Abstract: The Red Doors Will Never Close: The Performance of an Oral History of St. John's (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Red Doors Will Never Close: The Performance of an Oral History of St. John's

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Congress, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jane Gilgun, PhD, Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background and Purpose. Oral histories are people’s histories, where the lived experiences of persons involved in events of historical significance, such as wars and civil rights movements, are preserved and become part of historical records (Ritchie, 2011). When oral histories are performed, they are within the traditions of performance ethnography and cultural studies that pertain to the study of human rights and social inclusion (Denzin, 2018). In this paper, I present an account of the creation of a performance based upon an oral history of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, a progressive church that is thriving. Most other Christian churches are declining in numbers (Pew Research Center, 2015).

Methods. Between 2013 and 2018, I interviewed 105 members of St. John’s church and audiotaped the interviews. The interviews were transcribed verbatim. I did thematic analysis and open coding to identify key events in the history of the church. From the transcripts, I wrote a performance piece called The Red Doors Will Never Close. We presented the Red Doors at the 100th anniversary celebration of the church building. The actors, now in their seventies and eighties, were persons who gave their oral histories and told their own stories. I videotaped the performance and created a video that is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eq6TLEBRqT4&t=523s.

Findings. I identified a turning point in the late 1960s and early 1970s where membership declined 50%, and the bishop wanted to close the church. The church lost members over controversies related to shifts to a theology of love and inclusion from a theology of sin and penitence, welcoming LGBT persons and the ordination of women. Other controversies were its social justice activism in the civil rights and anti-nuclear weapons movements and changes to church services such as children receiving communion. For about 18 months, between October 1981 and April 1983, St. John’s had no priest because it had no money for salaries. The church was lay-led and relied upon for-hire clergy who presided at Sunday services. Current members of the church thought these were hard times, but the members at the time thought otherwise. The members of the church pulled together to build community through spiritual renewal programs, the hiring on an unpaid charismatic deacon who was a woman, social activities, and advocacy civil rights and anti-nuclear weapons. Membership and church coffers grew. Families with young children joined, stating that they wanted their children socialized into the values and activities that St. John’s embodied. Within a few years, the church had the money to hire a priest whose theology and vision matched those of church members.The audience applauded the members’ stories and laughed at the humor. Performers showed delight as they relived meaningful events as they also corrected current members’ understandings.

Conclusions and Implications. The performance of oral histories engages both performers and audiences and is an opportunity for cultural exchange that illuminates significant historical events. Performances also are a critique of values, beliefs, and practices that run counter to dignity, respect, and autonomy.