Go Deeper

Sacred Spaces and the Arts: Broad Street Ministry

Posted June 7th, 2012

Prarthana Jayaram is a Philly-based writer and regular Festival Blog contributor.

A performer commands the stage in the Sanctuary at BSM.

From the outside, the Broad Street Ministry is an impressive castle-like building, a place you assume is home to an old, rich, and  rigid religious tradition. The church is focused on spirituality, and  explores spirituality through multiple avenues, including not only traditional worship, but also community service and the arts.

The building’s interior is much like the outside, but it has a handful of quirks that reveal the space’s adaptability and assorted purposes. Liam O’Donnell, the arts marshall for the Ministry, engages with artists and makes arrangements and preparations for them at the building. With his leadership and commitment to the arts, the Broad Street Ministry has become a center for the Philadelphia arts community.

“Every time art has been a part of our community, it has made the environment richer and better,” he says.

O’Donnell has a wealth of knowledge on the various arts relationships the Ministry has fostered over the years and how the history of the space aligns with its background. The Sunday School Room, for instance, was once used for concerts, but the ceiling below did not hold up to hundreds of people jumping and dancing. Rather than turn away potential bands, the Broad Street Ministry moved their performance space to what O’Donnell calls the “virtually indestructible” room downstairs. The Sunday School Room has thus served various purposes over the years. Not only has it been a concert venue, it has also housed visiting children for summer programs, and provided shelter to Philadelphians in need.

A big smile on the balcony.

“It’s funny to think that kids have slept in this room, homeless people have slept in this room, and Cro-Mags has played in here,” O’Donnell says with a laugh.

The other major space used for artistic purposes is The Sanctuary, a large high-ceilinged room facing the street. Two visual arts pieces currently hang high overhead, always suspended above the room’s activities. One of the pieces consists of paper birds, crafted from pieces of paper with people’s prayers written on them.

“This is the room that incorporates art the most visibly,” O’Donnell explains, “People’s hopes and dreams and desires are hanging over your head.”

With space to spare and a willingness to time-share the building between different arts groups, the Broad Street Ministry has opened itself up to becoming a valuable resource for many artists. One of the longstanding relationships they have sustained is with the Hybridge Arts Collective, a Philadelphia-based group that produces and presents performing arts shows. Hybridge has hosted its performance series, Last Mondays, out of the building every month for the past two years. Directors Sam Tower, Kelly Turner, and Brie Hines coordinate the series—each installment features a family-style pasta dinner and a performance featuring different artists each month.

While Hybridge pays for the food, space, and the staff for the series, the Broad Street Ministry provides a chef to make the meal and the flexibility for whatever set-up the performance needs.

“Broad Street Ministry is a hub for the arts community. It was a perfect fit right away,” says Tower. “It has always been an equal collaboration; they are invested in the series.”

When the group sat down with O’Donnell in 2009 to hash out their ideas for Last Mondays, they found him overwhelmingly open and supportive of their efforts. The relationship has grown, and at this point, “I can’t imagine it anywhere else,” says Turner.

Hybridge has built up a good relationship with the Broad Street Ministry perhaps in part due to the alignment of much of the work each organization does. The arts group is currently overhauling their Last Monday series to make it more focused and a better overall performing arts fixture in Philadelphia. With a plan in the works for the “Blueprint Development Series,” a quarterly performance featuring one artist in residence for several installations, Hybridge feels it will be more able to offer a performance opportunity to Philadelphia artists than with Last Mondays. Their dedication to being a valuable arts resource is similar to the Minstry’s.

With all of these performances, BSM still manages to keep the floors shiny and clean.

Whereas other religious spaces may sometimes get hung up on whether their facility is being used for activities directly applicable to a religious message, the Broad Street Ministry sees it as a responsibility of theirs to provide a home for the arts. O’Donnell explains that he sees the Ministry as a community space, and art helps to build community.

One thing that Hybirdge’s founders are proudest of is the collaborations and connections that they have fostered through the series. That aligns well with the goals of the Broad Street Ministry, too.

“Everything [Broad Street] does is about being a place that is a resource for people of faith to explore faith; they want it to be an open place for exploration and learning,” says Tower.

“We’re a different kind of church,” says O’Donnell simply. “For some churches, there is going to be a question around whether artists are disrespecting them and the tradition they are maintaining. For us, God is bigger than these little things that we think offend God.”

He mentions that swearing or sexual content are not in themselves offensive or prohibited in the arts pieces that grace the Ministry building. O’Donnell is more concerned with what the artist is doing with the content and what message s/he promotes. While the Broad Street Ministry is, at its core, a Christian church with a relationship to Presbyterianism, it is not strictly Presbyterian or outright religious in all of its activities.

“It’s important that we all participate, not necessarily all doctrinally agree,” says O’Donnell of the congregation and the staff at the Ministry.

For all of this, O’Donnell makes it clear that, although art is congruent with the Ministry’s mission, they are not looking to trick people into becoming involved with church activities. Many people come to the Broad Street Ministry to be a part of the arts community (either as audience members or performers) and leave their relationship at that. Others come to a performance and take an interest in the worship services or community service that the church does.

“We are not comfortable with having an ulterior motive,” says O’Donnell. “We don’t do art to trick anyone or make them feel pressured to do service or worship.”

At the same time, he wants everyone to feel welcome to be a part of the space in any capacity in which they wish. Indeed, one of his favorite parts of working with the arts, he says, is seeing the look of delight on some artists’ faces when they hear about the service activities the Ministry supports and organizes.

“They are very adamant about not letting the fact that they are faith-based shut people out,” agrees Turner, explaining that sometimes faith-based organizations can have difficulty working with artists simply because of prejudices.

It is hard for artists to ask a space what is acceptable because artists don’t want to be presumptuous about the community’s values. Turner points out that many progressive religious groups do not receive much positive attention, as there are a lot of preconceptions about a church community; artists don’t want to offend them, and they also do not want to be censored. By the same token, Turner speculates, churches want to foster community relationships without violating their own values.

“I think both sides are probably scared,” she concludes.

Overall, the strong relationship that the Collective and the Ministry have formed is valuable, but rare. The Ministry building strives to be involved with many aspects of the arts scene around Philadelphia, which often means that it cannot commit to a specific set of arts activities year-round. Instead, BSM tries to stretch itself as wide as possible, housing a diverse group of arts interests for shorter periods of time.

“If you want to live somewhere as an arts organization, you really need to trust a place to consistently give you what you need, and we can’t do that,” explains O’Donnell. The Ministry is more interested in casting its net wide and creating relationships with many different kinds of arts organizations.

That said, there are several arts groups that continually use the Ministry building, Hybridge included. It seems to be more about the balance and the timing. For his part, O’Donnell is pleased when he can build a relationship with an arts organization in which they keep coming back; it’s just that he can’t make  promises to groups looking for a permanent “home” at the Ministry.

“We have more dance partners than we do steady boyfriends or girlfriends,” he quips.

Good night, folks.

At large, the Ministry is expanding its visibility in the arts community and providing an opportunity for artists to showcase their work in various ways. Their dedication to arts in the community has made them an open resource for artists around the city, especially due to their efforts not to let their religious affiliation alienate anyone.

Tower sums up, “Working with Broad Street Ministry has made me way more confident about working with faith-based spaces.”

–Prarthana Jayaram