COFAP pioneers concept of onstage student shepherds
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Alexis Bolze
GCU News Bureau
Like one of those resonant quotations that’s attributed to “anonymous,” the origins of the unusual — and possibly unique — student chaplaincy post, which has been embraced by the College of Fine Arts and Production at Grand Canyon University, might never be known.
Assistant Dean Dr. Juan Hernandez began allowing music students to select chaplains from among their peers several years ago during preparations for a concert. The request came from students, who wanted to designate someone to handle their spiritual needs before, during and after rehearsals, Hernandez recalled.
“Our students spend a significant amount of time together,” he said, “and so it became a way for them to create community, to take ownership of their work and their activities in a way that was not just them being told what to do, and to promote the University’s initiative of faith, learning and leadership.”
It was so successful that Hernandez’s students now elect two of their own at the beginning of each school year as ensemble shepherds. With the endorsement of Dean of Students Pastor Tim Griffin, the College of Theology and COFAP Dean Claude Pensis, this voluntary spiritual position has taken root elsewhere among the arts programs.
“It’s a faith tool, not a formal program,” Pensis said. “It’s worked really well, and because it’s student-led, it’s organic. We have students from all sorts of backgrounds, and this can’t help but begin to help those people who don’t even know what they potentially could be missing.”
On the production side, COFAP instructor Michael Kary first used the concept on the Ethington Theatre stage nearly a year ago during his direction of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” For a variety of reasons, the timing could not have been better, said Kary, a former youth pastor.
“We had a lot of crazy things happening to our students at the time — loss of family members, medical things — and it was pretty widespread, a really unique onslaught of awful situations,” he said. “One of Satan’s big strategies is to sabotage us from being lights when it’s dark.”
The C.S. Lewis classic, a “Gospel-heavy production,” according to Kary, is heavy on allegory, with good (a king who undergoes a death and resurrection) battling evil (a witch who insists on a frozen, Christmas-free land).
“We needed it,” he said. “Praying in class and before rehearsals gave students the opportunity to take the reins of their faith and support each other. And it really helped us take the fight out of each other if we were getting on each other’s nerves. We’d just take a moment and say, ‘OK, what’s really happening here?’”
He and Hernandez said they had not heard of student chaplains being used at any other university. Kary said mainstream techniques that help put performers at ease, such as relaxation and breathing exercise, are fine but not completely effective.
“Prayer doesn’t put a Band-Aid on the problem as much as it gets to the heart of it,” he said. “This is time carved out specifically for you to open your heart and body to what God wants to do with your day.”
Kary chose Devaune Bohall, a freshman at the time, as Ethington’s first student chaplain. Bohall, 18, was a leader in her church’s youth group and had been on mission trips, but she had never heard of such a position and had never been in a main stage show at GCU.
“I wanted to find a way to combine the passion I had for God with my passion for theatre,” she said. “And because the message in C.S. Lewis’ story is the same message as is in the Gospel, Michael told me, ‘Because I’m doing this, the devil will be in my way, and I want someone to be fighting for us and fighting for what we do on the stage.’”
Bohall took seriously her role of “spiritual wellness counselor,” and on the first day of rehearsal she brought with her the “Actor’s Prayer.” She asked cast members what they wanted to get from the show, such as that the message of Jesus’ sacrifice be conveyed to the audience or simply that their mental and physical safety be preserved during a rather challenging acrobatic scene involving swords.
“I wasn’t very well known, and I was worried that people wouldn’t come to me and use me as a resource,” said Bohall, who also played a wood nymph in the show. “I wanted people to know they could come to me if they were having difficulties, if they were not spiritually prepared to put on the show, if they were having a good day, if they were having a bad day.”
As time went on, inside and outside rehearsals and performances, she became the receptacle for a variety of prayers — for peaceful hearts, for patience learning lines, for lost friends or family members, for focus on stage.
One night, about five minutes before a show was to begin, a senior cast member sat on the floor crying. Bohall approached, and the student poured out her heart. Ordinarily, they would have run out of time, but a technical issue resulted in the show being delayed just long enough.
Bohall, who was enrolled in 18 credit hours that semester, had her own set of struggles, and at one point she felt as if Satan was using others outside her Ethington family to try to ruin her spirit and effectiveness.
“Anytime you start to spread the message to the four corners of the earth, you’re going to have that opposition,” Kary said.
That’s when she turned to the cast, and they became her spiritual adviser.
“They said, ‘You’ve done a great job of taking care of us, but now we get to take care of you,’” she said. “That’s when the job title became most real for me. I must have been doing something right for Satan to be attacking what I was doing.”
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.