our spir­its gives us new ways of see­ing the world,” says Janes.

“The role of the artist is like the role of the preacher: to open up some­thing and catch a glimpse of a bet­ter world.”

WAYNE.GLOWACKI@FREEP­RESS.MB.CA

Rev. Barb Janes, min­is­ter of Cres­cent Fort Rouge United Church.

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