Bailout The(ater)ology

August 05, 2012

by Rev. Micah Bucey
Minister of the Arts

 For Your Meditation:

“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy.” ― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, 63.
Bailout The(ater)ology

Pillar 1: Food

So what in the heck goes on here every first Wednesday of each month? What are we doing? Why do we keep doing it? What exactly is Bailout Theater? Some of you might think you know the answer to that question and I would say, no matter what you’re thinking, you are probably right. Because those of us who participate in Bailout Theater do a pretty good job of restraining ourselves from defining what it is. You could say that this restraint grows out of fear that defining it might risk the exclusion of those who might define it differently. You could say that this restraint grows out of fear that defining it might tarnish the magic that happens when we just gather together, fly by the trusting, hardworking, slightly insane seats of our pants, and let it happen. These fears of definition are certainly taken into consideration whenever we attempt to concoct language for our website or when we attempt to say to our friends, “No. You really should come. Yes, it’s a church, but it’s not like a churchy-church-church…it’s like a cool church where they don’t really do churchy-church things, but it’s still like a non-churchy-church church.” You know you’ve done it.

And though my intention today is not to define Bailout Theater, I think it can be infinitely nourishing for our community to stand back, take stock, laugh at ourselves, pat ourselves on the back, and ask: What are we all doing here?
I’ve invited several of our most generous artists from the past few years of Bailout Theater to join us today so that they might see what happens within these walls before the sun goes down. They already deserve our respect for simply being awake and with us this early in the morning, as I know that at least some of them don’t typically even see the inside of their apartment before 11am, let alone the inside of a church. But I’ve brought them here for several other reasons as well.

Bailout Theater, in my opinion, is a sort of midweek worship service. Sh. Don’t tell anyone. And, by being a sort of midweek worship service, it acts as an extension of the Sunday morning service at which we currently sit. And, by acting as an extension of the Sunday morning service, it acts as an extension of the ministry and spiritual life of this church overall. Whether you agree with me or not, we’re going to experiment today and ask ourselves: What is church? What are the elements that construct it? And, as more and more people turn away from churchy-church-churches, how do we continue to be a non-churchy-church-church that matters?

There are five elements that make up Bailout Theater. You see them in all of my exhaustive, exhausting emails. They’re the pillars that hold up the program, even as we continuously wonder whether the program itself will even continue. Today, we’re going to explore these five pillars: Food, Art, Community, Space, and Free. Yes, I know that last one is an adjective, not a noun, but we’ll get to that later.

For now, let’s start with Pillar Number One: Food. You’ve got it right in front of you. Christine and our whole Bailout All-Star Kitchen crew are cooking it as I speak. It’s the thing that literally keeps us alive. This meal you’re sharing today, this hodgepodge of generous donations and awe-inspiring reconstitutions is representative of the meal that is served, shared, and enjoyed at every Bailout Theater event.

J.R.R. Tolkien, though he’s much better known for his prose about hobbits and elves, once said, “If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”1 Well, we’re pretty merry at Bailout Theater and at Judson in general, so we must be doing something pretty close to right. Today, the food you’re enjoying had its genesis in meetings several years ago that occurred between some of the Judson staff and congregants. They wanted to respond to the blossoming financial crisis with something that was like a soup kitchen, but not really a soup-kitcheny-soup-kitchen-soup-kitchen. We have a habit of wanting to be a little different. What resulted was an all-inclusive platform where our building doors were opened wide to invite in anyone who wanted to simply come and watch a movie and, oh, by the way, also eat some free food. Those of you who were in those initial meetings know who you are and we thank you from the bottoms of our Judsonite hearts.

Eventually, I came around and more importantly, Christine Binder came around, and Bailout Theater evolved, clunkily, beautifully, deliciously, into what it is today. So, to show our appreciation, would you join me in the Call to Worship printed in your bulletin? Speak loudly, so Christine and her crew can hear you over the sizzling garlic.

Pillar 2: Art

So we move on to our second pillar, another foundational pillar, the pillar that typically keeps the remainder of our Bailout Theater audience coming back each month. This second pillar is Art. It seems appropriate that we might talk about art at one of our famous Judson Agape services, because, as author Chuck Klosterman so beautifully puts it, “Art and love are the same thing. It’s the process of seeing yourself in something that is not you.”2 Though Klosterman is speaking of romantic love, I think we can agree that agape can be quite similar, particularly agape done Judson-style.

