What follows is an excerpt from a book that I am writing about spiritual formation:
Each August the Hellermans spend several weeks vacationing in the mountains, in Mammoth Lakes, CA. One afternoon, on one of our getaways, our oldest daughter (then thirteen years old) came out of her room with a play she had written. Rebekah has always been into drama. She had participated in a number of children’s theater productions at our previous church. On the home front, Rebekah recruited neighborhood friends and staged “plays” before a captive audience of indulgent parents.
Now she had written a full-length Christmas play. In August. It was actually kind of cute. Corny, but cute. Margy, our worship leader who joins us in Mammoth each year, read the script and liked it. The following week she passed it on to one of our pastors. Duke said, “Let’s do this thing. It can be our Christmas program this year.”
Rebekah recruited kids to play the parts. Margy turned the story into a musical with eight wonderful songs tailored to fit the range and musical abilities of the kids. Guided by Margy and our Children’s Director, Rebekah organized the rehearsal schedule and directed her play. At a Sunday morning service in mid-December, Rebekah’s dream came to life.
On This Night was hardly a professional undertaking. The kids sang in and out of tune and, of course, they butchered their lines here and there. But the play was meaningful. Rebekah and her cast were beaming. And the church absolutely loved it.
So began an adventure that continues to unfold today, sixteen years later. The following year, Rebekah came out of her room in Mammoth with another play. And then another the summer after that. For four years, during high school, Rebekah wrote and directed the Christmas program for our church, Oceanside Christan Fellowship (OCF). The productions got better and better. The kids grew and grew, both in their acting and singing skills and in their confidence in front of an audience. What began as the lone creative exercise of a thirteen-year-old kid was now becoming a church tradition.
Then Rebekah went away to college at Biola University and could no longer run the fall rehearsals. With no play and no director, OCF’s fledgling Christmas tradition was no more. But Rebekah would never forget how God used her in the lives of those kids.
Biola University had no theater major at the time, so Rebekah majored in education. When she finished her student teaching, she had a job waiting for her at a local grammar school. But Rebekah had other plans. “I want to start a non-profit academy of the arts that stages plays for kids and young people. My vision is to build character through the arts, based on Judeo-Christian values.”
The pragmatist in me was a bit troubled that my daughter was about to turn down a teaching job in a great school district for an entrepreneurial adventure of questionable fiscal viability, but the timing was right: Rebekah was done with school, she was single, and she was financially debt-free. We invited her to move back home for awhile to see if she could get her academy off the ground. And did she ever.
Today Haven Academy of the Arts stages four large productions each year involving several hundred children. The academy also runs theater camps during the summer and has now launched another branch in inner city Los Angeles. A production of Little Women that Rebekah directed through an adult arm of Haven was chosen by Broadway World as one of the ten best plays in Los Angeles in 2013.
Haven gainfully employs not only Rebekah but her sister Rachel, as well, along with several part-time staff. The academy ministers to both Christian and non-Christian families. Our church auditorium serves as the venue for the children’s plays. Rebekah brings more unchurched families into our facility during a single Haven production than we see on site all the rest of the year. A little church believed in a little girl and the rest is history.
As a grateful father reflecting back with no little wonder on my daughter’s pilgrimage, I am reminded of several providential factors without which Rebekah’s vision would not have become a reality. Perhaps most significant was the size of our church at the time. When Rebekah was in high school, OCF was a church of about 150. OCF now has 800 Sunday attenders. We are much too large to give an entire church service over to an unprofessional theater production directed by a high school kid. The expectations of our people are just too high. Not only is a smaller church less formal and more willing to indulge a creative teenager like Rebekah. A small church is also virtually forced to function intergenerationally. As it turned out, this was the most significant factor of all.
Margy, our Worship Director, poured herself into Rebekah. Christy, our Children’s Director, poured herself into Rebekah. And Rebekah poured herself into the kids in her cast. Parents and children from a couple dozen church families spent hours and hours together every November painting sets, figuring out sound and lighting, designing costumes. Both OCF pastors had kids in the plays, so Duke and I, along with our wives, were regularly present to provide direction and encouragement, as well.
Rebekah benefited greatly from the mentoring, though she certainly had her moments. At one rehearsal she became exasperated with her sister and addressed her with one of those “use-this-only-at-home” nicknames (and not when mom and dad are around). “HEY, BUTT-FACE!” Rebekah hollered at Rachel, right in front of a couple dozen primary-aged church kids playing supporting roles in the play. Oops! No worries. Rebekah apologized, parents were satisfied, and rehearsals continued on schedule.
Many of the relationships Rebekah developed with older adults and younger children continue to this day. One in particular deserves mention: “Uncle Bob” is a single man in our church who is now in his late seventies. With a prior interest in theater, Bob proved to be a big fan of the Christmas plays. Uncle Bob became Rebekah’s photographer, a task he still enjoys. When she finished college and launched her academy, Bob served as one of her Rebekah’s board members, and he has been overseeing Haven’s finances ever since. Over the years Bob has been my daughters’ foremost cheerleader in their love for theater. One summer Bob took both Rebekah and Rachel to New York (all expenses paid) for several days, so the girls could view some top-rate Broadway productions.
Several years ago a marquee on a church a few blocks from my home proclaimed, “What You Are Makes Us What We Are.” How flattering! It’s all about me and what I bring to the party! Not in Rebekah’s case. For her we ought to put up a sign in front of OCF that reads, “What We Are Makes You What You Are.”
Rebekah found her place in God’s story—and she has matured in Christ—because she was relationally embedded in a healthy intergenerational church family of individuals who could speak into her life.