Tracey Girdich does not believe that Jesus is her personal savior. But for the past four Sundays, she's surrounded herself with people who do.
She's an evangelical Christian's dream come true: a non-believer who walks through the church doors on Sunday, then returns week after week to hear more. Except that this sinner isn't actually thinking about joining up; she's just doing her due diligence as an actor.
Girdich is a political liberal and a lapsed Catholic. In The Bus, a play by Burlington filmmaker Jim Lantz, which opens September 12 at the FlynnSpace, she portrays Sarah, a character who belongs to the Golden Rule Bible Fellowship, a Christian megachurch in an unnamed small town. The play explores Sarah's relationship with her ex-husband, Harry, who does not belong to the church, and Ian, their closeted gay son, who does.
The bus of the title belongs to Golden Rule, and is parked at Harry's gas station. The plot revolves around his fight to have the vehicle removed.
To prepare for the role, Girdich has immersed herself in contemporary evangelical Christian culture. Since May, she's been listening to Christian radio in the car, and reading born-again bestsellers such as The Purpose Driven Life. In August, she started watching eight hours of Christian TV a week, and began attending services at Maranatha Christian Church in Williston. She's essentially absorbing everything she can about this subculture - short of being saved.
The 41-year-old actor, who works by day at a child-care center, has gone to great spiritual lengths for her art before. In the theater program at SUNY Plattsburgh, she prepared for the title role in Agnes of God by reading texts for novice nuns, watching birthing videos and learning to sing Gregorian chant. "I try to do as much as I can with any role," she says.
But her evangelical prep work for The Bus has been far more extensive, causing both Lantz and Bus director Seth Jarvis to compare her to famed method acting devotee Robert DeNiro - Girdich studied the technique, too, at Circle in the Square in New York City in the 1980s. She says the immersion was necessary because she knew so little about evangelical Christianity, which is so central to her character. "I didn't want her to be a stereotype," Girdich explains.
To an outsider, the world of evangelical Christianity seems uncomfortably, even irritatingly, black and white. You're either with them, and accept the Holy Bible as your guide - and Jesus Christ as your personal savior - or you're against them, and headed for hell.
For Girdich, there are many more hues. The 41-year-old native of upstate New York moved to Vermont in 1988, and helped found Green Candle Theater - a drama troupe that used to stage plays at the former, queer-friendly 135 Pearl. As a "storyteller," she says she's studied a variety of creation myths and religions. "I have a lot of respect for the mystery in a lot of religions, but I can't take it literally, or believe that there's one way of interpreting things," she explains. If she were to join any congregation on Sunday, it would be a Unitarian one, which in Burlington hangs a banner proclaiming, "Room for different beliefs . . . Yours."
To Girdich, the evangelical approach, with its unrelenting focus on winning converts and spreading the word that there's just one path to salvation, is utterly alien. Which is why she heads to Maranatha one recent Sunday morning, reporter in tow.
"I have a real fondness for Maranatha," she says as she drives down Route 2A toward Williston. Have they won her over yet? "No," she says, "but this church has been very helpful - let's put it that way."
Maranatha is not a megachurch. No place of worship in Vermont yet attracts 2000 people with a combination of fire-and-brimstone speechifying, music and special effects. Megachurches have exploded in popularity in the past two decades, Girdich points out. "There were 10 of these churches in 1970," she says. "Last year, there were 1210." The Essex Alliance Church probably comes closest, with five weekend services at the church and at the Essex Outlet Cinemas.
Girdich says she picked Maranatha in part because it reminds her of the church described in The Bus; playwright Jim Lantz claims any resemblance is coincidental. Girdich points out a gas station at the intersection of Route 2A and Brownell Road. "There's Harry's station," she says as she turns her car onto North Brownell.
"You're about to meet real live saints," she promises before exiting the car. It could be a tongue-in-cheek remark, but she doesn't mean it that way. "No, it's true," she says. "They believe that once you accept the born-again experience, you have the same status as St. Paul or St. Peter. That's why they don't name their churches after saints. Because, you know, that would be like calling something St. Doug or St. Fred, and you just wouldn't do that."
On the way in to the 9 a.m. service, we pass a group of teenagers in matching church t-shirts helping elderly parishioners to the door. The multi-racial, multi-generational congregation inside is hard to categorize. Some wear jeans and t-shirts, others their Sunday Best. One man sports a three-piece suit with a bow tie. The common denominator? The regulars all seem to know each other.
