According to 2 Samuel 6:14, “And David danced before the Lord with all his might,” and it was these words that finally convinced the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church to trust their leader, Rev. Edward Sparkman, to rent their beloved Sunday School space to a dance company named Brian Sanders’ JUNK. Additionally, a Shiloh former dining room and meeting space now is home to a theatre company called BRAT Productions. Truth be told, the story starts much earlier.
Shiloh Baptist Church, with an aging congregation of approximately 100 people, has what is the equivalent of an acre of space within three historic buildings. They no longer use their sanctuary for regular Sunday worship. Their congregation is of an age where climbing steps to the second and third floors was difficult for most. The spaces are large and at the time empty as well. It was untenable, plain and simple.
Within Shiloh’s beautiful buildings, there are many amazing rooms on these unused 2nd and 3rd floors (all square footage is approximate):
- Former Sunday School room (Frank Furness designed) – 3500 sq. ft. with 35’ high ceilings.
- Former small Chapel – 1500 sq. ft.
- Former gymnasium/full basketball court – 2400 sq. ft.
- Two dining room/meeting areas – 700 sq. ft.
- Former Boy Scout room – complete with old lockers and shower stalls – 1000 sq. ft.
Every inch of Shiloh’s groundplan was carefully laid out to satisfy the spiritual, mental, and physical needs of their community. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the 21st century, those needs are met outside of houses of worship. Modern families don’t look to their community’s houses of worship as a place where these facilities exist and these needs may be met.
Luckily for Shiloh and the rest of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia, Rev. Sparkman saw that Shiloh could indeed still serve as an asset to the community. Progressive and visionary pastors, such as Rev. Sparkman, are the catalysts for change within these declining congregations. It is not thinking outside of the box but rather what is special about their boxes and how could those spaces be harnessed for others to enjoy.
Partners for Sacred Places (Partners) began its Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places (AiSP) program in August of 2011 merely hoping that their research would ring true and artists would start to invest in these historic and significant properties. Not only did their research ring true, but the artists and their constituent communities and audiences have brought a new level of understanding and appreciation for what these historic houses of worship represent. With the AiSP program only 10 months old, June of 2012, both JUNK and BRAT found themselves within Shiloh’s historic walls. Rev. Sparkman’s leap of faith, along with the pioneering spirits of artists at JUNK and BRAT, brought a new life and a new excitement to Shiloh’s empty 2nd floor. Not only were these participants taking a chance on one another but they were also taking a chance on the Arts program at Partners! They had to be willing to be a part of the experiment not just the recipients of a seasoned well-tested formula. They were part of the testing. They were part of the formula that Partners now uses on a daily basis in all of our Arts work.
JUNK and BRAT are not typical arts organizations. JUNK, like most dance companies, certainly does floor work but their creativity also flies in the air! JUNK needed a space that could allow for many dancers to work on the floor for more routine dance techniques but they also required a space that would have room enough to suspend dancers in the air. Their concrete garage space in the Italian Market section of Philadelphia had about a third of the square footage and nowhere near the height required to stretch the company’s abilities in the air. Shiloh’s Sunday School room was beyond their hopes for a new home. With its slightly springy flooring, high ceilings, natural light, and awe-inspiring views, Shiloh was a perfect fit for their work. Their production of Fall 2013, Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak, reflected an increased capacity and ingenuity for their creative aerial work now that they have 24-hour access to a suspension rig. JUNK’s work, based in a world similar to Cirque du Soleil, is not even remotely typical for what you might expect at this traditional African-American Baptist church, but then again that’s part of what makes this relationship so terrific. Both JUNK and Shiloh see themselves with related missions wanting to engage local and underprivileged youth.
Simply put, BRAT productions is Philadelphia’s “rock n’ roll” theatre company. Ripped directly from their website’s homepage, “Brat Productions takes you out of your comfort zone. We cause a stir…Above all, we’re here to create a world in which theater speaks to everyone—even people who don’t like theatre (at least, not yet.)” They have stayed true to this promise and as part making theatre accessible to all they have continually charged less for their professional productions. These efforts are not lost on the students and younger generations of theatre-goers. When BRAT approached Partners early in 2012 because they were losing their office in two months, time was not on their side. After a site visit to Shiloh Baptist and meeting with the incomparable Rev. Sparkman, BRAT wanted in and the gracious people at Shiloh laughed amiably at the fact that their facilities will now be the homes to both JUNK and BRAT.
Ultimately, this mission and vision alignment between the building and the art which it houses will lead to positive changes for Shiloh not just for the congregation for but the community that they serve. Rev. Sparkman has a saying, “Church is open on more than just Sunday.” and now that is most certainly true. At any given time in Shiloh you hear music from the dance company or see the theatre company prepping for a photo shoot within some of the still empty space within Shiloh’s walls. Other groups have approached Partners wanting to take advantage of the additional spaces within Shiloh that could still use some living spirits, but for the time being Partners has been told, “Well, we are saving that for Brian at JUNK.” That is partnership, kinship, and fellowship in one fell swoop.