Church partnership bringing arts to its community



Art has always been integral to religion, and much of the finest visual art, music and literature produced by western civilization has been sacred.

Think of the cantatas of Bach, the sculpture and paintings of Michelangelo, the poetry of Milton and T.S. Eliot and the prose of the Bible.

Even the earliest known dramas in English included plays about mystery and morality, created to tell stories from the Bible to those who couldn’t read or to introduce Christianity to former pagans.

The Conservatory plans at least four shows—a mix of plays and musicals—at the church over the coming year with several performances of each show.

Art, philosophers say, raises human emotion above daily concerns to contemplate the eternal and the divine.

So it seems appropriate that the latest community outreach mission of Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville is a partnership with the city’s newly forming Fine Arts Conservatory.

Through this partnership, the Conservatory will stage plays in the church, and it’s hoped that classes and other performances in various art forms will be held there. Church members will be invited to participate through classes, auditioning for performances or working as stagehands.

Then the community will be invited to the church to see the results.

“Our hope is that if people come to these programs and see that we have a vibrant arts program in a welcoming church, it will draw them to the church and Sunday worship,” said Austen Wilson, director of music and worship arts at Mandarin UMC.

“We’re hoping we give them a wonderful first taste of the church, and that will yield greater church memberships. People will hear the gospel through music and word in the concerts. It will give people a way to sing carols and hymns together.”

The church is a large, well-established church in the community of Mandarin, a prosperous neighborhood south of downtown Jacksonville.

Among the church’s other community outreach programs are a huge annual pumpkin patch sale, a craft festival for fall decorations, Christmas tree sales and sports, including an Upward Soccer program.

The Fine Arts Conservatory is a project of Bill DiStanisloa, a successful businessman who is now partially retired from for-profit business and describes himself as “a non-profit philanthropist.”

He stresses the need for art education, painting, sculpture, theater and music in the community surrounding the church.

In the future, it’s expected there will be classes and performances in music, dance, sculpture, art, literature and a summer youth music camp.

“A lot of our schools are not able to provide it due to budget constraints. Those that do, it usually comes with a cost or as part of a work toward a degree,” DiStanisloa said. “We are community-based, for all income levels and all ages,” and the cost of its classes “will be minimal compared to an arts school.”

There are other arts-related non-profits working in the Jacksonville area, but DiStanisloa said, “community is everyone getting involved, including our houses of worship.”

Why Mandarin UMC?

He said it defines community.

“They have sports, their concerts and they have the room: the space, the campus, the classrooms,” he said.

DiStanisloa was previously executive director of the Northeast Conservatory, which specialized only in musical instruction and had more than 200 students. But he said there was a demand in Mandarin for broader arts education and performances.

Wilson is new in his position at the church, but for him, music is an integral part of religion.

"Through music, we have the privilege of unifying in heart, mind and soul with Jesus,” he wrote in an email when asked how music and art relate to faith. “Music brings many different kinds of people together: people who are certain of their faith, people who doubt and people of all walks of life.

The Conservatory's first stage performance will be "Miracle on 34th Street" in November.

“It helps us experience different emotions, build community and express our faith. Church is one of the few places where people sing together other than (in a) choir. What a gift we have, to use the voice that the Lord gave us to praise God!”

He said the partnership began when the Conservatory approached the church needing an alternative performance space. The 400-seat auditorium in the church’s Family Life Center fills the bill nicely, and the church has a central location in southern Jacksonville.

“Their mission fits well with the church’s because it wants to bring all facets of the arts to people,” Wilson said.

The Conservatory plans at least four shows—a mix of plays and musicals—at the church over the coming year with several performances of each show.

The first performance, in November, will be the popular play "Miracle on 34th Street," in which a department store clerk named Kris Kringle, who plays Santa Claus in the store, is put on trial in a competency hearing because he claims to be the real Santa.

In the future, it’s expected there will be classes and performances in music, dance, sculpture, art, literature and a summer youth music camp.

—William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa


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