Like many pastors, Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, who co-pastors First Mennonite Church in Edmonton with her husband Tim, enjoys creating space for creative gifts to flourish. “It’s totally selfish. I love working with people like that,” she says in a telephone interview. Her enthusiasm is evident in her voice.
In the fall of 2010, Wiebe-Neufeld found a unique way to bring visual art into worship with a project entitled Snake Girl vs. Bunny Girl and the help of Glenna Schowalter, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student .
Busy with stage preparations for an upcoming presentation of Les Miserables at school, Schowalter wasn’t available for a telephone interview but responded enthusiastically to a few email questions about her experience.
“Donita has approached me a few times about doing a children’s story. My first ones were skits, the very first one being a puppet show that Donita and I collaborated on. Snake Girl vs. Bunny Girl was not originally intended to incorporate art. It was going to be a dramatic skit…based around communication and settled on a premise of twin girls fighting over which pet they wanted to buy. Donita wrote ‘Snake Girl vs. Bunny Girl’ in her notebook and I pointed out that it sounded like a graphic novel. Jokingly, I followed this up with ‘I could totally draw that.’ The idea took off from there.”
With colourful, expressive illustrations and some shrewd insights into human behaviour “Snake Girl vs. Bunny Girl” made the big screen in three consecutive worship services. Since then, it has been made available to the congregation in booklet form.
“The response was hugely positive,” Schowalter writes. “The kids enjoyed themselves and I had several adults find me after the service and congratulate and/or commend me.”
And that, Wiebe-Neufeld points out, is an added bonus. “Involving others in worship this way builds bridges within the congregation…People who have maybe never talked to Glenna before will come up and talk about what she did…It ties people across generations in a really neat way.”
Wiebe-Neufeld is keenly aware of the challenges artists face if their particular gifting doesn’t accommodate traditionally accepted worship expressions. “My brother-in-law is a talented folk musician and the only place he can be supported is in the bars…How can we draw people in whatever their gifting and support them through the church?” Wiebe-Neufeld muses. “In our congregation we really do try to find where people fit and use their gifts.”
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld is a Mennonite Church Canada General Board Member-at-Large and the Alberta correspondent for Canadian Mennonite.