A ‘load’ of Jesus

It’s 9:20 p.m.

As a slightly-chill night-air breeze meanders in through massive missing spaces in the factory wall, the Foundry, in Berkeley—a semi-derelict building now used as a kind of collective haven for the arts and artists—is beginning to fill up with guests. It’s Friday, the first of two “Foundry Nights” events that take place here every three months or so. It’s a bit hard to describe. At one end of the second-story level, different visual artists have assembled various expressions of their own creativity, including a cool little hut that looks like a Gypsy Wagon, an enormous mutant-lion sculpture covered with bits and pieces of toys, broken violins, spoons, markers, T-shirts and just about anything else. Near it, suspended by a chain, is what appears to be the world’s largest joint. A short distance away are two white tents, each of which appear (through the magic of overhead projectors) to be occupied by a naked, floating dancer, spinning and twisting up and down through the air. Near the other end of the “room,” is a stage, where an improv actress is dancing with a long chord in a spontaneous comedy/psycho-drama piece about shame. Earlier, the stage was occupied by a woman playing a hurdy-gurdy and a saw. In just a moment, it will be occupied by me.

The usually raucous crowd is mostly reserved tonight, stepping one-by-one from the stairway, out onto the main floor, with a hesitant/expectant look of “w-w-w-what?” The bar is pouring some pretty decent wine, and it being free (drinks come with the price of admission), people are lining up there, where they have a close-up view of the stage. Adam Palafox, who’s been a major supporter of my effort to take ‘Wretch Like Me’ to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is perched way of high at the sound-and-light controls. After a quick rearrangement of chairs and microphones on stage, Adam hits the cue for my opening music (and upbeat guitar instrumental of ‘Amazing Grace). I lay down on the floor, microphone in hand, and begin my performance, a stitched-together “showcase” of snippets from ‘Wretch.’

Clearly, whatever it is people were expecting to happen next, it wasn’t me. The thing about ‘Wretch Like Me’ is . . . it’s about Jesus, right? And people have been so used to being bludgeoned and battered by people using the name ‘Jesus’ as a weapon, that if you are just sitting there at a Berkeley arts party in an old warehouse, a middle-aged bald guy lying on the floor talking about Jesus (well, I did eventually stand up) can be a little unsettling. Those who stuck around quickly got a sense of what I was doing, and by the time I concluded the performance 18-minutes later, a guy at the bar shouted “Amen!” Shortly thereafter, a person wandered by and noted, briefly, “There sure is a fuck-load of Jesus in that play, huh?” Which lead to a conversation with Adam and my friend Kris about how to better set up the performance piece when I repeat it at Foundry Nights this evening. 

“Maybe I should just let people know from the beginning that they are about to get a whole fuck-load of Jesus,” I suggest. 

“Maybe that’s a good idea,” says Kris, thoughtfully. “This isn’t a normal theater, where people know what they’ve bought a ticket for. And ‘Jesus’ is a pretty loaded topic for a lot of people. Maybe you should ease them into it a little more.”

Jesus IS a loaded topic, and of course, that’s a large part of why I am doing this show. Because so many of us are carrying the damage done to use in the name of Jesus. Sometimes, in the course of working on this show, fundraising for this show, rehearsing this show, and basically stressing about this show, I get sidelined by a comment from someone who reminds me why I am doing this show in the first place. Earlier this week, a woman named Lia, who like me, once escaped from the controlling environment of Fundamentalist Christianity, posted something amazing on my Facebook page.

“Hello. Your little story of being saved from being saved is now saving people. I’m finally seeing the light, coming out of the darkness, and discovering that I am not crazy, that my story lines up with what others went through, that I am not alone.”

And that’s really the point. We might not all have been saved from being “saved,” but we’ve all been saved from something. And shows like mine, while they might make people a little uncomfortable here and there, do help people heal the sting that often comes with that word ‘Jesus,’ and hopefully, remind us that someone out there—maybe even a guy on a stage in the a factory in the middle of a wild-and-crazy arts party in Berkeley—has been through what they have, that we don’t have to feel alone.


Art and the Power to Heal—a guest blogger comments

I first met David in 1990, less than 10 years after he had left “Happy Chapel” and moved to Northern California. He was, as he is now, funny, loyal, creative, and a great friend. As I got to know him, it became clear that he was also kind ofangry – about his treatment at the hands of the church leaders he had looked up to. About being sold a bill of goods. About being patronized. About being dismissed. About being made to feel like a wretch.

 I, being a cool-with-Jesus pantheistic type, was more than a little troubled by this. His wounds at the hands of those who led the ostensibly peaceful and accepting Jesus Movement made him extremely wary – almost hostile – toward anything that looked vaguely religious, including some of my spiritual practices. I remember encouraging him to figure out how to let some of that anger go, but I could offer no useful suggestions as to how to go about it.

 Little by little, I came to realize that, although many of his memories of his Jesus days were very painful, some were sweet, profound, funny, and worth preserving. And the more distance he got from those days, the sweeter and funnier the stories got – even to him. One fateful evening, he shared his tales of puppetry, twisted biblical interpretation, and pants wetting to the right people (Thanks Dan and Julia!) and got the encouragement he needed to start writing a play.

 Art has the power to heal. David is proof of that. In the process of writing his story – first in a newspaper article and then as a play – and presenting it to larger and larger audiences, David has openly faced the sadness, frustration, and anger that marked his young life. And through examining his past and once deeply-held beliefs, he has been able to reclaim a lot of what was good about his personal history.

 That good was evident in the way he and his brothers cared for their mother at the end of her life. It’s evident in the liberal and inclusive values he gave to his children. And it’s evident in the curmudgeonly but heart-felt way he has come to embrace the liberal Unitarian Universalist congregation that we now call home.

 I think the world needs this story – both the story on the stage and the one behind the scenes, the one 10 years and a lifetime in the making. It’s the story of how one man turned his travails and hurts into art.

Susan Panttaja
Married to David Templeton 18 years