Many things attracted Rev. Alison Patton to Saugatuck Congregational Church, 6 years ago: the town and congregation. The church’s commitment to social justice. The opportunity to help rebuild, after a devastating fire.
But when she arrived, she realized something else: Creativity and artistic expression was part of Saugatuck Church’s long, historic DNA.
Services were still being held at Temple Israel when photographer MaryEllen Hendricks talked to Rev. Patton about a project. She was working on “Thin Places” — a show based on the Celtic belief that there is a thin divide between the holy and real worlds.
After that show, the church formed an Arts Committee. The goal was to make the arts a focus of congregational life.
“Arts” was defined broadly. It encompassed music, theater, visual arts — even color and lighting in the church.
As the committee went to work, church leaders realized their pews were filled with men and women who had arts and creative backgrounds. Many had never melded their talents with their faith lives.
So as the church mounted exhibits, sponsored concerts and developed programs, it also started conversations about how the arts fit into everything Saugatuck Church does.
One example is the recent exhibition, “Irresistible Vietnam.” Its genesis was a trip church member and skilled photographer Joan Cavanaugh took to that country. When she mounted her show she also brought Hang Nguyen, her guide on the trip, to the church. The result was a fascinating discussion, and a sharing of 2 cultures.
“We explore the mystery of faith through the arts,” Rev. Patton says. “Sometimes that’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s challenging.”
And sometimes, she continues, “the Protestant tradition talks about faith only intellectually. We want to engage the entire body — not just the head.”
“Creativity is an outpouring from God,” explains committee member Joanne Leaman.
Dan Long — an artist, designer and Arts Committee member — adds, “Because art engages you, it has a calming effect. It helps you find order and peace. That’s something religion can also do.”
But, he notes, “art also challenges. We want art to touch and stretch, too.”
There are many ways to engage people through the arts. Gospel choirs supplement traditional hymns. A photographic exhibit of the church’s youth group mission trip to Cuba conveyed spiritual connections. Miggs Burroughs’ “Signs of Compassion” lenticular photos portrayed an Emily Dickinson poem through sign language.
The church and Westport Library co-sponsor a concert series that includes the West Point Glee Club, a New Orleans jazz fest, classical harp recitals, a Caribbean steel drum show, and guitar ensembles.
The church is particularly proud of a new organ. It’s being handmade in Germany, for installation next year. A special viewing room will allow anyone to watch music as it’s being created.
Beyond traditional “arts,” an annual flower show honors the beauty, power and uplifting spirit of nature. A labyrinth helps understand “how we experience the holy spirit through the way we see, hear, even move,” Rev. Patton says. And a colorful display of 32 signs lining the driveway said “welcome” in 14 different languages.
Even young members are involved. Each May, 7th graders present “Story Tent.” The dramatic portrayal of biblical stories goes far beyond the usual “church play.” Youngsters spend the entire year creating the show — and lead the worship service that day. (This year, it’s May 20.)
Rebuilding after the catastrophic fire offered the church “an opportunity to really think about aesthetics,” Rev. Patton notes. “Every part of our church — even the gardens and lawn — are important.”
The arts are alive and well at Saugatuck Church. And, Rev. Patton says, they’re there for all Westporters to enjoy.