April 21, 2021 : By Ryan Klinker - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Students from Liberty University’s Department of Theatre Arts used their skills as performers and storytellers to share the Gospel with the people of Atlanta on March 12-21 as part of a trip through LU Send.
The team of 14 theatre students was the fourth team in the last five years that the department has sent out to perform and serve communities.
Prior trips have taken students overseas, to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Morocco. The 2020 trip to Columbia was canceled due to COVID-19.
Professor Barry Gawinski, who has led all of the trips, said they decided to keep this year’s trip in the United States to make it safer and more accommodating to all involved. When the prospect of going to Atlanta came up, he said he realized that the city has several connections to Liberty.
“A number of the students who were on past trips have since moved to Atlanta and are working there, some of them at local churches and ministries, and so I saw that there were people already in place to possibly help us,” Gawinski said. He connected with LU theatre alumni there who helped set up performances and service opportunities.
The trip began with a visit to First Redeemer Church and the First Redeemer Conservatory, where alumnus Will Smith (’14) works, to perform specialized dramas for children and teens, ranging from elementary skits of Bibles stories like David and Goliath or The Good Samaritan to topical stories of personal hardship and choreographed dances to Christian music.
“We know that sometimes Christian skits can sometimes be cheesy, but we know that it’s going to be effective and we know how to do it so that it’s not overly cheesy or cheesy when it needs to be for the kids,” said senior musical theatre student Dennis Hartman, who has been on two of the prior trips. “We’re there to share the story of Jesus and the Gospel, and through these dramas we get to do that.”
At the conservatory, a division of the church’s worship and music ministry for children and young adults focused on theatre training, Liberty’s team also offered advice for the production of “High School Musical Jr.”
“We got to work with some high school and middle school students who are interested in theatre, and we were able to encourage them and perform for them,” Hartman said. “We are kind of the goal for some of them, being a theatre student in college, and we used to be where they are now, so we got to help them and build them up.”
Next came close to a week of volunteering at multiple Salvation Army sites thanks to alumna Sarah Jirgal (’18) who works there. The team helped with food and clothing storage and served the homeless in addition to performing songs and dramas. With such a large Hispanic population in Atlanta, the team prepared multiple songs either fully translated into Spanish or part-English and part-Spanish. Most of their dramas do not feature dialogue, so the themes were conveyed to everyone, regardless of language.
“If we’re in a situation where we don’t speak the language of the audience, we can still share Christ without knowing the spoken language,” Gawinski said. “Sometimes we noticed that the young people knew both English and Spanish but their parents only spoke Spanish, so when we were able to lead worship songs that had both, it was an opportunity for everyone to participate and join in.”
Hartman said that in past trips, sometimes there were more languages spoken in the room than there were translators, but the dramas were still understood by all. “Because there aren’t words tying it to one particular language or culture, it can apply to so many more people and it’s practically universal,” he said.
A major highlight of the trip was creating an original piece titled “Te Veo,” or “I See You,” about six real-life Hispanic women who immigrate to America and face different challenges. Six female Liberty students were paired up with six women at one of the Salvation Army sites and interviewed them about their individual experiences. the students collaborated on their interviews and created a drama with choreographer and Liberty professor Aubri Siebert that included stories of the deportation or death of a family member, joblessness due to not knowing English, domestic abuse, and other struggles.
Ainsley Lederfind, a junior in the BFA acting program who was on her third trip, explained that they wanted to create a genuine and honest story that would be applicable to others and bring across the Gospel message.
“We decided that each girl would play the woman they interviewed because they had a connection to it and would guard that individual story,” Lederfind said. “We wanted a cohesive story that wouldn’t last too long and would still translate to a lot of people, and we wanted to represent those women well and tell their story.”
The woman Lederfind interviewed and portrayed, Alejandria, was in the audience for the performance, which Lederfind said added an extra element of pressure but also honor. After the drama, Alejandria brought her daughters up to meet Lederfind and senior Kelsey Dial, who also helped with the interview, and told the students that she wanted her daughters to grow up to be like them.
“She trusted us with her story and said they knew that God was going to work through us and it would be what God wanted it to be,” Lederfind said. “She said, ‘I want my daughters to be like you, people who go out and want to tell others about Jesus.’ It was so emotionally impactful to us that she wanted her girls to remember us and told us that.”
A recorded performance of “Te Veo” is available online.
As young people trained in storytelling through acting, dancing, and music, the theatre students approached their work on the trip with the idea that their medium can affect audiences in a unique and powerful way.
“We are the theatre department for one of the largest Christian universities in the world, so we have these incredibly skilled young people who are raised singing in the church and are trained in performing, and they are always trying to figure out how to connect the two and share the Gospel,” Gawinski said. “If you’re presenting the Gospel and people can look at it and see themselves in it in an artistic manner, in a lot of ways it hits them in a way that a sermon or a conversation doesn’t.”
The Salvation Army site asked Liberty’s team to record their performance and some of their worship songs and allow them to share it with other sites and ministries, particularly those with Hispanic populations.
Through a connection with LU Serve, the team spent some time with Passion City Church in Atlanta packing and distributing food.
“I can’t recommend these trips more than I already do, and as soon as there’s new students, I always tell them to consider it,” Lederfind said. “I’m not surprised when God does something amazing on these trips, but it’s always a great moment when we see it happen each time. God is always doing something different and amazing in ways we never expected.”