It looks like a sunny May afternoon in the St. Margaret’s parish hall, the room filled with teens and adults from St. Margaret’s, First Church UCC, the First Baptist Church and the Game Loft, gathered for the next installment of Encounters. But we know it is a cold December day in the fictitious town of New Salem, Maine, not far from Belfast, in 2009. In this “HBO miniseries,” the central characters are a class of 13-year-olds of diverse social backgrounds and family situations. All of us, including the adults, have a main character that we play, as well as play several other characters to fill out a scene.
Welcome to “Encounters Episode 5 — A Stranger in Need,” where things have gotten very interesting in the town of New Salem. A mysterious stranger has appeared, a 13-year-old boy who calls himself Drew has hitchhiked his way from somewhere south and is apparently headed for Canada. We play out the scenes, making decisions as we go depending on our character’s situation and character traits. Drew is picked up and taken home by a kind local family, the Bucklins, who privately express concern that he might be a run-away, and contact the local police officer. Christopher Bucklin, who shares his room with Drew, looks in Drew’s wallet while he is sleeping and discovers that he is in fact, Justin Bieber. He decides to tell no one. Justin/Drew goes to school with Christopher, where he meets the rest of the 8th grade class. The responses of the class to this stranger are unscripted; we play it out in character. Antonio is resentful. Drew is handsome and is attracting the attention of a girl Antonio has a crush on. My character, Emily, likes Drew, and is very curious as to why he has ended up in New Salem. Christopher tells Olivia Drew’s real identity. Olivia has a huge crush on J Bieb, but she is also gossipy. Can she keep the secret? She agrees not to tell anyone in exchange for a promise of J Bieb’s autograph.
The school bus drops the students off, and, as they are walking home, Drew and a couple of his new friends notice they are being tailed by a black SUV. Drew quickly gives his trademark hat to a shy boy, Ethan, and scuttles away with the help of Christopher and his younger brother. Ethan finds himself confronted by a thug in the black sedan named Turk, who angrily demands to know where he got that hat and drags Ethan into the black SUV. The scenes follow in rapid succession, The thugs end up at the police station where they prove no match for the police officer. A frustrated Ethan has an angry phone conversation with his mother, who thinks he is fantasizing again and refuses to believe he has been kidnapped. Drew and Christopher realize they have to get Drew hidden, so they (miming) tie sheets together and climb out the bedroom window so their father, who is downstairs reading up on early church history, won’t know they have left. They make their way to an abandoned house, where they plan to hide Drew and make arrangements to bring him food and water. Drew is hiding in the closet, and he hears a door in the house creak, and footsteps on the stairs …. stay tuned for the next Episode…
Next we are sitting in a circle at in the Parish Hall, back in our real personae. As the clergy of the host church today, I read the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). We talk about how living the Christian life is about taking care of each other, and how, when we don’t, we isolate ourselves. We explore how each character reacted to the stranger. We pass around our talking stick (actually, “Herbert,” a mechanical plastic 4-legged toy) and each person gets to say something (or pass) about what struck them that day. Patricia or Ray Estabrook gives a one-minute sermon, and we end with our acclamation — “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it!”
Thus goes a typical session of Encounters, our ecumenical teen faith group in Belfast. We always meet on a Sunday at noon, and begin with a reminder of our basic ground rules for how we treat each other, grace, and lunch. Our signature warm-up activities help us to listen to each other and our particular version of “fruitbasket” gets our blood moving and gets us ready for our roleplay.
We started the Encounters program last year, and are now in our second full “season.” The design team of the clergy from the three churches and the Game Loft had as the program objective to help teens see how God is at work in daily life, seen through parables constructed for the present day. The other objective is to have fun! After the “pilot” we got the feedback from the youth in the program, who to a person said “this was so much fun and much better than I expected!” We don’t take a didactic approach; we learn by doing and get to try on responses to ethical challenges through roleplay in a safe environment. I have watched shy children blossom in character, and there are many situations where a scene in New Salem mirrors a situation in real life, like a strained relationship with a parent or a bully at school. Roleplay gives us a safe place to explore what it means to be a Christian in the midst of these challenges.
We recently received a Diocesan grant to develop materials for use by other church groups who would like to develop a roleplay based program for Christian education. Interested? find us on Facebook atwww.facebook.comBelfastEncounters, and contact me at St. Margaret’s Church in Belfast, or Patricia Estabrook at the Game Loft at firstname.lastname@example.org 338-3800.
St. Margaret’s partners with First Church, Belfast, the First Baptist Church and leaders from the Game Loft to pilot a new approach to Christian formation for teens. We are very excited about a new program that features role play as a way to explore Christian themes like hospitality, trust, mystery. Through role-playing, teens (and adults — they get characters too!) get to take on a character that allows them to react or respond in different ways to situations that relate to every day life situations (or perhaps a wee bit exaggerated. The first gathering featured the release of a boa in a third grade class!) After the roleplay we have a disussion about what happened and what we learned from a Christian perspective. One of the teens said after the first gathering: “I thought this would be a lot of really boring talk, but it turned out to be really fun!” Five pilot sessions will be held this spring, and get feedback from all participants. Using this feedback we’ll work out a program for launch in September. A special thanks to Paige Ireland, Paige Taylor, and Jerahmy and Jessica Clapp for being part of the “beta test” team. We are so grateful too for the creativity, energy and experience of Game Loft folks Patricia and Ray Estabrook and Alex Knight. Stay tuned!