Washington Post article
November 30, 1991

An Alliance of Talent and Prayer

Christian Performing Artists Fellowship to Present ‘Messiah’

by Carey Kinsolving

What began with a prayer meeting here in 1984 has grown to an organization of more than 500 musicians and dancers, including Metropolitan Opera singers Jerome Hines and Myra Merritt, who perform as a sign of their commitment to the Christian faith.

And at 8 p.m. Friday in Constitution Hall, the group, Christian Performing Artists Fellowship, will present a free performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” its fourth and final production of the season.

Merritt, one of the soloists, turned down a request for a paid performance elsewhere Friday, and, like all members of the organization, will sing without pay.

In the world of opera, Merritt has sterling credentials. She has sung with the Met for 12 years, and last year, Glamour magazine named her as one of the outstanding women in classical music.

“I am really excited about being on stage with Christians who are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” Merritt said recently. “Because we are there for the express purpose of exalting the gospel of Christ through the dancers, singers and instrumentalists, I think it will be a unique and fulfilling experience.”

The genesis for the performing fellowship was a 1984 prayer meeting of Robert Kavanaugh and three couples who met to consider their undefined desire to minister to the performing arts community.

“We felt God was calling us to have an impact for Christ in the world of performing arts. We never dreamed it would grow to this extent,” said Kavanaugh, executive director of the fellowship and conductor of the Asaph Ensemble, the fellowship’s performing group, named after King David’s choir director. He said the director of a major opera company once asked him how he had managed to assemble such a notable cast. “We just pray,” Kavanaugh replied.

In addition to performing for free, cast members for the organization’s productions also give up many of the comforts often associates with major stars.

In its last major production, “Mefistofele” at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Hines, one of the world’s foremost bass singers, and a Metropolitan Opera cast drove to Washington because the fellowship couldn’t afford to pay for plane tickets.

Kavanaugh said that to save money, the 6-foot-7-inch Hines was prepared to sleep on Kavanaugh’s living room sofa. But the manager of a Washington hotel, an opera lover, donated rooms for Hines and the cast, Kavanaugh said.

Another unusual aspect of the fellowship’s performances is its forthright embrace of Christian values and teaching in each production’s printed program. In that distributed for the “Mefistofele” concert, Hines said: “Although we certainly want to entertain you with the finest production possible, our desire is to also share with you the love that God so freely bestows upon us through his son, Jesus Christ.”

Some performers say the fellowship’s mission has made a difference in the way they view their talent. “The difference between dancing in the Asaph Ensemble and dancing in a major company is that the dancers glorify God and not themselves,” Robin Sturm said.

Sturm and her husband, Robert, with professional dance experience at the Washington Ballet, teach classes in their Manassas dance studio. But as volunteers, they are principal dancers and choreographers for the dance company that will perform Friday night.

They and others in the 100-plus cast will be participating Friday night in what is another distinction of the fellowship’s performances. About a half-hour before the curtain goes up, instead of the circus atmosphere at productions by more secular groups, cast members will be standing in a circle with their heads bowed in prayer.

Friday’s performance, which includes Respeghi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2,” has been sold out or given out, but seats will be available for those without tickets at 7:45 p.m. No one has ever been turned away from a performance, Kavanaugh said.