Note: The following is written by Doreen Dang, patternmaker for Walt Disney World Creative Costuming and trip participant on the BEMA Turkey 2022 study tour. Part of my sabbatical is leading these trips, and I wanted her to share a bit about how these efforts affect others like her. Being healthy on sabbatical isn’t just an inward work; when done right, it also pours out into others.
From the day I started my Christian journey in undergraduate school up to now, I never quite fit the “evangelical mold” – one of the main reasons being my choice of career. I majored in drama with the hopes of making theatrical costumes for a living. Although I viewed my creative outlet as a glimpse of how God must feel when He makes things new, those in my campus ministry (and beyond) were more concerned about how I was going to maintain my holiness since I was constantly surrounded by “acts of the flesh” due to the nature of theater. For years to come, the existential crisis I experienced between wanting to pursue my artistic passion and “needing to follow the call to set myself apart” (i.e., retreating to a holy huddle with other Christians) stirred up great cognitive dissonance within me.
Pictured above are a few costumes Doreen created during her time in the Costume Technology MFA program at UNC School of the Arts.
Fast forward to discovering BEMA during the 2020 pandemic, becoming an avid listener, and putting down my deposit for Turkey. Saying that I was enthusiastic to go on the BEMA Turkey 2022 trip is an understatement. With the strong impact the podcast had on me, I was eager to become a temporary talmidah and learn everything that my temporary rabbi was going to teach our group. But as the wind blows wherever it pleases and you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going, so it was on our first day when Marty took us – of all places – to an art museum and an ancient Roman theater. Given my artistic background, I wasn’t going to argue, but for a trip where I envisioned our group exploring mountains and archaeological digs, why are we in an art museum?
This was the last thing I expected from Rabz (Marty), until he taught us a lesson that echoed throughout the trip: “The medium is the message.” In a country rich with ancient sites and biblical history, why go to an art museum? Because Rabz wanted us to understand that the Greco-Roman Empire knew how to communicate their message through specific mediums – plays, sculpture, architecture, and so forth. In turn, this meant that the early church had to learn about and shrewdly engage the culture so they could develop a new medium to spread a new message. The commitment to engage the culture became more evident each time Rabz taught us how the apostle John effortlessly wove cultural references into the book of Revelation – references to the Olympic games, to Emperor Domitian, to societal norms for each specific city, and more. And though I came to Turkey with the expectation that I was going to learn completely new things from Rabz, it turns out, deep down, I already knew what I was doing… or should I say, God knew what He was doing in my life.
It took twelve years of God shaping and molding me to realize that I should have trusted the story He orchestrated all along. He placed me in a setting where I am constantly surrounded by the modern mamzers of today – the underappreciated artists who systemically earn low incomes, the LGBTQ+ population, the dreamers and risk takers who are constantly told they need to get a “real job” in order to be valuable to western society (especially during a pandemic). I may never fit the “evangelical mold,” but what if I’m not supposed to? What if God intended for me to engage my surrounding culture so I could learn their language and be more compassionate in light of how current events are negatively impacting these outsiders? Without realizing it, God used my determination to stick it out with theatrical costuming as one of the strongest spiritual formation exercises of my life – to learn how to use a specific, relatable medium so I could convey a message that brought real good news instead of oppression and empire.
My trip to Turkey was life changing beyond words, but the lesson on engaging culture was by far one of the most impactful moments because, well, I was not expecting it. And as a result, not only did I come home trusting God’s story now more than ever, I came home for the first time seeing my engagement with the culture as a gift instead of a burden – as an advantage to spread a new message in unexpected, upside-down Kingdom ways.