Jesus, Please Take Away These Feelings

A couple of weeks ago, about 200 people gathered at the Presentation Theater at the University of San Francisco for the final performance of Be Still and Know, a play about a high school student who’s struggling to reconcile his evangelical Christian faith with his growing awareness of himself as a young gay man.

“Jesus, please take away these feelings,” Paul, the troubled 17-year-old, prays during the play’s first act. “You know which ones.”

The event at USF had been hastily arranged after San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer forbade the staging of Be Still and Know at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro. Niederauer, who took heat from conservative members of his flock in 2007 after he gave Communion to two members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Holy Redeemer, found himself on the defensive again as the California Catholic Daily web site became a rallying point for orthodox believers.

Questions for Alex Sanchez:

Your visit to Sacred Heart Preparatory School was the catalyst for John Loschmann’s adapting your book for the stage. What was your impression of the school? How was your visit?

Overall my visit was awesome. The students were engaged, intelligent, and articulate. One thing I do when I visit schools is ask for a show of hands: How many of you know somebody who is gay or lesbian? Typically, 90 to 99 percent of students raise their hands. Sacred Heart was no exception.

How closely does the experience of God Box protagonist Paul mirror your own?

I put a lot of myself into Paul. Like me, he’s a Mexican immigrant but wants to bury his heritage, the same as he buries his gay sexual orientation. That was me growing up. Paul’s struggles to accept himself in The God Box were my struggles as a teen.

One of the most riveting moments in the play is the attack on Carlos, who’s the only out gay kid at his school. Apart from trying to persuade people not to hate them, how can gay kids respond to violence?

By reaching out to straight allies! Increasingly, straight students and adults are championing equal rights for gay people because they have gay or lesbian friends, relatives, or parents. Often times, it’s the straight girls who start Gay-Straight Alliances at schools—like Angie in The God Box. And in fact, straight teen girls comprise the biggest readership for my books!

New polls show that many Americans—particularly younger Americans—are no longer affiliating themselves with any particular religious group. What would you say to gay kids who wonder why they should care about religious belief or spiritual practice?

Even if young Americans no longer affiliate themselves with a particular religious group, they still live in a culture dominated by Christian beliefs. It would serve them well to understand differing viewpoints regarding those beliefs.

What’s most meaningful for you about the adaptation of your book for the stage?

Most meaningful has been hearing from viewers of the play. Writing is lonely, so it’s always been gratifying to get emails from my book readers through my Web site. Now it’s been awesome to hear that my work is touching even more lives through a new medium. It’s inspiring.

“This outrageous play that harms the souls of children and others should be canceled immediately,” wrote one the scores of protesters who posted to the site and flooded the archbishop’s office with phone calls.

“If there is any doubt about Archbishop Niederauer’s ability to uphold the basic teachings of morality,” wrote another, “his inactivity in clearing out the homosexualists and sodomists from his archdiocese speaks for itself.”

Be Still and Know is the brainchild of John Loschmann, the director of Drama at Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Atherton, a Bay Area suburb near Palo Alto. Loschmann adapted the play from Alex Sanchez’s young-adult novel The God Box.

“The thing that really has affected me a great deal,” Loschmann told Religion Dispatches, “was watching the cast members deal with the hateful blogs on California Catholic Daily. They become aware of how painful it is when people say hateful things to you, and they really understood where Paul and Carlos [another young gay man in the play] were coming from. They got to a whole new place in their compassion.”

Loschmann, who taught at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for 15 years before he arrived at Sacred Heart in 2001, was inspired to adapt The God Box for the stage after Sanchez visited the school a year and a half ago. Loschmann’s idea was twofold: to enlist student actors to be part of an entirely new production, and to integrate the play into Sacred Heart’s religious studies curriculum.

“The play was done in conjunction with students’ studying biblical views of homosexuality,” Loschmann said. “It’s not a standalone production—it’s been part of an all-school dialogue.”

That spirit of faithful inquiry is the thread that connects the various elements of the play. In addition to Paul’s prayerful struggle with his feelings for Carlos—the out-and-proud new kid at their high school in Texas—debates in an after-school Bible-study group and around a movement to start a gay-straight student alliance led by Angie, Paul’s girlfriend, are the main sources of the play’s energy and tension.

And the tender, artfully drawn romance between Paul and Carlos provides heart.

But just as the play itself has attracted a hoard of inquisitors bent on snuffing out any unsanctioned expression of love, the relationship between the play’s two leads also summons the dark angels of religious orthodoxy.

“If I saw two guys walking down the street holding hands,” says one of the three teenage boys who will send Carlos to the hospital in middle of the play’s second act, “I’d take a baseball bat and kill them.”

“Congratulations—you’ve pissed a lot of people off,” a member of the audience said to the young cast of Be Still and Know as they sat on the edge of the stage during a talk-back session after the play had ended.

The comment was good-natured and sent a ripple of laughter through the theater. Everyone who had something to say to the actors or to Loschmann was positive in their assessment of the production, which begged the question whether any of the angry, hidebound bloggers at California Catholic Daily had actually bothered to attend one of the earlier performances at Sacred Heart’s Campbell Theater in Atherton.

No matter. Some of the young people on stage and many of the older folks in the audience spoke about how their experience with the play had transformed them or deepened their faith—marks of the growing edge of any religious movement.

“I’m the same amount of gay and a little more Christian,” said one actor who, like Carlos, made the precocious discovery that life outside the closet is a lot more spacious than life inside of it.