STRANGERS & OTHER ANGELS
Strangers & Other Angels is the title of an ongoing project of the Studio for Art, Faith & History – initiated in Italy but poised for further development in various European locations.
The phrase alludes to the exhortation in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews (13:2): “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have thereby entertained angels unawares.”
The title comes from the theater production that remains the centerpiece of this ongoing multifaceted project, and provides its guiding thread. The next event is a production in in June 2012 of Juliet, a play by the acclaimed Hungarian/Romanian playwright András Visky, in Orvieto (Italy).
Strangers & Other Angels began as an open-air performance of a cycle of medieval mystery plays, developed by John Skillen and directed by Karin Coonrod and her international theater company de’ Colombari. The cycle was performed in 2005 and several years thereafter in the streets and piazzas of Orvieto (Italy) during June, moved to New York City for performance during the winter holidays, and plans to add site-specific productions in Peru, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere as hospitality is provided.
The framing episode of the production is that of the stranger who joins the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus after the death of their Lord. The stranger turns out to be the Resurrected Jesus himself, revealed in the breaking of bread. Other episodes dramatize the appearance of angel/strangers to Adam and Eve, expelling them from Eden but with a word of hope, to Noah, to Abraham, to the Virgin Mary, to the Shepherds outside Bethlehem – all called to leave homeland security to become vessels of blessing to many.
The theme of this production is the theme of the project as a whole:
An unexpected intrusion by a stranger may mark a divine word that challenges and transforms our lives. The Stranger may turn out to be an Angel. We better listen and pay attention. The stranger in our midst may be the messenger of news that will make our hearts burn, that will open up the unseen trajectory of God’s work in our lives and in our communities.
One can spot a growing interest in the theme of Hospitality:
A renewal of hospitality will certainly be essential for Europe to succeed in re-defining itself as a place where diverse peoples – migrants, immigrants, or residents – can chart a third way together beyond either tepid tolerance or murderous-minded separation and barbarous tribalism.
A recovery of Hospitality between Host and Stranger is a theme developed in a number of recent books, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and Enzo Bianchi’s Ero straniero e mi avete ospitato (“I was a stranger and you took me in”) among them. Two recent conferences, one in Boston and one in Vicenza (Italy), have given wide scope to the issues.
The Guestbook Project, sponsored by Boston College and directed by philosopher Richard Kearney, unfolded over several years as “an ongoing artistic, academic, and multi-media experiment in hospitality” whose “core themes are the relationship between host and stranger; violence and reconciliation; the citizen and the alien.” Videos of project sessions are available on-line, and the project produced a number of publications and films. These include a special edition of the journal Religion and the Arts on the theme Hospitality: Imagining the Stranger (2010), edited by Chris Yates (husband of Christen Borgman Yates, associate director of Gordon’s Office of Community Engagement); a book co-edited by Kearney and Gordon-alumnus James Taylor, Hosting the Stranger: Between Religions (Continuum, 2011), and a film created by Taylor and Gordon alumna Petra Belkovic Taylor exploring the experience of young people caught in the ethnic tensions and violence between Serbia and Bosnia, entitled Mitrovica: Facing the Stranger Across the Divide - Young People of Serbia and Bosnia Speak Up (Petra Belkovic and James Taylor). http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/guestbook/
The 2010 edition of the Festival Biblico in Vicenza, Italy, took up the theme of hospitality, with the title “L’ospitalità delle Scritture” (the Hospitality of the Scriptures). Multifaceted like BC’s Guestbook project, the Festival offered a multi-media program of film, theatre, music, scriptural reading, and events of prayer along with lectures and seminars. The keynote address was given by Enzo Bianchi, the prior of the Community of Bosé, Roman Catholic in origin but ecumenical in action and attitude. Bianchi links the theme of hospitality in the Scripture with the idea of the Bible itself as a place of hospitality. As stated in the introductory description of the Festival: “To receive the Other is an indispensible value: the passage from distrust for someone different to a trusting hospitality is in fact one of the highest aims of a truly humane society. There are many examples in which the biblical literature presents the stranger – a metaphor for the Other – not as a threat but as a window through which to see and interpret reality: the ‘space’ where God erupts into history and opens the conscience of man to the responsibility for the other.”
Accogliere l’altro è un valore indispensabile: il passaggio dalla diffidenza per il diverso all’ospitalità fiduciosa è infatti una delle mete più alte di una società veramente umana. E sono molti gli esempi in cui la letteratura biblica presenta lo straniero - metafora dell’altro - non come minaccia, ma come finestra dalla quale guardare e interpretare la realtà: lo «spazio» dove Dio irrompe nella storia ed apre la coscienza dell’uomo alla responsabilità per l’altro. http://www.festivalbiblico.it
The Studio’s Strangers & Other Angels project takes such initiatives as models, emphasizing the performative role of the arts, expanding the Italian scope of the Festival Biblico project, providing a European partner for the already-international scope of the Guestbook Project, and adding an ecumenically-hospitable Protestant evangelical voice to the larger conversation.
Strangers & Other Angels also focuses attention on Hospitality as an element of the vital transmission of tradition. Cultural communities that resist allowing the stranger to bring something new to the table become brittle, their tightly-held traditions stagnating into traditionalisms. The exchange goes both ways. The stranger receives the gift of the host’s hospitality, but may add something of herself to that gift, returning it in ways that enrich the host culture. Likewise, the stranger has something to bring, but in the receiving, the host can sometimes improve on the gift. Ethnic or localized communities who permit themselves to engage in open-hearted yet astute “embrace” rather than “exclusion” of the strangers among them in fact find the means both to honor the cultural gifts brought by the Other and to preserve and revivify their own cultural traditions when strangers enter into these as new participants.
Partners and settings in this project will cross Europe, beginning in Orvieto, home base of the Studio and its off-shoots, the Compagnia Colombari and the Festival Arte Fede.
Orvieto will be the site of the next element: a production in June 2012 of the Hungarian-Romania playwright András Visky’s acclaimed play Juliet in a new translation into Italian sponsored by the Studio.
On the one hand, this peaceful city set on a hill may appear an unlikely setting compared to places where conflict-resolution has been a matter of life and death (such as Bosnia/Serbia, Derry/Londonderry, or Jerusalem, places where the Guestbook Project focused attention).
But even little Orvieto represents a microcosm of the issues of demographic change and ethnic tension occurring across Europe. Population is declining as birthrates decline and young people leave the “old city” seeking employment in “modern” sectors of technology and business. But into the vacuum come the immigrants – in Orvieto, especially from the East European region of Moldova, Romania, Ukraine – ready and willing to take up service-sector jobs in the cafés, caring for the elderly, cleaning homes.
The actions of civic law-makers and church authorities, along with ordinary citizens and business owners, implicitly foster attitudes and explicitly enact policies that either incorporate or marginalize, “exclude” or “embrace,” the strangers.
The stranieri can be forced to keep their own culture and customs and language in their homes. They can be allowed to express their culture, but in restricted ethnic-ghettoes. The cultural expressions of the stranieri can be included in the program of activities organized and funded by the local culture-providers. Civic leaders can create opportunities for the mixing of traditions, and for respecting the skills and talents brought by the strangers – some of which may turn out to be essential for the survival of the host culture – rather than restricting their sphere to the ‘dirty work’ of local need.
Future elements of the Strangers & Other Angels project will take up these themes, drawing in talented foreigners in the arts and theology and social sciences who can shed light on local challenges and model sustainable ways forward.
Prepared by John Skillen (director of the Studio for Art, Faith & History and Associate Dean of European Programs at Gordon College, MA, USA), April 2012