If you’ve been to one of our arts events in the past few years, you have probably heard me say repeatedly in my opening speech that I firmly believe artists are this world’s modern-day equivalent of the ancient prophets. They themselves, as well as their artistic output show us where we’ve been, where we are, and what we could become, good or bad. The ancient prophets, those faithful, kooky men and women who seem so far away now, those who dedicated their lives to proclaiming words that often went unanswered, misunderstood, or even unheard, are, I believe, vibrantly present within all of the artists who take the time to enter our building, reach out to our community, and offer the purest representations of what lies within the deepest nooks and crannies of their and our hearts. Is it sometimes messy? Yes. Is it sometimes offensive? Absolutely. Is it sometimes completely the opposite of your taste or my taste? Awesomely, yes. But art is not supposed to necessarily be to your or my taste. Experiencing art is and should be the process of experiencing something you’ve never thought before. It should even sometimes be the process of experiencing something you hope to never think again. Prophets have a tough job. That’s why it’s so important that they have a safe place and a generous audience available to them.

We don’t have time for a full history lesson this morning, but if you know what started to happen artistically here at Judson in the 1960s, please raise your hand. All right, any of you who don’t have your hands up, look around and spot someone you can interview after the service. It’s a fascinating story and it informs everything we do at Bailout Theater today. Don’t leave today without connecting with one of our Judsonite historical human encyclopedias. They know who they are and they are eager to meet you!

Ministers Howard Moody and Al Carmines, along with countless others, shaped something here fifty-some years ago that was not just an arts program. It was an artistic revolution. It resulted in nothing less than a church, one of those crotchety establishments that grows increasingly more of a dirty word as time goes by, opening its doors, hands, and hearts to the offerings of its surrounding artistic community. Not only was Judson simply revolutionary because it was offering space and a platform to little-known artists, but Judson was even more revolutionary in its interest and success in integrating the spirit of this artistic community with the spirit of its own religious community.

Today, I, along with all those who support Bailout Theater in every capacity, have the same philosophy. The art that happens here on Wednesday nights and on any other night where we can wedge in a happening, is theology. It is God-talk in its purest form. And when I say “God,” I’m using twelve-step lingo, as in “God as we understand God.” Sure, we’ve got atheists performing. We’ve got agnostics performing. We’ve got damaged Christians performing, devout Buddhists performing, and even some…gasp…actual happy Christians performing. But here’s the thing: We hardly ever say the word “God.” Instead, we conjure it together, in every note of a singer like Jonny or Sara or Heather’s songs, in every line of a poet like Moon or Isaac or Amanda’s prose, in every graceful step of a choreographer like John or Carlye’s dance.

Are we using the works of these prophets without their consent? Are we appropriating their art for our own selfish, political, theological reasons? Perhaps. But we’re not doing anything different from what happens to their offerings in any other venue. At any other venue, any theater, bar, loft, or street corner, their art would be experienced and scrutinized, judged and critiqued, accepted or condemned, appropriated or dismissed. It happens all the time. Art is a part of our lives every day, whether we think we like art or not, and we’re constantly evaluating and then ignoring it.

But what does happen here at Judson that’s different from most other venues is that we make art sacred. We’re not simply a church that rents out a particular space for particular rental fees, though that would be a significant contribution in itself. Instead, we ask artists to enter into our community, to offer what they have to give, to take what we have to offer, and to feed the revolution of this program by participating in a sort of co-evolution. The revolution of our arts program can be found in the fact that it exists at all, but the evolution within our arts program is my favorite part. I see it happen several times a week. I see it in the wide eyes of all artists who have become so accustomed to the word, “No,” all artists who have wilted into abused salespeople who are constantly trying to prove why they should be allowed the opportunity to sell what they are so eager to give away.
All we ask an artist to do is to be honest and open. In return, we are honest and open. This honesty and openness evolves throughout the course of every Bailout Theater evening.

I see this evolution also in our audience, or, as I like to call them, Judson’s “other congregation,” a congregation filled with folks who return week after week just to see what’s cooking on and offstage. One of these “congregants,” upon first entering our space, incredulously asked me, “So…you’re a church? What’s the catch? What do you want from us?” Nothing! We already spend the rest of our lives, even much of the rest of our lives at this very building, worrying about the “catch.” Bailout Theater is about taking a few days out each month and allowing the experience itself to be the “catch.” It’s allowing the experience of art to be a simple act of staying present for an artist, using that artist’s offering as a mirror for ourselves, and finding one another within that interchange, eager for evolution.

