By Stan Friedman
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA (March 7, 2012) – The two performances of Les Miserables by First Covenant Church youth and students from the nearby magnet school were more than grand productions.
“Kids have gained more than just experiences with a musical performance – they have gained chances to build significant relationships with caring adults and to grow spiritually,” says Kate Makosky, First Covenant’s youth pastor.
The church youth have been performing musicals with students from Farnsworth Aerospace School for several years. The school serves children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Most of the students in the school are from low-income families. Farnsworth has no arts program so students have few options to explore their gifts.
Those gifts were on display during the performances at a local high school. The shows were held in place of the Sunday morning worship on February 26 and again on the following Tuesday.
“Someone in attendance on Sunday commented to one of us that there must be a story behind each cast member that we don’t even know – and it is so true,” says Makosky. “These teenagers embodied the voice of the oppressed, singing songs of redeemed and hopeful people – they were able to convey deep truths in ways they were, and weren’t, even aware of.”
The first musical to combine any of the children was in 2006, when Farnsworth still provided a one-hour release program that allowed elementary students to leave campus for religious instruction. Richard Voth, First Covenant’s director of worship arts, invited those students to participate in the church’s musical production.
Due to scheduling necessities, the Farnsworth students practiced on Saturdays while the church youth met primarily during the week. The production and another one the next year went so well that the opportunity was opened to all Farnsworth students in 2008. The school administration invited recruiting on campus.
The church alternates the age group of students participating in the plays each year. Last year was kindergarten through fourth grade. This year, cast and crew were fifth through eighth grades.
Students attended rehearsals at least twice a week for three months, says Voth. Lead performers also met for an additional rehearsal.
Logistical issues are inherent to any production, but organizers encountered more than normal. About 25 of the 35 Farnsworth students do not have access to computers at home, so they could not be reached by email or social media.
Church members needed to provide transportation for many of the Farnsworth students to each of the rehearsals. The congregation also provided meals for all the students at every rehearsal.
Wednesday night rehearsals would follow the weekly all-church dinner. Leaders cut 45 minutes of practice time so students could participate in small discussion groups that focus on issues such as relationships and problems at school. Voth emphasizes that the gatherings are not Bible studies. “That’s part of our agreement with the school.”
Members of Farnsworth’s staff initially were skeptical about the relationship between the school and church, but are now enthusiastic, says Voth, adding that new faculty members often raise questions. “We don’t do any proselytizing. We are giving students the opportunity to experience the magic of theater. Once they see how it is done and what the kids are getting out of it, then they’re supportive.”
Adults, including church leaders, have benefitted spiritually from the undertaking, says Makosky. “It is incredibly humbling and inspiring. These musicals are also a great reminder of how much we rely on God as we step into relationships, equip leaders to build new relationships, work at technically demanding works of art and also communicate truth through the performances.”
Jorge Martinez, who co-directed the musical, wrote in the playbill, “Working with young people in a project with the level of difficulty of Les Miserables has been very challenging; however, young people are often not aware of their own talent. Frequently after a rehearsal, I would go home moved by the moments and emotions they had inadvertently created just a few minutes earlier.”
Makosky says the students have been excited to be in the production. They only wished they could do another performance.