Except Girdich - she hasn't made any friends here yet. "I don't want anyone to know what I'm up to," she says quietly. "I don't want to be disrespectful."
"And," she adds, "depending on how fervent people are, you can really get harassed."
If she hasn't befriended anyone, it's not because no one has tried. On the first Sunday she came, a smiling woman walked up to her and asked what brought her there. "I said, 'I'm just exploring,'" Girdich recalls. "She said, 'Well, by the end of the day, you'll know if God wants you to stay here with us.'"
Once we've chosen our puffy teal seats in the auditorium-like sanctuary, a thin, middle-aged white woman in a striking red suit, with short, styled blond hair, approaches us and shakes our hands, welcoming us warmly to Maranatha.
Girdich leans over and whispers, "You just met Sarah."
The actor encountered this woman on her first trip to the church and has been watching her ever since. Girdich, a natural brunette, confides, "That's why I cut my hair and dyed it blond."
The band - two drummers, a keyboardist and several on- stage singers - kicks off the service a few minutes later, when the keyboardist exclaims, "Praise the Lord everybody! Ready to give Him praise?"
The congregation responds by swaying, clapping and breaking into song. About 150 people have turned up this morning. There are a lot of empty seats, but many of them fill up within the hour.
After the opening song, and a series of announcements about upcoming classes - one, about evangelizing to the unsaved, will feature a video series called "The Way of The Master," starring "Growing Pains" alum Kirk Cameron - the pastor welcomes various congregants back to the church, mentioning them by name. Each person is greeted with applause.
Girdich notes that the church is a kind of family. She says that during the second service she attended, she witnessed a dedication ceremony, in which a 3-year-old was welcomed into the church; children can't be baptized until they're 14.
"It was just so beautiful and so loving," she recalls. "I left feeling kind of sad. I thought, 'God, I wish there was some kind of community like that that I belonged to.'"
The family aspect of church life is something Girdich didn't understand before she started coming to Maranatha. "The biggest thing that I picked up was the sense of wanting to have a connection," she says. "Before I started doing this, I would have played Sarah more along the lines of moral righteousness instead of wanting to belong to a family."
She's also gathered other essentials in her fieldwork. "I've studied some of the postures," she says, "what it means to hold your hands high up and ask for blessing. And how to try to get to a place of blind faith, which is very hard for me."
But Girdich is blunt about what she considers the dark side of her character's church. The first Sunday she attended, the sermon was about "backsliders," a.k.a. homosexuals, fornicators and deviants. It's an issue her character struggles with in the play. When she finds out her son is gay, she has to reconcile her love for and faith in him, and her faith in her church.
Another turn-off for Girdich: "The services are so political," she says. Her observation is hardly surprising considering the church décor - behind the stage, on either side of the video screen that displays announcements and hymn lyrics, hang two enormous red, white and blue banners. One reads, "In God We Trust." The other says, "One Nation Under God."
At another service Girdich attended, the pastor asked the congregants to hold hands and pray for Lebanon. "I thought we were praying for peace," she says. "When the pastor started talking about God 'raining down his justice' and 'raining down his bombs to crush the unbelievers,' I got tears in my eyes."
On this Sunday morning, a woman reads a letter from a congregant in Lebanon, who used his church to shelter Muslim families during the recent Israeli attacks. He wrote about how his fellow missionaries prayed with the Muslims, and blessed them. After one service, he wrote, the Muslims were "begging for more Bibles."
"We thought we would never see this day," says the gleeful woman at the lectern. "May it be a picture of the future."
Converting non-believers is central to the church's mission. A "prayer map" of Vermont on the back wall shows most of the state colored a hard, rocky unsaved gray. Green blotches appear in several places, where like-minded churches have established beachheads.
Church leaders would clearly like those green blotches to spread. In the morning's sermon, entitled "Staying the Course," Reverend Michael Milne relates a vision he had last spring, in which Jesus appeared to him, sharpening a sword. Milne produces a metal sword from beneath his lectern and pantomimes Jesus sharpening it.
"He set aside Maranatha as a weapon," he says.
The worshippers, who at various times during the service have waved their arms and spontaneously uttered blessings to Jesus, sit in silent, rapt attention.
In Lantz's play, even devout Sarah winds up questioning her faith. It's impossible to know for sure if that's happening to anyone here.