OLATHE, Kan.-When Jeremiah Enna left his Christian home in Kansas City to study dance and theater at UCLA, footlights trumped faith in his priorities. But during his last year at the university, God took hold of him through an improbable chain of events.
Let Jeremiah tell it: "A friend of mine had graduated a year earlier and moved to Paris to volunteer for Youth With a Mission. While there he met the leaders from Eternia Dans Teater based in Sweden." The Christian dance company invited Jeremiah's friend to join them. "He declined, but told them about me as someone who might be interested. So, he gave them my name and number. The only problem was he gave them the wrong number.
"Months go by, and Vibeke Muasya, the director, finds the old crumpled-up phone number in her pocket. She feels that the Lord is telling her to call that person immediately. So, she calls the wrong number. But as God would have it, I showed up at the wrong phone number's house right about the time she called." Wrong number, right call. A few months later, in 1989, Jeremiah moved to Sweden.
His next need was for spiritual mentoring, and here God provided again. In 1990, Ellis Potter of L'Abri conducted a seminar for the dance company. His creative way of relating the gospel to a relativistic, New Age culture profoundly affected Jeremiah's view of his own faith. He and Potter have remained close friends ever since.
What next? In 1991 Jeremiah participated in a dance conference held in Jerusalem, where one of the dancers who signed up for his workshop impressed him: "She should have been teaching me." Mona Störling (pronounced "Sterling"), a native of Finland, had grown up in a family of unbelievers but came to Christ through the influence of her local Lutheran pastor, Johan Candelin (now an outspoken advocate for the persecuted church). She and Jeremiah discovered they shared much in common. They got married the following year.
Mona joined her husband's dance company, but soon they were praying about relocating to a larger city-Helsinki perhaps, or even London-to establish their dream for a community-related arts center. During a Christmas family visit, Jeremiah noticed potential in his own hometown. The couple moved to Kansas City in 1994.
That's how stopping by the wrong house to take a providential phone call led to The Culture House in Olathe, Kan.
Culture can sound stuffy, especially when related to art, as a word that looks down its haute nose at the plebians. But to the Ennas, culture is not just about art: It's also about relationships and integration. The Culture House's lobby reflects that philosophy: Moms chat as they wait for their kids to finish dance class. Theater students practice dialogue for the next production. An impromptu prayer meeting gathers at the corner. Such camaraderie is unusual for a facility dedicated to the performing arts, where competition snarls behind smiles and thin skins flay easily. But The Culture House is unusual in lots of ways.
On the outside, The Culture House is another performing arts school, performance center, and professional dance company. Every large city holds similar institutions, but Melissa, the summer-camp coordinator doubling as receptionist, sees a difference: "With some schools, you get the sense that they're only interested in the performers that make them [the school] look good. We try to get to the real person, help them figure out who they are and build confidence in their abilities." And do Christian beliefs contribute to this goal? Melissa lights up: "Oh, yes! Jesus keeps us centered."
Kelly, a veteran of children's theater programs now teaching summer camp, sees the "way above average" performance level of the students as another key distinction. Now in the middle of a two-week program that will end with a fully staged production of The Jungle Book, her class of 7- to 13-year-olds pays close attention. The 10-minute opening number calls for them to creep and slither, hunch and sway, act and react. They don't miss a beat after one week of practice. Next week they'll add costumes, scenery, and polish.
Family support makes a difference, too. While leading a tour of the building, Jeremiah pauses at one end of the big rehearsal room, where scenery for an upcoming production of Cinderella awaits the stage. He points out a Tudor-style fireplace, beautifully painted in wood- and copper-tones: "One of our dads painted this." Besides painting and construction, families are also involved in fundraising, promotion, and transportation.
It's a demanding schedule, not only for the school but for its affiliated Störling Dance Theater. Photos and mementos of Störling's original productions decorate the walls. Two of them stand out: Butterfly, an interpretation of the pains and joys of Alzheimer's, and Underground, a narrative ballet depicting the history and abolition of slavery in the United States. Underground is the company's greatest success so far, and Jeremiah beams when the subject comes up. Instead of the usual evil-America approach when presenting slavery, "we wanted to show America overcoming evil." The church's roles in empowering slaves and inspiring abolitionists play a major theme: "God is the hero."
And the world takes notice. According to the Kansas City Star, "[Underground] is without doubt one of the most vivid, heartfelt and theatrically astute pieces of dance theater ever to grace a Kansas City stage, and it's an ideal testament to what a small local company can achieve with talent, imagination, and lots of hard work."
The Culture House earns 65 percent (or more) of its annual budget through ticket sales and tuition and picks up the rest through fundraisers and donations from businesses, foundations, and individuals.
Did the Ennas picture all this when they moved to Kansas City? More or less: They were seeking a way for the arts to engage the community through "excellence, education, and engagement." Now, the Culture House's STAR program shows at-risk kids that they can be creative, and a Professional Development program trains Störling Dance Theater members in apologetics, biblical worldview, and money management.
The Culture House doesn't plaster "Christianity" all over the walls or require Christian faith among those enrolling in classes or helping with productions. The Ennas see Christ embodied in the ethos of encouraging and sharing and being your best for the sake of someone else. Next summer they will host a conference for artists and others eager to use the arts to benefit their communities. "We want it to be a bridge for Christian artists to get into the marketplace," says Jeremiah.
Back in the lobby, the summer camp kids chow down on their Friday pizza, pausing for high fives. They may not be stars of tomorrow, but they're learning how to give their best and take pride in each other's accomplishment as they create a show together. Creativity is every human's legacy, and whether they know it or not, they are blessed to be taught by people who know where it comes from.