Ancient prophets acted as conduits, catalysts for pointing seekers toward an honest encounter with God, as they understood God, and for allowing that encounter to edge themselves and others toward evolution. The artists at Bailout Theater might not be babbling in tongues or walking naked through the streets, although I might not put it past them, but their voices are undeniably filling this space with joyful noise, the resounding echoes of which give us the magic lens through which we see ourselves in them and God in ourselves.

Pillars 3, 4, & 5: Community, Space, Free

So, in the interest of time, and so the actual bulk of this service is devoted to the unique voices of our Bailout prophets, I’ve combined our last three pillars into this final little sermonette. But they belong together anyway. Our third, fourth, and fifth pillars are those of Community, Space, and Free. Both of the nouns, Community and Space, are things that human beings sorely need. And the adjective, Free, describes the way that Bailout Theater gives all of these nouns: Food and Art and Community and Space.

Now, do I have some cock-eyed, optimistic, naive belief that Bailout Theater exists without that oh-so-dreaded, oh-so-desired green stuff we call money? Do I think this program comes totally free? Of course not. This program exists because many of you give green stuff to this church so we have the ability to keep the lights shining, to keep the heat or the air conditioning blowing, and to keep certain universities from pulling our space out from under us before we’re ready to go. But that’s just the thing. Thanks to the amazing people who established this unique community and space more than a century ago, and thanks to the amazing people who have continued to tend and care for this community and space over subsequent decades, we have community and space. It’s as simple as that. We as Judson are a community. We as Judson are a space. And, though it may be hard to believe, there are dozens of hundreds of thousands of people out there who don’t have either one of these things, or at least don’t believe that they have either one of these things.

I’m on a roll today with these author quotations, so let’s lift up one more, this time from a personal hero, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut. On this topic he says, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”3 There we have it, from one of our most acerbic modern-day prophets, a sincere plea for community, for younger generations to establish space for this community, and for them to do so freely. Because yes, when it comes to things we need, food is going to be the big one, shelter and clothing are going to be up there, too, and you know crazy Micah’s going to put art up there, too, but, in these times of instant Facebook “likes” and careless YouTube “comments,” we’re forgetting how to simply be together, with abandon, and being together with abandon could be the easiest way to make every day of our lives more livable.

I’ve already talked about how we give space to artists and by now you’ve probably figured out my convoluted and manipulative way of showing how all five of these pillars are so permeable as to continuously flow freely into one another. But the other group we give space to is, well, anyone. At Bailout Theater, we open our door each night and, as long as you don’t do or say anything mean, and are respectful of the artists performing, you are welcomed, freely. Now, I realize that there are other places where one could find a free place to sit and be alone, maybe to read a book at the library, or to sit in Washington Square Park, but where else in this city can you walk through the door, not pay a cent, get a free, all-natural meal, see an artist you’ve probably never heard of before, and talk to as few or as many people as you desire? I really don’t know.

This is what I mean theologically when I describe our program as “free.” I know we need money. People who are more in touch with reality remind me of this fact sometimes when they feel like I’m in a particularly receptive mood, which is usually after one of our more successful events, say, when we’ve served around 250 guests. But, even though there’s green stuff working behind the scenes, I believe it is utterly imperative that we not think about money for the two or three hours that we share together at each event. Because money will still be there when we’re done. Loneliness will still be there when we’re done. Hunger will still be there when we’re done. But, if we stay in the practice of gathering together these few times per month and reimagining what food, art, community, and space could be like if we were freely giving it, freely using it, and freely sharing it, our own eager evolution might begin to erode the stagnant regression that seems to be paralyzing that poorly-rich, apathetically-political world around us.

So that’s the equation for each and every Bailout Theater event: The restaurants freely give the food they already possess in exchange for advertisement to a new community. The artists freely give the art they already possess in exchange for an introduction to a new space and community. The community freely gives the attention they already possess to new food and new art in exchange for a space where they can truly feel welcomed when they are there, missed when they are gone, and always, always loved. This is what Bailout Theater is and this is what I believe church, even non-churchy-church-church, must be and become, if it is to survive. I thank God, as I understand God, that this astonishing place we call Judson Memorial Church has never doubted its commitment to revolution or evolution. These are two of the only free things we’ve got left.


1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 290.
2. Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, 217.
3. Kurt Vonnegut, commencement address, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, May 26, 1974.

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