Let’s Dance: Mourning, Renewal, and “Footloose”
“Only grief begets newness.” – Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
I slid into the last seat in the community college auditorium, a spot near the wall. With my husband out of town, and no meetings for a change, I decided on impulse after a long day to show up for the Thursday evening performance of Footloose, produced by the local Mesabi Musical Theater. I got the last ticket.
After nearly three decades as pastor on the Mesabi Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota, I cannot go anywhere unrecognized. I knew the adults selling tickets in the lobby when they were in high school. The woman in one of the lead roles had served with me on the board of a summer youth project. Et cetera.
The performance started. Footloose takes place in a mythical small Midwestern town in a 50s sort of decade. Ethel McCormack and her son Ren have arrived from Chicago to live with relatives. Angry and searching, the fatherless Ren discovers that every adult in town thinks he’s trouble. Ren is not the only angry, searching teenager. The minister’s daughter, Ariel, wants to prove she does not conform to the straight lace of righteousness. She sneaks out at night, tells lies, back talks.
Musical theater’s coinage is caricature, so I should have been prepared for the Sunday morning church scene in Act 1. The whole town goes to church. The Rev. Moore’s sermon, at first, extolls the power of music but soon devolves into a denunciation of sex, drugs, and dancing. His youthful parishioners wilt. I slouched in my seat.
Like the unfunny joke at one’s expense, I could suddenly no longer enjoy this ministerial caricature. Darkly noting the number of local young people performing in the musical, I wondered how many of them believed this depiction of preacher as morality police. Did a blinking neon arrow mark me, after all these years, as one of his kind?
Then came a stab of envy. Every teenager in his fictional town shows up for worship every Sunday. Such is not the case in my world. So I was jealous of a caricature?
Maybe I could leave unnoticed at intermission. A woman from the orchestra pit spotted me and came over. Recently emigrated from South Korea to marry a local hospital physician, she has been playing flute for my congregation’s Sunday worship for a year. She thanked me for coming. Now I was stuck.
In Act 2 the confrontation builds between the high school student body, who want to overturn the town’s prohibition against dancing, and the town council, of which the Rev. Moore is a member. The students make their case at the council meeting, with Ren as spokesperson. He gives a stirring speech, laced with scriptural affirmations of dancing provided by the Rev. Moore’s own daughter. I straightened a bit in my seat.
The town council votes down the students’ request. There would be no dancing in their town – because dancing leads to drinking, which had led, they are reminded, to the tragic death of a group of boys five years ago, including the minister’s own son. The decision leaves the students crushed.
The next scene blew me away. Ren shows up at Moore’s house late that night. And lobs a gum wad of truth between his eyes. He tells the minister: You and me, we are both alone. I ask myself over and over what I did to cause my father to leave my mother and me. You ask yourself how you could have saved your son and his friends from dying that night. You think you are the only one who is grieving in this town? You’re wrong. Your daughter and wife are grieving. Other families are grieving. The whole town is grieving.
I sat up in my seat. The caricature clergyman had become a real-life character. The boy was right. He was grieving. So, I realized, was I.
Christendom is vanishing, despite vestiges in large urban edifices and thriving program-driven suburban churches. Clergy of all denominations face burnout that drives them from parish ministry. In the mines-and-pines outpost of northeastern Minnesota where I have spent the bulk of my vocational life, most congregations are downsizing. Meanwhile, the once-proud union leadership for miners here returned recently from Pittsburgh with a new contract dictated rather than negotiated. The generational mantra “There’s nothing for you here” roars in the background. People cling to dubious proposals of new jobs nearby, involving nonferrous precious metals mining in a fragile ecosystem.
As a member of the phalanx of aging baby boomers who remember when the church used its cultural status to be a central prophetic voice, I can wring my hands. I can rant. I can cheerlead the faithful remnant. I can wonder what will become of my beloved congregation when I finally retire. Who can love them like I do? “I alone am left,” moaned Elijah (I Kings 19).
Rivers of Grief and Grace
The minister in Footloose is grieving the death of his son. Ministers I know, myself included, are grieving the dissolution of mainstream Christianity, made real by the painful details of their own situations. On stage, the minister feels sorrow, but he has forgotten that people around him do too. It took a 17-year-old punk from Chi-Town to name it. Looking up from our seats, we could see, not our grief alone, but the grief of our community – indeed, a grieving planet.
It will come as no surprise to any good pastoral psychologist that the good minister’s anguish about his son was parading around in the guise of condemnation and control. Grief without grief work alienates the bereaved from God, others, and herself. Yet that same grief and its work can be at the crux of our vocation now as parish pastors.
In the show that night, one aloneness touches another, and something begins to change. The Rev. Moore confesses the next morning in his sermon: He had ignored the grief of others by getting lost in his own. And because musicals will have happy endings, he not only persuades the town elders to let the students have their dance. He and his wife dance with them.
The audience rose to its feet at the end. The actors beamed. I was glad I stayed.
In my 34 years of parish ministry, I have waded rivers of grief, not only in deaths, but in broken relationships and broken hopes. How often I have wanted to leave at intermission! I am glad I stayed, though – here in this cluster of towns huddled on the edge of open-pit taconite mines and wild backcountry. After 26 years in one place, I find God’s newness keeps on breaking in.
Two teenagers return from a weekend retreat inspired to start a handbell choir. Another wants to organize a blood drive. A retired pharmacist redesigns the beams of his boat garage as a church greenhouse. A single mom volunteers for our new Sunday school team, admitting she has not been in Sunday school since she was eight years old. Two men start a book study at a nearby bar. Our former youth minister helps organize our area’s first LGBTQ youth group.
The church will never be culturally important in the way it was 50 years ago. Nevertheless, as the prevailing culture continues to consumerize, diversify, and polarize, the church in a hundred local forms will become more necessary and vibrant – as a place of community-making and meaning-making, and as a redemptive voice for the sake of the whole earth. Many congregations now are exhibiting a resilience that is fertilized by grief, not entombed in it. What they thought they had is gone – but new forms appear, new voices call. Such churches are declaring with Psalm 30, You have turned our mourning into dancing.
The Rev. Kristin Foster ’77 M.Div. is an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who has served Messiah Lutheran Church in Mountain Iron, MN, for nearly 27 years. She is president of the YDS Alumni Board. She and husband Frank Davis ‘77 M.Div. have two young adult daughters and a granddaughter.