When Culture and a Community Church Intersect, the Spire’s the Limit

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Art Sanctuary Founder Lorene Cary C’78 G’78 in the venue for the program, the Church of the Advocate, with paintings by Richard Watson (rear, left) and Walter Edmonds (right). Photo by Candace diCarlo

Usually when you go to an artsevent—be it the ballet, a bookstore reading or a hip-hop concert—the people there, notes Lorene Cary C’78 G’78, “have a resume very similar to you. You kind of know what everybody makes and where they come from and about what their education has been and what they’ve studied and what they agree with.”
    That’s not the case, however, with Art Sanctuary, a program founded by Cary which showcases African-American arts and letters, using a historic North Philadelphia church as its venue.
    At any given event there might be book-club members sharing the pews with schoolchildren, grandparents and professionals, as well as adults struggling to read or make the transition from homelessness. “The feeling is completely different. The sense of community is much larger,” Cary says, because the gathering is not just based on the same class interests.
    As Art Sanctuary was wrapping up its first full year of events this past spring, Cary, a writer and lecturer in the English department at Penn, took some time to explain how it got started:
    On tour for her memoir Black Ice about eight years ago, she began observing the different ways that communities used the appearance of a “not very well-known writer.” One rainy night in Rochester, N.Y., she read in a church filled with more than 500 people. The series, called Rochester Arts and Players, featured a mix of popular and lesser-known writers, and people took out subscriptions for it, like the theater or ballet. “I loved the way this worked,” Cary recalls, leaning forward in her chair in her Bennett Hall office. “I thought to myself later, wow, wouldn’t it be exciting to have such a series that focused on African-American artists.”
    Over the next several years, Cary talked to friends and colleagues, who agreed it was a great idea and said, “Why don’t you make it happen?” She continued to hone her vision with input from numerous community members, as well as advice and seed money from local organizations.
    She hired an enthusiastic staff and last spring began bringing in writers and poets like John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86 (See story on page 40), Terry McMillan and Sonia Sonchez, along with painters, hip-hop dancers, jazz musicians and a photographer. This season’s diverse offerings ranged from an animation workshop for kids and a conference on rape to a retrospective on the Sit-Ins of the 1960s and an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet into a hip-hop ballet. “Just as the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature has a CD in it, because you can’t read some of this literature without hearing the blues, I thought that, similarly, you can’t do such a series that’s just reading.”
    The program’s setting, in the Church of the Advocate at 1801 West Diamond Street, has been critical to its impact, says Cary. “The building itself is awe-inspiring. It’s a six-story-high, French-Gothic cathedral, full of these murals of black struggle.” A National Historic Landmark, the Advocate was the site of Black Power meetings in Philadelphia as well as the ordination of the first 11 women in the Episcopal church.
    “Because it was originally intended as a worship space,” Cary explains, “it does very clearly say that art is about transformation; it is not only about decoration. That it’s [there] to empower and ennoble the spirit—and touch you. And the grandeur of all that space says it’s big enough to entertain conflict,” she adds. “So if we have a hip-hop conference and one person believes one thing and one person believes another, it’s big enough to disagree; it’s OK.”
    To get the word out, the group has held house parties at which they sold annual subscriptions like Tupperware (full “scholarships” are available for those with financial need and people can also pay—according to their means—to see individual performances); posted announcements in the church neighborhood’s newsletter; done radio spots; and relied on generous word of mouth. They’ve also collaborated with community organizations to ensure that an economically diverse mix of people attend events. To this end, Cary introduced a graduate course at Penn in the spring called “Teaching Literature in Community.” Her students spent the first part of the semester reading Wideman’s memoir Brothers and Keepers and studying alternative-education texts. Then they split up to teach the book at various community sites, including a middle school, a transitional program for people who have been homeless and a literacy organization. The culminating event, attended by all these groups as well as the general public, was Wideman’s visit to Art Sanctuary in April.
    “There was a man in the audience from Project H.O.M.E. who said that he’d never been able to focus in his life. He had an extended period of homelessness, and he’s now in this GED class. He said what he learned from reading the book and listening to Wideman was that, ‘Your experiences make you who you are and that you can write about who you are by writing about those experiences —and that’s enough.’ Essentially it was this man really grasping the importance of memoir and identity in our current post-modern life and taking them in as a possible tool in his own intellectual development.”
    If the vaulted spiritual space encourages local folks to let their own creative ambitions soar, it simultaneously provides “grounding” to writers to meet the range of people who love their work, Cary says. She celebrates the contrast, for example, between Dr. Farah Griffin, associate professor of English at Penn, giving a scholarly introduction to Kristin Lattany’s latest novel and “some lady from some book club” coming in and exclaiming about the same text, with a loud clap, “‘I thought that was so fuunn-ny! I had to laugh.’” 
    Plans are in the works for more community-based teaching projects. In addition, Art Sanctuary will bring its first artist-in-residence, an African stilt walker, to North Philadelphia this fall to work with an after-school program. Writers groups have also been formed, adding another dimension to the series, which Cary hopes will one day thrive without her.
    For a section of the city in need of economic and educational sustenance, Cary recognizes all of these programs to be “dessert items.” But she believes the enrichment that comes from interacting with artists on your home turf can have a powerful effect on a neighborhood.
    “It means when you look at this”—Cary picks book after book off her office shelf—“you see this as a community that you’re part of. You’ve written yourself into the history.”

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