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In 2006, when the Reverend Erik Christensen arrived at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago, IL, it had twelve members. Today, the church has 114 members, its finances are stabilized, and its building is buzzing with the activity of space-sharing partnerships that emerged out of a redevelopment effort led by the pastor, who worked closely with the congregation to identify the church’s core mission – community health and community arts – and how to live that out in the community. 

Through the congregation’s embrace of the arts, the idea emerged for an Artist-in-Residence program, which would allow the community to have a longer-term relationship with an arts organization. For Rev. Christensen, “[the residency] is an endeavor with a ‘higher purpose’ that is about generating a relationship with the artist and with the community. We’re really invested in each other; the residency binds us to our artist in deeper and different ways than other space sharing.”

St. Luke’s newest Artist-in-Residence is Theatre Y, a company inspired by Eastern European theatrical traditions. Melissa Lorraine, the company’s founding artistic director, met Rev. Christensen through Partners’ Arts in Sacred Places program this past summer, and immediately both recognized the potential for a long-term collaboration. Since that first meeting, the three groups have been busy working to renovate St. Luke’s sanctuary into a performance venue; open Theatre Y’s fall production, The Binding; and draft an Artist-in-Residency agreement. 

It makes me want to throw my life into this partnership and this community. I think to really do the residency the way I want to, I’d have to move into the neighborhood – so I’m looking at setting down roots in Logan Square. 

Melissa Lorraine, Theatre Y

The congregation and the community have welcomed the company with open arms. “People are coming out of the woodwork to help,” reported Lorraine, a week into rehearsals. After hearing about Lorraine’s work and her partnership with St. Luke’s, a neighbor volunteered to serve as a stage manager for the production. Days later, another inquired about subletting the performance space for a photo shoot. Lorraine adds, “It makes me want to throw my life into this partnership and this community. I think to really do the residency the way I want to, I’d have to move into the neighborhood – so I’m looking at setting down roots in Logan Square.”

This commitment to each other is at the heart of the agreement that Partners has facilitated. It sets out a series of practical steps that bind the two together: a member of St. Luke’s will join Theatre Y’s governing board; church members will receive discounted tickets to Theatre Y’s productions; the church will be recognized as a major donor in all Theatre Y materials and grant applications; and Theatre Y will “curate” the performance venue, subletting the space to other artists and sharing the revenue generated with St. Luke’s.

It is not just in tangible, financial ways that the two groups are working together. Theatre Y will partner with St. Luke’s Social Justice Committee to identify themes in the company’s productions that are relevant to the Committee’s work to inform a discussion guide for each production. Theatre Y’s leadership and actors will facilitate dialogues among congregation members about how issues brought out in the play are relevant to their lives and their ministry. 

“We see it as a way to pay it forward. And ultimately, investing in their growth is investing in our growth,” is how Rev. Christensen describes it. With one major success under their belt – The Binding opened to excellent reviews and was covered by the Chicago Reader and National Public Radio – the partnership between St. Luke’s and Theatre Y is well on its way to playing a permanent and important role in the life and future of Logan Square.

Photo: E. Aaron Ross for Chicago Reader

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